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BOULDER, CO – SEPTEMBER 7, 2019: Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez tries to escape University of Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson (34) and Jalen Sami.  Colorado 34-31 OT win over Nebraska on September 7, 2019.
(photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – SEPTEMBER 7, 2019: Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez tries to escape University of Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson (34) and Jalen Sami. Colorado 34-31 OT win over Nebraska on September 7, 2019. (photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Like many of his Colorado teammates, Mustafa Johnson has expressed his excitement about getting back on the field and preparing for a 2020 football season.

This summer, 10 CU football players have held Zoom meetings with reporters and each one of them has talked about their eagerness to play.

Johnson said he wasn’t nervous about playing, despite the coronavirus pandemic, but he added this:

“If we can’t even really have contact and do stuff with our own teammates, how are we going to get on the field in a full-contact sport and expect to not have contact or whatever that they’re trying to prevent us from having?”

Johnson said that on June 24, when COVID-19 was seemingly trending in the right direction. Cases in Colorado were on the decline. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball were all gearing up for their return to action.

Much has changed since then, including virus numbers taking a sharp turn in the wrong direction, but Johnson’s question was valid then and even more so now.

Currently, CU and the rest of the Pac-12 are allowed to open preseason camp on Aug. 17, with the first games – including CU at Oregon – scheduled for Sept. 26.

The Buffs, however, still aren’t allowed to work out as a full group, still use Zoom for team and positional meetings, still can’t sit down to have a meal in the Champions Center cafeteria and still proceed with caution on a daily basis.

During a webinar hosted by CU this past week, athletic director Rick George spoke about the Buffs’ efforts to stay safe.

“We’re learning as we go, but I think we feel confident that we’ve got great protocols in place for our student-athletes,” George said to webinar host Mark Johnson, as the two sat with plexiglass between them. “I think we’ve been very calculated and smart about how we pushed the season back until (Sept. 26), which gives us some time to see how things evolve.”

Things are evolving quickly.

On July 31, the Pac-12 unveiled its revamped, conference-only schedule, giving everybody a start date to target. Other Power 5 conferences have followed in announcing their schedules.

On Friday, BYU announced a Sept. 7 opener against Navy, news that “gave us a nice little jolt of energy,” Cougars offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes – who worked as an assistant at CU from 2007-08 – told the Deseret News.

On Saturday morning, North Carolina and Charlotte announced they have scheduled a non-conference game for Sept. 19.

Don’t fault George, CU or anyone around the country for their hope. We’re all hoping there’s a season. The Buffs are doing their best to make it happen, and they should be.

The financial impact of losing the football season could be massive, but that’s not the only reason for playing. Many athletes need the structure of a season for their mental health. And, frankly, they want to play because they love the game. On July 29, Buffs’ linebacker Nate Landman said he didn’t know of any players on the team that wanted to opt-out of this season.

Following safety protocols and unveiling new schedules provides some hope, but there’s also a sobering dose of reality being dished up daily and rapidly in college football.

On Wednesday, Division II and Division III canceled their fall championships. On Friday, two Football Championship Subdivision conferences, the Big Sky and Missouri Valley, canceled their fall seasons, which means there will be no FCS playoffs this year.

Around the same time Charlotte and North Carolina announced their newly scheduled game on Saturday morning, the Mid-American Conference announced it is canceling the fall sports season – the first Football Bowl Subdivision conference to do so.

Also on Saturday: The Big Ten announced its teams can’t practice in pads until further notice and there were reports that the conference could be on the verge of canceling its season.

The dominoes are falling.

Locally, George said CU will work with Boulder County and the state in making decisions. Here’s a couple clues on that front:

  • With guidance from Boulder County Public Health, the Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District announced this week that they’ll go to online-only classes for the start of fall.
  • Working with Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the state’s COVID-19 response team, the Colorado High School Activities Association last week pushed its football season to the spring.

If Boulder County and state health officials don’t think high school football or in-person classes are safe right now, how can they determine it’s OK for the Buffs to play this fall?

CU and other college programs are banking on hope, while reality is setting in around them. That reality suggests that CU won’t ever see that Sept. 26 opener at Oregon, and may not even get to the first day of camp on Aug. 17.

“I’m afraid,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports. “There’s so many questions that are unanswered.”

An answer to Mustafa Johnson’s question is coming quickly, however. How can players get on the field in a full-contact sport?

Right now, they can’t.

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