When Clemson and Georgia agreed to open their 2021 college football season at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., nobody was wearing a mask.
Restaurants and bars surrounding the Uptown venue were at full capacity. Sports hadn't shut down yet, and life was relatively normal.
It was February 2020, a time that feels like eons ago yet yesterday all at the same time. It was a great decision then to renew this rivalry. The Tigers and Bulldogs, two teams separated by 70 miles who haven't played since 2014, both needed a big-time game added to the 2021 slate. An agreement was made and Sept. 4 became set in stone.
However, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium was taken, so Charlotte made plenty of sense at the time for a big-time neutral-site game. Fast forward to now, just six months from the season opener, and everything has changed, to the point where the location of this game might need to be altered as well.
COVID-19 gave college football as disjointed a 2020 season as the sport has ever seen, and it's unclear exactly what 2021 will look like, although there's much more promise this offseason for a return close to normal.
That, however, might not hold as true in the Tar Heel State. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper lifted COVID-19 restrictions last week to allow fans to actually be in the stands at a much higher rate than before, but it's still far from ideal.
As of Feb. 26, Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, can allow just over 22,600 fans to attend games, up from the 5,240 who were there when Clemson beat Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game.
For this Clemson-Georgia rivalry game, and certainly one of college football's biggest contests of the 2021 season, that isn't enough. The Tigers and Bulldogs hosted nearly that amount at home for each of their games last fall.
Based on the current status of the pandemic, those numbers should go up this season. The NFL is even discussing full capacity, yet right now that seems like a pipe dream in North Carolina, where Cooper has been slow to reopen the state.
While there's time to remedy that, Clemson and Georgia can't wait out the governor's decisions until late summer. This is the type of game that should be played at the most fan-friendly venue possible, and both sides need to be prepared that Bank of America Stadium might not be that in September.
What can they do?: Well, for one, they can try to force Cooper's hand, threaten to move the game to another state if the lifting of restrictions can't be guaranteed. The powers that be might just let them walk away, which means there needs to be several contingency plans in place.
Where could they go? The first thought is still Atlanta, which is hosting Alabama-Miami on Sept. 4 and Lousiville-Ole Miss on Labor Day. Sunday, however, would be a logical move, but both schools have to agree to play on an off-day that has just Notre Dame-Florida State scheduled.
Neither team has a huge game the following Saturday (Clemson hosts S.C. State while Georgia takes on UAB at home), so short rest wouldn't be a major obstacle. A Sunday matinee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium doesn't sound so bad.
They could also pull an unconventional move: play just the single game on one of the team's campuses and split the tickets like it's a neutral-site contest. Travel wouldn't be an issue for the teams or fans, and attendance might be optimal under this option.
There might be other major venues willing to host a potential top-5 matchup. Jacksonville's TIAA Bank Stadium is located in a state that's as open as any when it comes to sports attendance and isn't a stretch when it comes to travel.
Regardless, all options should be on the table to leave Charlotte. This game deserves better than what North Carolina can currently provide, and it's hard to think these two proud programs should accept anything less when it comes to the magnitude of the game and rivalry.
A final decision might need to come this spring.