(Column): A normal college football season in 2021 is far from a sure thing

Hopes for a normal college football season, devoid of COVID-19, is not a certainty as infection rates surge once again. And with masks and vaccinations becoming increasingly politicized, the issue is unlikely to abate anytime soon.



August 11, 2021 - 8:51 AM

Mississippi head Coach Lane Kiffin walks to the stadium before a game against Arkansas at Razorback Stadium on Oct. 17, 2020, in Fayetteville, Ark. Photo by Wesley Hitt / Getty Images/ TNS

LEXINGTON, Ky. — As strange as it sounds, college football needs to take Lane Kiffin’s lead.

That’s right, Lane Kiffin. The “Bad Boy” of SEC football coaches. The offensive whiz kid who left Tennessee after one season, got fired at USC, sparred with Nick Saban at Alabama, resurrected his head coaching career at Florida International and who in his first season as head coach at Ole Miss put up big numbers in 2020.

Kiffin has produced an even bigger number in 2021. The Rebels are 100% vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s 100% of players, coaches and staff. That’s 240 people in all. That’s the best news we’ve heard to date in college football’s fight to have a normal season.

“I think it’s irresponsible to not (get the vaccine),” Kiffin said Monday. “I realize I’ll be criticized for that, but I just do.”

This in Mississippi, mind you, where the COVID-19 numbers have been going up, up, up thanks to the delta variant. Not that Mississippi is alone. The SEC footprint, especially Florida and Texas, is back in the red. Infections are rising, as are hospitalizations. It’s no wonder the SEC official Twitter account posted Monday, “The SEC Backs The Vax.”

At SEC Football Media Days, Commissioner Greg Sankey made it clear he wants everyone in the conference vaccinated. And on Monday, he retweeted an LSU health commissioner making an excellent case for receiving the vaccination.

“A clear, concise and credible message from Dr. Katie O’Neal, who has worked with us on the SEC Medical Task Force, explaining the delta variant of COVID-19 and the continuing need for vaccinations,” Sankey added.

This isn’t going to be easy, folks. A month or so ago, healthy college football teams playing in front of packed crowds appeared a given. Now, not so much. At Kentucky football’s media day last Friday, more striking than anything the coaches or players had to say was the line of cars stretching out to and on Alumni Drive of people wanting to receive a drive-through coronavirus test.

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said he is confident that his team will meet the vaccine threshold set forth by the league — that is believed to be around 85% — but referred to vaccines as “a touchy subject” and an “individual choice” for his players.

I’m on record as backing a mandate. If you want to play, you should be vaccinated. If you want to attend a football game this fall, you should be vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. If the Railbird Music Festival at Keeneland can require that for its spectators come Aug. 28-29, SEC schools can do the same.

Will they? Probably not. The fear is that it would drive away too many fans, especially in pockets where the vaccine is being politicized or ignored. The league doesn’t want a repeat of the financial hit it took in 2020. Look for Sankey and league officials to continue to push for vaccinations but stop short of making it a requirement.

UK has not implemented a vaccine requirement

While schools like the University of Michigan and Indiana University are requiring students to be vaccinated this fall, UK has yet to make such a pronouncement. Instead, the school says “masks will be required inside of all University of Kentucky indoor spaces, including both our academic and medical campuses, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status.”

Masks are good. Vaccinations are better. Why even college football officials are aiming for a 100% vaccination rate, national coordinator of officials Steve Shaw told Sports Illustrated.

“The numbers are changing,” Shaw told SI. “There is a lot of concern and there may be some real medical reasons why you don’t get vaccinated, but I think the change and what’s happening on the ground in our country, it’s making people rethink it.”

Let’s hope so. We want football again. We want tailgating, packed stadiums and great games without the fear of outbreaks, forfeits and more COVID-19 chaos. To do that, teams need to take Lane Kiffin’s lead.