Not exactly a roaring welcome back

LSU enters before a scattered crowd during Saturday's season opener in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on September 26, 2020. (Photo by: Chris Parent / LSU Athletics)

Here it is the hump-day afterwards, and I’m still not sure what LSU was up to last Saturday.

Maybe it was because it was an afternoon game.

Or probably not. LSU seems to have buried that old phobia in recent years.

It was just strange, though.

Hard to put your finger on it.  

Still not sure what it was.

But it will never replace football, I’ll tell you that.

Oh, and, by the way, the Tigers themselves didn’t play very well either.

You probably saw the final score — Mississippi State 44, LSU 34 — and you may have heard that the Tigers were probably fortunate to keep it a mystery into the final minutes.

Stuff happens. Sometimes even to defending champions.

But that almost seemed secondary if you were one of the handful of fans who were actually there in the shell of Tiger Stadium’s real self Saturday.

There were some reminders, mostly on the big video board, where out of habit LSU cranked up the volume and showed familiar scenes of traffic, of hardcore tailgating, of delights on the BBQ pit and a mosh pit of purple and gold as the team marched down the hill. The band marched out, the crowd went wild, all Calling Baton Rouge on a Louisiana Saturday Night after spirited pregame games of cornhole and washers.

Mind you, that was all up on the video board.

But none of that good stuff actually happened before, during or after the actual game.

Bottom line, college football has its work cut out for it in this New Normal season. It turns out that it’s harder to fake it than any of us imagined.

It just may be that there’s something to all of that pageantry and tradition, mostly the atmosphere.

Take away that electricity, reduce football to its bare Xs and Os, and it’s not really the same, not even for the chalkboard junkies out there.

Me, I thought I was ready for it. Had already seen a good share of games on TV before venturing to Tiger Stadium last Saturday.

Sorry. It ain’t the same.

There was more ain’t than I was expecting, and I thought I had prepared myself.

It looks and sounds, even feels and smells, a whole lot better on TV than it does in person.

Nobody’s fault, really.

And don’t get me wrong.

If this is the best we can get with college football during a pandemic, OK, we’ll take it.

 LSU is doing all it can, other schools, too. Give them credit.

Maybe you have to accept that for this screwball of a year, it’s strictly a studio game, made for television.

Might as well take it for what it is and be thankful for small favors. Otherwise you might be sentenced to three months of watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

The first clue came two hours before kickoff with an unimpeded cruise down Nicholson Drive to wide open parking lots, all them mere ghost towns of former tailgating.

I was kind of ready for that.

Then had to get my temperature checked and take a true-false COVID exam — some of the few tests I’ve  ever passed on that campus — to get in the socially distanced press box.

But was ready for that, too.

Some of us veterans of the scene  thought we’d figured it out in advance and furrowed a brow to declare that Tiger Stadium at 25-percent capacity would bring to mind an LSU  spring game.

No, it wasn’t. Not even close.

The game maybe was better, but the atmosphere wasn’t close.

At the spring game, the 20,000 or so fans can sit where they please, many in seats out of their regular-season tax bracket.

But imagine being one of the lucky 25-percentile and getting parked in the upper deck for the season opener to welcome back the defending champions.

They were so scattered about you had to squint to pick them up. Little slithers of four or five fans to a slit. They didn’t have anybody to turn around to and hug after a big play.

It looked empty, sounded hollow.

Again, LSU tried everything. It appeared they used the SEC-approved option to pump in crowd noise early, although the regulations apparently limit this to a crowd murmur.

Haven’t confirmed this, but it appeared game officials gave up on the “electronic murmur” after the first quarter. It was an insult to Tiger Stadium’s earthquake tradition.

Will it get better? It’s possible things will ease up and maybe crowd sizes can increase, maybe even with some token tailgating.

But apparently many saw this coming — perhaps it was the “come for the tailgate, maybe stay for the game” crowd.

Yet more than half of LSU’s season ticket holders used the “opt out” option for this year.

Of the select few you wonder if they’ll be back now that they’ve seen the reality.

The cardboard cut-out fans, I presume, are in for the long haul, win or lose. At least they’re an oddity, although they didn’t appear to have much effect on the homefield advantage even with seats right behind the Bulldogs’ bench.

“I haven’t quite gotten the hang of cutout people in the stands,” State coach Mike Leach said Monday. “That’s an episode of Twilight Zone ... it’s almost haunted houses meet science fiction.

“Now all of a sudden we have these people frozen in time sitting there in the stadium with enthusiastic expressions on their face ... but they can’t move.

“Some of those fake people have way better sets than the other ones. I want to be one of those fake people on the 50-yard line ... Live clean, live smart and maybe you become a fake person and you’ll get good seats at the LSU game.”

“That’s a little surreal, the fake people in the stands.”

The whole thing was surreal.

“Bring our own energy” has replaced “Next man up” as the most predictable cliché to come out the varsity’s mouth.

Good luck with that.

And it won’t get any easier.

The Tigers will now hit the road and head to Vanderbilt, which has decided that no fans will be allowed in its cozy stadium. Curious decision, for sure, but to be fair, zero is about 25-percent of what Vanderbilt draws without a pandemic.

But at least the season, such that is, will go on. That’s a good thing.

Sad, but it’s the best we’re going to do for this year.

One of the non-excuses bandied about following the Tigers’ season-opening debacle was the inordinate number of key young LSU players  who were getting their first-ever  experience in Tiger Stadium.

But I’ve got news for them. They still haven’t experienced Tiger Stadium, not the real one. And they’ll probably have to stick around for at least one more year if they want that experience.

 

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