The COVID-19 pandemic’s list of changes it has brought on the sports world continues to grow, as the for the first time in almost 20 years, the Mississippi high school football season will begin in September.
While most fans were overall pleased with MHSAA’s decision to delay the football season rather than cancel it, some were still understandably annoyed with the pandemic continuing to alter the sports world.
However, the delayed, shortened season is a welcome sight for local high school football coaches. For many coaches, the 11-game regular season and five-game playoffs in mid-August are a harsh load for high school athletes.
“I’m excited about starting Sept. 4.,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “I like it, and I have no problem playing 10 ball games. That’s something I have thought for the last four or five years. I wish we would start Sept. 4. If everybody wants to play 11 games, then let’s just push the state championship back a week. Us playing one less game didn’t bother me. I wouldn’t object if they push it back and wanted to play 11 straight weeks, but if you want an open week, then play 10 ball games.”
Petal will be able to play a 10-game season after adding West Jones since the Panthers regularly schedule an open week during the midseason to avoid having to play straight through its schedule.
For Sumrall football coach Shannon White, his main criticism for the delayed season is missing out on the early season gate money.
“I thought we should have started Game 1 on Game 3 and cancel the two All-Star games,” White said. “We lost our first two weeks, but we kept those two weeks? You hate to see (the All-Star games) not available for kids, but there is a business part of (high school athletics). Paying bills is a business. For many schools, if football doesn’t pay for all the sports, it certainly helps pay for all the other sports. The crowds this year aren’t going to be full capacity from what it looks like. If you want to back the season up fine, but don’t let us lose the first two games.”
At the same time, while still having the concern over COVID-19, coaches will still have to endure the regular battle of avoiding heat exhaustion and being able to adequately prepare teams for the upcoming season. According to White, teams playing a jamboree and two games in the heat of August is avoidable.
“We’re prepared for heat exhaustion, but the best way to handle heat exhaustion or heat illnesses is to not be in that situation,” White said. “Let August be our preparation month and let September be our playing time. We get educated on heat illnesses all the time. You’ll have kids go down because they didn’t eat that morning, or they didn’t hydrate enough. I can’t control that. We can control a little bit, and we can educate them on it. We pump water and Powerade in them at practice, but what they do away from practice is the key. I can’t control that.”
Having football season begin Labor Day weekend in September is not an uncommon practice. Both Louisiana and Arkansas start their seasons in September while Tennessee, Texas and Alabama start the last weekend of August.
At the same time, within the Southeast region, Mississippi’s high school state championships are some of the earliest games scheduled in the first week of December. Alabama and Tennessee both play its championship games in early December. Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas each plan their state championships the second week of December while Texas schedules its final week of championship games in the third week of December.
If a team were to make the state championship game in Mississippi, it would most likely be a team’s 16th game of the season or possibly 15th game since Class 5A and 6A have first-round byes in the playoffs. According to Boyles, teams should be able to schedule a bye week since it is common in college and professional football.
“We had an open week because I didn’t want to play 12 straight weeks,” Boyles said. “When you look at all the levels, the NFL is playing 16 games, but it’s not 16 straight weeks. College may play 12 games, but they always have at least two open weeks, so I don’t have a problem with that.
“The state championships are at the universities. They are through by the first week of December. They might have a bowl game, but they are not playing a game at their stadium, so just push it back one more week. “
Another argument is going back to the original high school football format and playing a 10-game season with the top two teams of each region making the playoffs to decrease playoff games. However, the one issue is that it would create a decrease in revenue for schools and the MHSAA with fewer playoff games.
“Colleges play 12 or 13 games except for the ones in the playoffs, but most teams play 12 games and a bowl game, and that’s in December and January,” White said. “When we first started out, it was 10 games, and the top two teams made it to the playoffs, and I’m all for that.
“You can’t say gate money takes priority over safety. This a great opportunity to push the season back.”