ESPN spotlight on Austin Peay in college football season kickoff Saturday night

AP photo by Willie J. Allen Jr. / Central Florida tight end Jordan Akins, left, sprints away as, from left, Austin Peay defensive end Jule Pace, linebacker Gunnar Scholato and defensive back Juantarious Bryant chase him on Oct. 28, 2017, in Orlando, Fla.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - When Austin Peay and Central Arkansas signed up to play in the first game of the 2020 college football season, little did they know how notable it would become.

With a large cloud of uncertainty still looming over the sport, the teams will start the shortened season Saturday night in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic in front of a limited number of fans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are the show in week zero and the game to really kick off football " Central Arkansas coach Nathan Brown said. "We know it's going to be a must-see game. We're representing football players and football coaches across the nation right now. So it's a big deal and something that we've talked about and educated our student-athletes about."

It will be a chance to acclimate to the new reality for college sports in the pandemic. Multiple professional sports leagues have held events without fans, and some have even happened with limited attendance. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are among college leagues that have already opted out of playing fall sports for now, and while the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences are scheduled to compete in football starting next month, that's not a guarantee either.

This game ordinarily wouldn't cause much of a national ripple even though it does involve teams that made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season. There is nothing ordinary about this season or this game.

ESPN will televise the 9 p.m. EDT matchup, but the announcers will be working remotely. There were only 2,000 tickets distributed to the schools and sponsors, about 9% of the 22,000-seat capacity at the Cramton Bowl, officials said. Fans are required to wear masks entering the stadium or moving around - they are to practice social distancing at all times - and concession stands will sell only prepackaged items.

Austin Peay's Governors went 11-4 last season, when they won the Ohio Valley Conference - their first league championship in more than 40 years - and reached the quarterfinals in their first appearance in the FCS playoffs. The 2020 schedule for the program in Clarksville, Tennessee, lists just three games, with the other two both trips to Football Bowl Subdivision foes: Pittsburgh (Sept. 12) and Cincinnati (Sept. 19).

Central Arkansas reached the second round of last year's FCS playoffs to complete a 9-4 season that included a 24-16 win at Austin Peay in the second week of the season. The Bears are members of the Southland Conference, which postponed league play but allowed its teams to pursue nonconference games. The program from Conway has put together a nine-game schedule that fills most weeks in September and October, with one game in late November.

One infectious disease expert said even with distancing in the stands at the Cramton Bowl, he'd worry about fans congregating at the entrances and exits more than about the players and coaches who are being tested regularly.

"But my biggest concern is compliance with mask wearing," said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases and associate dean for Global Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "I've seen plenty of venues where masks are required to get in, and as soon as people walk through the turnstile or the door, the mask disappears or goes around the neck. Cheering and screaming as well as singing are some of the most egregious activities as far as putting the virus into the air around somebody.

"And if somebody's closer than six feet and a mask's not being worn, even if it's outside, there's a pretty good chance of transmission."

Saag, who described himself as "a huge football fan," said he wouldn't go to a game as a fan. He also noted troubling images of some high school games around the state, where fans, many not wearing masks, packed the stands. Unlike high schools, colleges have the resources to test players and staff at least weekly.

Both teams playing Saturday were tested on Wednesday. Austin Peay interim head coach Marquase Lovings, who was elevated to the position in July, declined to disclose information on any COVID-19 positive tests on the team.

Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague said the school has been testing weekly since early August.

"There have been 3 positive results and those were not on the practice squad," he wrote in an email. "We have lots of PPE and educate and remind daily of our procedures."

The Bears won't be heading back to Conway for a while after traveling to Montgomery on Friday. The team is heading straight to Birmingham after the game and remaining there through Thursday night's matchup with UAB.

The teams did travel to Alabama with a new focus on health beyond injuries.

"Make sure nobody gets on the bus that's sick," Brown said. "Bottom line, that's going to be the key to playing this football season and obviously keeping our players safe, but also keeping Austin Peay's players safe and not spreading the virus. That's really the big difference."