FARGO — It was six weeks ago when your intrepid columnist, overcome by optimism after talking with a handful of people in the know, wrote that the chance of North Dakota State and Oregon playing a football game in early September was "trending toward inevitable."
This came a month after it seemed there was zero chance of the contest being played. In April, the country was locked up in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. We still didn't know exactly where this was taking us or what the future might look like. By late May, though, the country was "re-opening" and we had a better handle on what we needed to do to move things forward.
If we just wore masks, socially distanced and stayed smart maybe we could be back to something resembling normal by September. Man, does that look naive now. Who knew wearing masks would become a politically polarized issue? Who knew Americans staying smart during a pandemic would be the equivalent of a moon shot?
The dominoes have been tumbling in college sports for the past few weeks now, pushed by massive COVID-19 outbreaks in several Sun Belt states and localized bursts on some professional and college teams that began training. The possibility of college football, which seemed 60-40 in late May, was trending strongly in the wrong direction.
The dive came Thursday, July 9. That's when the Big Ten conference announced it would eliminate nonconference football games this fall and go with, for now, a league-only schedule. That meant Missouri Valley Football Conference schools like South Dakota State, Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois would all have games against Big Ten teams, and the paychecks that went with them, eliminated.
Not long after the Big Ten announcement came media reports that the Pac-12 Conference would follow suit in the coming days and say it was going to a league-only schedule. Oregon is a member of the Pac-12.
It's not official yet, but you know it's coming.
There will be no NDSU-Oregon game.
Talk about a gut punch.
The most anticipated Bison football game in the program's long, storied and successful history will be canceled.
A weekend of excitement and celebration, regardless of outcome, evaporated for thousands of fans who booked flights and hotel rooms for the Sept. 5 game in Eugene. This was going to be one heckuva party on the Williamette River.
Yes, there are much larger issues at play with the pandemic. There are much more important things about which to worry than a college football game. Even from NDSU's standpoint, the game itself isn't the most important loss coming with the game's cancellation. No, that would be the $650,000 paycheck the Bison athletic department was going to get from Oregon.
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How can athletic director Matt Larsen and the school cover that hole in the budget?
From a fan standpoint, though, the money wasn't the most important thing. It was the anticipation and atmosphere around the game that promised to be epic.
The Bison, the undisputed kings of the Football Championship Subdivision with eight national titles in nine years, would take on the Ducks, a national Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse who were likely to be ranked in the top 5. NDSU would get to test its mettle against a top-flight program, something for which fans yearned even after victories over highly regarded teams like Kansas State and Iowa.
This was the chance to showcase the Bison, and players like NFL-bound quarterback Trey Lance, on one of the game's biggest platforms.
And if the Bison overcame the odds and beat the Ducks? Whoa, Nelly. Even with all the success NDSU football has had over the last 10 years, all the championships and big-game victories, a win over Oregon would've trumped it all.
The euphoria is gone now, wiped away by the reports that the Pac-12 won't play nonconference games.
It might only be the beginning of the disappointment. Six weeks after so much optimism, now it seems only a matter of time until entire seasons are canceled. We're trending toward inevitable, but in the wrong direction.