College Football Returns After Pandemic Delays

“I feel like a mask is a part of our everyday outfit now — masking up everywhere I go and really being cautious of what I do after I practice,” said Orgeron, whose team is also looking to rally its hometown, Lake Charles, La., after the devastation of the 2020 hurricane season. “I can get Covid anywhere, and that hurts the team.”

But Orgeron, whose 19-yard run in the second overtime period gave McNeese State a victory in its season opener, said the Cowboys were “attacking like a normal season, like a normal fall.” Well, as much as they can: 2021 preseason practices in Lake Charles, a city that oozes with humidity in August, played out with temperatures in the 30s and 40s.

Cignetti, who regularly receives highlighted printouts before dawn so he can begin texting James Madison players who have been swept up in contact tracing protocols, said he had spent weeks urging his players to consider two words: “same” and “different.”

“Different was the way we do things: policies, procedures, how we meet, how we travel, how we space on the practice field,” he said. “What’s the same is what it takes to be successful: preparation and execution and getting your guys to play the game you want.”

This season, he is hoping to play for a title in May. Virtually everyone in the sport, though, is bracing for many more pitfalls before anyone triumphs.

“I think you can look back to F.B.S. in the fall and how they had to pause based upon the pandemic, and so the same will be applicable for spring football — and spring sports and winter sports, for that matter,” Thomas said. “Some are able to recover better than others.”

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