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USATSI

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The opening of the 151st season of college football was supposed to be a nationwide celebration, a tailgating extravaganza, a wall-to-wall glut of televised games.

When the FBS kicks off its reimagined 2020 season a week from Thursday, there's not even a consensus about whether the games should even be played.

UAB athletic director Mark Ingram is one of those emphatically behind playing the fall season. His Blazers will host Central Arkansas in one of the first two FBS games next Thursday night. (South Alabama at Southern Miss is the other.)

"Is the virus going to be any better or different [in the spring]? No, probably not," he said. "Are the numbers going to be remarkably different? No, probably not. Are we going to have a vaccine? No, probably not."

So Ingram and the leaders of 75 other FBS programs have concluded: Why not give a go in the fall?

Before the pandemic, Saturday was supposed to be a wonderful Week 0 -- a seven-game appetizer before the first full weekend of ball that included Navy and Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland. The Labor Day weekend was scheduled to kick off with Sept. 3 games featuring NC State at Louisville, Oregon State at Oklahoma State and Clemson at Georgia Tech.

They're all gone now -- or at least altered, some mixed into reconfigured conference schedules. For the moment, teams kicking off next week are canaries in a coal mine. If they can make it through Thursday, that's at least a positive. For a week.

As for getting through the season?

"I don't have an answer," said Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod, who will have UAB and Southern Miss playing next week. "If you understand we will have interruptions, we will have programs that shut down for a pause, I think it's possible. It's going to be hard."

What starts a week from Thursday night is not so much a season but an elaborate medical/athletic plan. That plan, for now, is to get 76 teams through the fall of 2020 healthy. If that happens, everything else should be gravy.

Except that it almost certainly won't be that easy. The actual football is already being obscured. Top players have opted out. Medical advisors have come to varied conclusions. There is blame waiting to be assigned by someone or another if the ACC Big 12 and SEC make it through the fall while the Big Ten and Pac-12 fail in their attempt to play in spring 2021.

The Associated Press ranked nine teams in its preseason top 25 that won't be playing this fall. Does that mask enhanced College Football Playoff chances for the likes of Cincinnati or Memphis? We won't know until we know.

"I'd say I feel good [about the season]," UAB coach Bill Clark said. "I can't speak to all the different places out there. Every day, I feel a little more encouraged. I really pray that we do because I think it's important for our country."

The rescheduled Selection Sunday for the CFP is 115 days away (Dec. 20). Can you feel the anticipation? Perhaps not with COVID-19 looming as a possible nonconference foe on everyone's schedule. Even if you want to project that far out, will this year's national champion -- if the CFP is played -- even be a legitimate one?

UAB has the (very) early advantage. Right down the street, it has a world-class hospital that has been advising the world on the coronavirus pandemic. The Blazers also have an open-air "indoor" facility that seems built for these times. Doctors keep saying that large crowds in closed spaces are not good.

UAB is both prepared and good. More than 350 COVID-19 tests taken over the last two weeks have revealed no positives. UAB is also favored to win Conference USA after playing in the last two league championship games.

"I feel like we're on the cutting edge of everything," said Clark, a former CBS Sports two-time national coach of the year.

It will be the beginning of a long, sad goodbye Thursday night. This will be UAB's last opener in legendary Legion Field. Plenty of good seats would be available even without COVID-19 attendance restrictions. UAB averaged less than 25,000 fans in the historic 72,000-seat stadium last season.

"I've said locally, joking, we've been social distancing at Legion Field since we started there 30 years ago," Ingram said.  

That doesn't diminish the accomplishments of Clark, Ingram, Birmingham and UAB. The Blazers will be moving into a new stadium next year right down the street from SEC headquarters.

Not a bad revival for a program that was left for dead six years ago.

UAB's opponent, Central Arkansas, will have played two games by Thursday night. The FCS Bears kick off the Division I season hosting Austin Peay this Saturday.

It is one of a handful of FCS programs playing. When the Southland Conference postponed its season, the Bears decided to soldier on. Their AD, Brad Teague, is the former chair of the FCS playoff committee. When the season was up for grabs, he went to his players and a conclusion was quickly reached.

"My belief the whole time was, 'Let's try it until we can't try it anymore,'" Teague said. "'Let's give it a shot and see what happens until the virus tells us we can't.'"

The Bears have been testing once a week, for free, thanks to hospital partner Conway Regional Health System. That's about to change with the regular season starting. The $20,000 weekly cost will be picked up by a booster, Teague said.

With Conference USA testing more frequently, the Bears will be under UAB's protocol next week. The Blazers will pay for that testing during game week.

Returning to play remains largely a case of risk tolerance. On the same day LSU's offensive line was ravaged by COVID-19 positives, Central Arkansas was able to brag about only a couple of positives among the student body once classes began last week. The decision was also no doubt helped by the fact the Bears are good. They made the FCS playoffs last season and were favored to win the Southland again.

Budget was not an issue at this level. If the Bears hadn't played, Teague would have saved money. The football program is funded by student fees, housing revenue and external funding.

"If we don't play, we're not spending money. So it's a wash," Teague said."It seems to me we would have tried a little longer to play -- every conference, every team. I was confused why we gave up so quickly in some leagues, some big leagues."

A definitive answer is not coming anytime soon. Meanwhile, an altered, diverted, reconstructed Week 1 awaits.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.