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James Madison’s football team is set for the first of its two 2021 seasons. Just roll with it.

James Madison football coach Curt Cignetti at a recent practice. (Mike Lago/JMU Athletics)

Being that it’s February, Percy Agyei-Obese’s career as a James Madison running back should be over. Instead, it’s game week.

“I’m just glad we get to play football again,” he said.

Being that the Dukes are scheduled to open their unprecedented season Saturday against Morehead State, Coach Curt Cignetti should be game-planning and standing before a room full of his entire roster to impart his message. Instead, he’s wearing a GPS device that tracks the people with whom he comes into close contact and awakes every morning to a report that evaluates how the Dukes did the day before — not in their practice but in their ability to stand apart from one another.

“It hasn’t quite hit me yet that it’s game week just because my role is so much different now,” Cignetti said. “I almost feel like I’m a social distance coordinator.”

Welcome to Chapter 1,834 of the inevitable book, “How Sports Were Different During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” With that, here comes a college football season for the Football Championship Subdivision that kicks off in earnest Saturday and, if all goes as planned, will conclude with a four-round, 16-team tournament that spans April and May. Oh, and then heal up quickly, boys, because preparation for the fall 2021 season will follow three months later.

“I would say the whole senior year has just been hectic,” Agyei-Obese said by phone this week. “It’s been a lot of the unexpected, you know what I mean? It’s been keeping me on my toes. I did not expect any aspect of my senior year to go like this at all. It’s definitely been crazy. … Sometimes it still shocks me when I really think about it.”

For one college football team, covid means the season starts in February — with senior day

Here’s how this happened. Last summer, the Colonial Athletic Association, of which James Madison is a member, announced it wouldn’t sponsor football in the fall. The Dukes, who have appeared in three of the past four national championship games, were still prepared to play. But more programs opted out of playing in the fall than stayed in, which meant the NCAA wouldn’t conduct a tournament.

“We were committed to chasing the playoff system,” Cignetti said.

Eventually, the playoff system moved to the spring. Now there are all kinds of weird wrinkles to it. The CAA, which has schools from Maine to North Carolina, is divided into two divisions — North and South — to limit travel regionally. Because there are only four teams in the South, JMU will play its division rivals — Elon, William & Mary and Richmond — twice apiece to make a six-game conference schedule.

This could all be interesting come April, when the NCAA’s selection committee will be tasked with comparing apples to ham sandwiches. Jacksonville State, for instance, went 3-1 in the fall (with its only loss coming to Florida State) and now is adding a seven-game spring schedule (although its scheduled spring opener was postponed because of weather). There will be only five at-large berths in the playoffs. What if one team has played four games and another 11?

That’s the “million-dollar question,” FCS Committee Chair Kyle Moats said in an interview posted on the NCAA’s website. “It’s going to be really difficult to determine.”

That’s a potential problem, but it’s off in the distance. For the Dukes — who were ranked fifth in the country in the fall’s preseason poll, which came out in the spring, and are now ranked fourth in the country in the spring’s preseason poll, which came out in the winter — there’s the problem of day-to-day life. JMU has switched to a hybrid model for classes. Players are expected to be disciplined in how they interact with classmates — which should be not at all.

“For this whole season, the mind-set’s going to have to be control the controllables,” Agyei-Obese said. “There are a lot of unexpected things happening this season, but you’ve just got to take it [on] the chin and keep on going.”

That includes heading into the opener with fewer practices than Cignetti would like. That includes workouts that are adjusted because too many members of one position group or another are injured or in contact tracing protocols, thinning the ranks. It includes practicing not just with the upcoming season in mind but with an understanding that the next one will follow swiftly after that, so contact is limited.

“We’re working in practice, 100 percent,” Agyei-Obese said. “But it’s not as intense. It’s not even as close as intense to a [typical] camp practice. I would compare this more to like a spring ball practice, offseason practices.”

A college football coach’s season at war with the coronavirus — and his own school

And then, there’s the virus. Always, the virus.

“Guys, they’ve got to make good choices and decisions on a daily basis to stay away from the virus,” Cignetti said. “You’ve got to win that battle every day because it’s coming again tomorrow. You can’t pat yourself on the back when you’re doing good, because tomorrow’s a new challenge.”

Among the other challenges for Cignetti: involving himself in football. An offensive coach by trade — he was Philip Rivers’s offensive coordinator at N.C. State and served as the wide receivers coach on Nick Saban’s first staff at Alabama — he is accustomed to sitting in on the offensive meetings. Now he outsources that to coordinator Shane Montgomery. After he reviews film, he texts players and coaches about how to handle a certain play rather than going over assignments in person.

“I am definitely feeling more like a CEO of the football team right now,” he said.

And now, in February, here comes the season.

“What’s great to see for me is that sort of that team karma is back and the locker room is good,” Cignetti said. “We’ve got good leadership. Guys are really focused on football when they’re here between the white lines. I’m really proud of them, the way they’ve handled all this.

“Shoot, it’s a year that nobody’ll ever forget, that’s for sure. I’m highly confident that we’re not only going to get started, but we’ll be able to finish this season.”

If all goes as planned, that finish will come on a Saturday in spring. And then maybe we’ll be one step closer to returning sports to normal.

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