When a disappointed Furman team walked off the field after a 42-6 loss to Austin Peay in the 2019 FCS playoffs, the Paladins knew the defeat would sit with them for a while.
As it turns out, the wait to play another game was much longer than they ever could have imagined.
That game was Nov. 30, 2019 and would be the last one for Furman until Saturday’s matchup with Western Carolina — the team’s first time playing in 448 days.
The universities of South Carolina, Clemson and Coastal Carolina played through the COVID-19 pandemic this past fall, but the majority of FCS schools in the state did not.
The Paladins and Wofford instead started spring seasons this weekend and will soon be joined by several other South Carolina schools. Benedict, Charleston Southern, The Citadel, Erskine, Limestone, Newberry, North Greenville, Presbyterian and S.C. State are all set to hold limited spring seasons in 2021.
Yes, spring football has a new meaning in 2021 for colleges in South Carolina and across the country. It’s normally a time for 15 or so practices, player development and a few intrasquad scrimmages. This year, spring football is actually football for some teams — real games against real opponents, and stats that will be counted toward the records books.
Many of the leagues that opted against playing through the COVID-19 pandemic are instead holding a shortened season over the next few months — and will still play their normal schedules this fall.
Was it the right choice to postpone the season last fall? Opinions vary. Southern Conference commissioner Jim Schaus told The State that the decision was “the right move.”
Furman coach Clay Hendrix isn’t so sure.
“I think we probably could’ve played in the fall. We wanted to play in the fall,” Hendrix said.
“It’s been a long journey ... but we’re excited to be starting,” Schaus said. “It looks a little different, but our conference schedule still is eight games. We’re still going to have our regular season champion and they will go to the FCS playoffs. We’ll have access to an at-large bid. So yeah, we’re very excited to have student-athletes and coaches and fans to be able to participate in another season.”
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE FALL?
Schaus sticks by the league’s decision to postpone the fall season until the spring, saying now that there were simply too many unknowns six months ago.
When the decision was made in mid-August, there were questions nationally about whether or not schools would be able to have in-person classes for an entire semester. Two days before the SoCon revealed it would not play fall football, the Big Ten and PAC 12 announced they were postponing their seasons until the spring as well.
Ultimately, the Big Ten and PAC 12 reversed course and joined the SEC, ACC and Big 12 in playing game this past fall. While there were some hiccups along the way, the season was completed with Alabama winning the national title.
Other college sports have resumed, including basketball, which the Southern Conference is taking part in. Baseball and softball are among the sports that have also started back.
“Individuals are not getting sick from competition. They’re not getting sick by going to a game and getting sick from an opposing team or officials. We’re testing. That’s not really occurring,” Schaus said. “Individuals or student athletes are getting the virus from their own personal time. ... We’ve learned so much since (the fall) about social distancing and all of our protocols that I think we’re able to do it in a much safer environment.”
While the SoCon did not have a fall season, teams were allowed to practice and could play up to four out-of-conference games. The Citadel was the only FCS team in South Carolina to take advantage of that, playing against South Florida, Clemson, Eastern Kentucky and Army.
The last time anyone saw the Minnesota State football team play a game, it was in the national championship at a high-school stadium in Texas.
That was 454 days ago, with so many lost practices and games in those 15 months.
But Saturday, the Mavericks will begin a five-week stretch of scrimmages against a combination of Division II and III programs that will lead into a real game, with a winner and official statistics, on May 1 at Northern State.
Should we pay attention to this spring “season,” forced on everyone by the pandemic, any more than we would during any other spring practice period?
The most intriguing position to watch will be quarterback, where redshirt freshman Jesse Forknell and true freshman Mitch Randall will split reps in the tradition of other Minnesota State quarterbacking combos.
The expectation is that J.D. Ekowa will return in the fall, but it would be hard to blame him if he wants to start medical school instead.
If that happens, the Mavericks would have little college experience at the most important position on the offense. It wouldn’t be surprising if coach Todd Hoffner was looking at potential transfers in that scenario.
The offensive line will have a lot of talent and experience, which would ease the transition for a young quarterback. There will be no Nate Gunn among the running backs or Shane Zylstra in the receiver group, but there’s enough veteran players at those positions to continue a record-setting offense.
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