With near-empty stands, college football’s home-field advantage on pace to be worst in 15 years

When Mike Leach looked for fans Saturday,  he saw cardboard. Leave it to The Pirate to break down what it’s like to play college football in empty or near-empty stadiums in 2020.

“The vibe to me that’s funny is the cut-out people,” Leach told CBS Sports after Saturday’s 44-34 upset at LSU. “Isn’t that ‘Twilight Zone’ and ‘Outer Limits’ stuff?”

Not quite science fiction, though somewhat dystopian cardboard images of fans and COVID-19 diminished crowds have almost become routine. At LSU last week, fans were able to purchase a cut out of themselves to be placed in the stands where 82,000 empty seats looked on. The cost? $50.

They mixed nicely with a reduced crowd of 21,124 who watched Mississippi State’s upset at Tiger Stadium (total capacity: 102,321). They also held the attention of the Bulldogs coach, who is known sometimes for his lack of focus.

“I would try to find cut-outs in the crowd that looked really good or were interesting except that they didn’t move,” Leach said. “They were frozen.”

That’s a sideways glimpse of what it will be like to play this season amid COVID-19 restrictions (capacity varies depending on local health guidelines). The atmosphere at games has certainly been diminished. Bands may or may not allowed. When first the Big Ten and then the Pac-12 return later this fall, they will do so without fans.

“It’s not ideal,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. “It’s just awkward. It’s just different.”

Home-field advantage has been altered — at least reduced — for sure in 2020. Four weeks into the season, home teams are winning only 59.5% of their games (47-32). If that number holds, it would mark the worst winning percentage by home teams since 2005 (59.3%).

Ironically, the year following that (2004) marked the best home winning mark of all-time (65.3%), according to the NCAA, which has kept the statistic since 1966.  In fact, home-field advantage has improved this century with the top 10 all-time coming since 2000.

Best FBS home winning percentages

2004

.6530

2019

.6526

2011

.6440

2018

.6390

2009

.6361

2002

.6355

2008

.6301

2016

.6299

2000

.6280

2007

.6260

In 2016, the Omaha World-Herald called home-field advantage, “College Football’s Biggest Myth.” The newspaper concluded the 2014-15 seasons were the most balanced in the last 20 years. Power Five teams won 50.8% of their home games.

Two of the top four largest home-field advantages have come in the last two years. In 2018, home teams won 63.9% of games (fourth all-time). In 2019, home teams won 65.2% of the games, second all-time to 2004 by .00038821 of a percentage point.

The NCAA does not count neutral-site games in this calculation.

Worst FBS home winning percentages

1967

.5570

1975

.5630

1995

.5760

1978

.5780

1971

.5810

1986 .5864

1980

.5889

1994

.5883

1970

.5900

1981

.5910

2005 .5930

2020

.5949 (thru Week 4)

Whatever happens this season, college football’s basic landscape has been remade. In Week 1, Arkansas State won at Kansas State despite missing 20 players, including nine starters mostly due to COVID-19. Kansas State turned around and beat then-No. 3 Oklahoma on the road while missing at least three starters on each side of the ball with their own COVID-19 concerns. That was part of a season-high 12 wins by road teams on Saturday.

Given the dearth of easy nonconference home games to load up on this season, that home-field advantage may decrease. Example: The ACC and SEC are each playing a record 10 regular-season conference games.

“Playing social distance football is tough to do,” Baylor coach Dave Aranda said. “With the COVID testing that is going on, who is on your team week to week can be dramatic. All of those things [contribute] to a very wild and possibly unchartered season.”

Both quarterback K.J. Costello (Mississippi State’s quarterback) and Leach (as a head coach) thrived in visiting Death Valley for the first time.

“It was louder than you think between the fans and the P.A.” Leach said. “It was loud. You definitely needed the silent count. It wasn’t just yell out, ‘Hey, K.J., throw the post.’ I thought I might be able to do that.”

Some are finding the bright side in it.

“There’s certain offensive advantages to those things that you have just because of circumstances this year. … Just with in-game adjustments, it’s a little easier this year not having to deal with massive crowds on the road,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said.

At Missouri, the campus looked almost empty Saturday prior to its season-opening game against No. 2 Alabama. The number of “No Tailgating” signs posted on campus outnumbered the Michelob Ultras — by far.

By kickoff, at least five Mizzou students had been expelled for coronavirus violations. Three days earlier, the state experienced its highest number of single-day COVID-19 deaths, 87. A crowd of 11,700 — less than 20% of Faurot Field’s capacity — watched the Crimson Tide handily defeat the Tigers, 38-19.

“I have to admit, it was different,” Nick Saban said. “… This year, [it’s], ‘What is your DNA as a competitor?’ because you can’t really count on external factors like the crowd and the noise and the fans and the band and those things that can appeal to your emotion. You can’t really count on that.”

Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium is one of the most raucous sports venues in the world. It’s 101,821-person capacity will be reduced to 20% of that for the home opener this week against No. 13 Texas A&M.

COVID-19 is the only thing that could mute the school’s legendary game-day activities. There will be no tailgating. The Million Dollar Band (made up of 400 members) will be limited 96. This at a place that once drew more than 92,000 for an A-Day spring football game.

When the Big Ten does start Oct. 24, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has suggested the mighty Buckeyes might fly in the day of the game or bus to certain contests.

Kansas State did just that Saturday, using six busses to make the five-hour trip from Manhattan, Kansas, to lessen potential COVID-19 contact. The Wildcats were met by a crowd of 22,700 in 86,000-seat Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

“It was loud,” K-State coach Chris Klieman said. “We had to use some silent snap counts, obviously not nearly as loud as what it should be, could be and what college football is all about. That’s going to be the disadvantage moving forward for every home team not having your packed stadium with your fans behind you.”

All of it has contributed to a sort of “studio football” effect. The games seem more like a stage than an event. Broadcasters are doing games remotely. The postgame experience — when media descend from the press box to meet coaches and players — has become detached. All interviews are being handled via Zoom.

You want to talk atmosphere? Check out those cardboard cutouts.

Only 976 fans were allowed to watch West Virginia’s season-opening blowout of Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 12. It took some getting used to.

“I don’t think the competition on the field is any different,” Brown said. “I don’t think guys compete any less hard. The atmosphere is not here. Some of the things that make college football great — the bands, the smell of tailgating, the passion from the fans — [are diminished].” 

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