Rooney: At long last, it’s football time; but kickoff celebration may be short-lived

Spiking virus numbers, Pac-12 cancellations set uncertain tone ahead of CU Buffs’ opener

BOULDER, CO – October 10, 2020: Head coach Karl Dorrell observes his team during Colorado football practice. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

There have been season openers that have stirred more passion, particularly all those Colorado turf wars against the CSU Rams.

And certainly other CU teams, even in recent history, have entered their season openers looking to defend greater preseason expectations than what the outside world believes is capable from the 2020 Buffs.

Yet in its own, unique, very 2020 way, the long-delayed debut of first-year coach Karl Dorrell Saturday against UCLA might be the most anticipated non-2016 CU football game in some time.

It’s been quite a ride to get here. No Buffs team in any sport has competed since March 12, when the CU ski team completed a few events at the NCAA championships one day after the Buffs’ most recent full competition was completed with the men’s basketball team losing in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

That was eight months ago, eight months that feel like eight years. Since then we’ve been sequestered at home, watched our nation ripped in half by social and political strife, watched the death count from the coronavirus gradually top the 230,000 mark.

In sports, we basically watched nothing for months before a gradual return over the summer by the pros to competitions wildly altered from the norm. In Saturday’s kickoff for the Pac-12, the league finally joins the rest of college football in trying to salvage some sort of season in 2020.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten making it a short celebration, rarely has the distraction of a football game felt more welcome.

“Yes, there was no spring practice. Yes, we had to solidify and make a determination on a starting quarterback, we had to do all those things in a faster fashion than we wanted to,” said Dorrell, set to make his debut more than eight months after he was hired. “With COVID and all this stuff that all of our programs in our conference have been dealing with, we’ve all had shortcomings in some way, shape or form. So I can’t really complain about any of those things. And I don’t want to complain. I’ve told our players we’re not going to make any excuses over the course of this season. We’re going to go out and put our best effort, our best game plans, and go out and be successful and win some games. And it starts this weekend, and we’re going to see where things end up when it’s all said and done.

“It’s good to be able to play the game, particularly when we found out late in the summer the conference was saying we weren’t going to play. I’m glad we reconsidered. We’re going to play and it starts this weekend.”

Hopefully it won’t end before the Pac-12 season can truly take root.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t gone away and, in fact, has the state of Colorado on the cusp of stay-at-home orders. If it wasn’t safe to host lacrosse games in April, it’s difficult to make the argument that playing football at Folsom Field, even with capacity limited to 675 (per updated Boulder County Public Health guidelines) family members and friends of players from each team sequestered in separate pods, is a practical choice in November.

Just getting to the finish line of the 2020 season will be a win for the Buffs and college football in general. Games have been canceled by the handful every week, from the nationally prominent (Wisconsin missing two straight weeks) to this week’s Air Force-Army matchup. If Notre Dame tops Clemson on Saturday in one of the marquee matchups of the season, the specter of no Trevor Lawrence involved might hang over the College Football Playoff selection in a manner not solvable by computer metrics. Even the FOX all-star studio crew of Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn and Urban Meyer will be sidelined this weekend due to coronavirus concerns.

College football’s chaos already has affected the Pac-12 even before the league could celebrate a single kickoff. On Thursday, Washington’s visit to Cal was scuttled, and on Friday Utah’s home date against Arizona was canceled as well. With no bye weeks built into the seven-game league schedule, that means already a third of the Pac-12 will play no more than six regular season games at best. More schedule derailments likely are on the way.

Savor each and every kickoff, especially the Dorrell-led Buffs debut on Saturday. Sad as it is to douse the celebration with reality, but we’re closer to a repeat of March’s mass cancellations than we are to a full and unimpeded return to play.