Will CFB fans fill Mississippi stadiums? Ole Miss & MSU officials, health experts weigh in

The start of the college football season is 100 days away, and with the NCAA’s recent decision allowing voluntary on-campus workouts to begin June 1, there appears to be growing optimism that the season will start on time. The question now becomes, will there be fans in the stands?

The few sporting events taking place these days (UFC fights, Nascar races, charity golf matches) have all gone on without fans as social distancing guidelines remain in place across the country. Looking ahead, several university officials and conference commissioners have publicly discussed the possibility of allowing fans into stadiums but limiting the number of tickets sold.

During an interview with SiriusXM’s Big 12 Today, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby stated that an 80,000-seat stadium could be limited to 20,000 fans. A similar sentiment was shared by Ohio State AD Gene Smith and Texas Governor Greg Abbot.

“If you want a prediction, my prediction is yes, we are going to have college football beginning as scheduled … with at least some level of fans in stands,” Abbot recently told KXAN-TV in Austin.

Abbot’s commentary on the subject will be watched closely in Mississippi as Ole Miss opens their season in Houston against Baylor on September 5th.

So, what about stadiums in Oxford, Starkville, Hattiesburg and all across the state of Mississippi? Tuesday, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs was asked about his comfort level when it comes to welcoming fans through the gates of the state’s college football venues.

“Personally, I think it’s extremely troubling to think about tens of thousands of people crammed into a stadium screaming at each other. It’s hard to envision a reality where the normal state of affairs is acceptable,” Dr. Dobbs said.

Dr. Dobbs went on to say that the Department of Health is working closely with the State Institutions of Higher Learning to ensure the safety of K-12 schools and college campuses as a whole moving forward. As it relates to college football, Dr. Dobbs also stated that they “anticipate that the NCAA will probably make some wise decisions as they go into this.”

Mississippi State opens its season at home on September 5th against New Mexico State while the Golden Eagles will host South Alabama on the same date. After their neutral-site opener, the Rebels will play their first home game on September 12th against Southeast Missouri. 

Ole Miss Athletic Director Keith Carter approached the subject of fans in the stands with a sense of optimism while continuing to acknowledge that safety is the most important factor moving forward. 

“We’re going to certainly look at having a full stadium and be optimistic that we can do that, but we are going to look at other contingency plans as well like ‘do we need to have 50%, 25% capacity plan?’ We’re going to have all of those, and certainly we are going to let the data drive what we can and should do and we’re going to follow health protocols. Certainly, we want the safety of our student-athletes, our coaches, our staff, our fans and all of that drive the decisions that we are going to make,” he explained.

Carter went on to mention that because it’s only May, there is still plenty of time to plan and gather more data. 

Student-athletes will soon return to Oxford and Starkville following the SEC’s announcement that workouts will begin June 8th. Like all other recent reopenings, there will be strict health guidelines in place, including screening and testing measures along with the adaptation of social distancing practices. In late April, Carter discussed the importance of getting student-athletes back on campus by July 1st for an on-time start to the season. With the latest developments from the league office, Carter says this puts them ahead of schedule—assuming things go according to plan. 

“This thing is so fluid and it evolves every day, but our hope is that we can bring everyone back in a safe and healthy way so that there’s not a spike in the virus on our campuses. If all of that goes smoothly, yes, I think from a physical standpoint of getting our student-athletes back and allowing them to get their physicals and get back in some type of playing shape, I think we’re ahead of schedule on that. Now we just need to hope that it runs smoothly and we can keep taking these steps each day,” Carter said. 

Ole Miss and Mississippi State don’t agree on much, but a global pandemic has its ways of getting the most bitter of rivals on the same page. 

Mississippi State Associate AD Brandon Langlois expressed a similar sense of cautious optimism. He noted that MSU Athletics is preparing for a number of different scenarios and examining many capacity models ahead of the beginning of the Mike Leach era at Davis Wade Stadium.

Langlois went on to state that these decisions don’t have to be made just yet as kickoff is several months away and that MSU Athletics meets regularly to discuss gameday preparations in the midst of the ever-changing situation that is facing college football.

“There are hundreds of elements involved in the management of athletic events, and it’s our job to examine each one of those in order to make the best decisions, based on the best information available, at the appropriate time. It can’t be said enough, this is not something that can be thrown together,” Langlois expressed.

With safety as the overarching theme to any approach, Langlois reiterated that MSU Athletics will continue to rely on the advice of medical experts and that any plan must include the ability to adapt to new information.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered between now and September 5th, and while not everyone in Mississippi wears the same colors, everyone can agree that they’re looking forward to hearing the roar of a stadium that is synonymous with college football.