There have been plenty of reminders that this is going to be a unique college football season over the last 2 months, and Friday night was the first one for the Big Ten. Jump Around was played at Camp Randall without fans to, you know, jump around.

College football is built around fun traditions like how Wisconsin plays the House of Pain song between the 3rd and 4th quarters and fans get so into it, the stadium shakes. The pandemic has robbed us of those moments while enjoying this great sport.

Big Ten Network announcer Brandon Gaudin reassured us as time ran out in the 3rd quarter, “We’ll have Jump Around when we return to Madison!”

And yes, Wisconsin still played the song, complete with fans jumping around on Zoom. Ah, 2020.

Blowout aside, the Big Ten’s long-awaited debut was a delight. Wisconsin rolled Illinois 45-7 with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in the stands—well, cardboard cutouts of Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in the stands.

But those 2 Hall of Fame-bound QBs had nothing on the star of the show, redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. The 1st start for Wisconsin’s highest QB recruit lived up to the hype as Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and 5—yes, 5!—touchdown passes.

It was a bit surreal seeing the Big Ten back playing after everything the league has been through. But it all started feeling familiar once BTN Live started an hour before kickoff, and we had Mike Hall, Joshua Perry, J Leman and Glen Mason previewing the game.

Having watched a whole lot of sports over the last few months, I’m pretty used to empty stadiums with cardboard cutouts by now. I’m assuming most people would agree. It was weird at first, but my brain has adjusted to the point that when the BTN broadcast showed the band playing “On Wisconsin” from the 2018 game between Wisconsin and Illinois, it was a little jarring. Like, “Hey, remember when we used to have 80,000 fans at Camp Randall?”

Because of some tight camera shots, sometimes I forgot that it was an empty stadium. But I was reminded when I would hear the fake crowd noise when Wisconsin’s defense lined up, and all of a sudden the noise stopped. That’s when you really remember that this going to feel a little different. A fade in, fade out effect would help.

The best way to describe the viewing experience is like how it feels watching a freshman football game on a Saturday morning. You could hear the sideline yell, “Pass!” to its defense when the QB drops back, and you could hear Danny Davis say hi to his mom into the camera after he scored a 53-yard touchdown.

It’s a big difference from watching SEC games, which have (supposedly) had limited capacities at games. I’m not judging, but rather just observing. Some of the SEC games I’ve seen have felt like the 2nd half of a game against Troy rather than a freshman football game. The empty stadiums will be an adjustment B1G fans will have to make.

It was quiet at times, but that’s OK. It sure beats the alternative.

Even with that exclamation point of a performance by Mertz, the wonderful staples of Big Ten football were still there. The final touchdown tally was 3 from tight ends (hello, Jake Ferguson!), 2 from fullbacks, 1 from a defense, 1 from a wide receiver and 0 from running backs.

OK, so maybe it wasn’t completely business as usual in the Big Ten, because what non-Ohio State QB has played like that? Even Patrick Mahomes had to chime in, and when asked after the game about it, Mertz casually responded, “Pat’s a great guy.”

While it would’ve been wonderful to watch Badger fans react to Mertz’s breakout performance—and who am I kidding, the fullbacks, too—at the end of the day, we have football again. We can watch on TV for a season and adjust to a different presentation than normal.

As Lovie Smith said in his postgame press conference, it’s still 2 football teams playing one another, and as long as the teams can do so in a safe manner, that’s all that really matters.

The Big Ten is finally back, and hopefully this is the start of a wonderful, COVID-19-free season.