MINNEAPOLIS — When fans think of ESPN College GameDay, a few things come to mind: Large crowds, Lee Corso and plenty of school spirit.
It's been a tradition for over 30 years for college campuses across the nation to host ESPN's national panel of college football analysts to help preview one of the weekend's marquee games.
While the tradition will live on this weekend as GameDay returns to Minnesota to preview the Gophers' Big Ten showdown with Michigan – GameDay's second visit in as many years – it will be anything but traditional.
As the coronavirus pandemic persists globally, officials have altered this year's pre-game show to a limited on-site crew and no fans. While a limited number of fans will be allowed inside TCF Bank Stadium for the Gophers' season opener – guests of student-athletes from both teams – no fans will be allowed outside the GameDay set. GameDay will begin airing at 8 a.m. at TCF Bank Stadium.
"Personally, I'm just excited to be able to play football again," said Gophers defensive lineman and Hopkins High School standout Boye Mafe. "It was very questionable in the beginning with the way the Big Ten was handling (COVID-19), and they did a great job with it – making sure that we were all safe."
The situation with Big Ten football has been fluid for months. Conference officials postponed all fall sports at the beginning of August due to COVID, but the decision was reversed a month later, paving way for football to return to TCF Bank Stadium.
And while football is back, it won't be a prototypical season. The schedule has been shortened – Minnesota will only play eight regular-season games and a possible conference championship game – practice schedules were modified, and weekly preparation is a completely new ball game.
"There are very different challenges this year that there usually is," said Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. "You can control a practice to limit certain injuries. You know going up to a certain gameday who's out, who's in and how to be able to prepare for that. This is a completely different animal."
Should a player test positive for COVID-19, that player will be ineligible for at least three weeks. And a positive test could come on any day, so coaches have to prepare for the possibility of losing a starter at a moment's notice.
"We feel like we're doing everything in our program to keep our players safe, healthy," said Fleck. "We make sure that we mask up, we practice social distancing. There's a lot of different practice habits that we've changed, a lot of different protocols that have taken place that are different from the past."
Due to health protocols, the players and staff aren't the only ones dealing with change.
Fans won't be allowed to pack the seats dressed head-to-toe in their Gopher gear. The people in attendance at games will be limited to guests of the student-athletes, and at much less capacity. The University of Minnesota Athletics Department says they're expecting around 800 people in attendance for Saturday's game.
The university is making strides to allow fans to safely cheer on their team by having fans submit signs to put on display while College GameDay is in town, and participating in a virtual watch party from their homes.
Minnesota is coming off its most successful season in more than 50 years, winning 11 games, including a 31-24 win over No. 12 Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
The Gophers open the season ranked No. 21 in the latest Associated Press poll, and bring plenty of optimism with the return of starting quarterback Tanner Morgan and star receiver Rashod Bateman, who was recently reinstated after opting out earlier in the year.
"It's been a wild rollercoaster but me being here in this 'Row The Boat' program has prepared me for times like this and times that we're going to continue to go through in this world," Bateman said. "But it was a tough time and I made it out. I'm the happiest I've been since all this stuff has been going on. I've decided to be back with this team because everybody in this program and every person here knows how to put a smile on everybody's face."
"The goal this year is to have fun and make memories," Bateman added. "Football is just something that we get to do while doing that, so that's what we're excited about."