The prelude to an Ohio State home football game begins when its marching band emerges from a north end zone tunnel and steps across the turf field.


At some point, usually by halftime, the tune of "Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse" rings throughout Ohio Stadium. Thousands of fans rise from their seats to clap along. Members of the band spell out "Ohio" in cursive letters before a sousaphone player dots the "i."


Script Ohio is the school’s most recognizable gridiron tradition, a scene that has carried on for more than three-quarters of a century.


But during the coronavirus pandemic, few rituals are left untouched.


With fewer than 100 days left until the Buckeyes are scheduled to open the football season on Labor Day weekend, marching band director Chris Hoch said the iconic loop formation might appear differently this season.


To follow social-distancing guidelines that urge people to maintain 6 feet of separation in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, he said band members could be asked to space out.


Last year, 228 members and two drum majors spread across 50 yards on about one half of the field to create Script Ohio. This fall, Hoch envisions that the formation could be stretched to allow extra space between individuals, or involve fewer members while taking up the same slice of the field.


Not everything, though, will change.


"It would still spell Ohio and it would still be the same shape," Hoch said. "We want to make sure that tradition continues no matter what."


Autumn afternoons at the Horseshoe involve as much spectacle as football, ranging from the band’s performances to a parading Brutus Buckeye mascot and student-led cheers.


But every facet of the experience is now under examination as school officials plan for the possibility of staging games in front of significantly reduced crowds at the nearly 105,000-seat Ohio Stadium, an action that could limit or wipe out some of these long-held traditions.


No game-day fixture is likely as significant as the marching band.


Known to fans as The Best Damn Band in the Land, or TBDBITL, it performs on the field before kickoff and at halftime. The themed halftime shows are so highly anticipated that Ohio State includes a preview of selected formations with game-day programs.


As with Script Ohio, Hoch said some of the formations plotted for halftime might need to be adjusted to accommodate social distancing.


For now, planning is limited. While band rehearsals do not begin until August, the music arrangements that would normally start this month have been postponed. Hoch pointed to some of the uncertainty surrounding the football season. Will all seven home games be held? It’s too soon to tell.


"We don’t want to go get something written until we have a good idea of what we’re going to use," Hoch said.


Officials are also considering replacing the "skull session" the pregame pep rally inside St. John Arena that features the band and members of the team on their way to the locker room with an outdoor concert in order to keep people from packing the old gymnasium.


Several of Ohio State’s football traditions date to the 1930s, much like other major-college programs. The early 20th century was a boon to college football.


Marc Horger, an Ohio State professor who specializes in sports history, pointed to the period as a time when American universities began to see the sport as a marketing opportunity for their institution. Pageantry emerged and was promoted.


"It really was an era where college social life was full of those kinds of invented traditions," Horger said, "where we’re going to develop school spirit, and you’re going to have an identity with the university, and we’re going to maintain an alumni identity with the university. College football is more or less exactly as old as that being an important part of campus culture. All of that predates a broadcast audience."


The size of the scarlet-and-gray crowds at Ohio Stadium likely will shape what features of game day might continue this fall.


Athletic director Gene Smith said last month that crowds could be limited to 20,000 fans or rise close to 50,000, depending on the social-distancing recommendations in place.


Limited seating would most affect Block O, the official student section. Last season, it held nearly 1,000 students in the south end zone, along with 800 more in the north end zone, according to Nick Wead, who is entering his junior year at Ohio State and serves as the group’s president.


Bunched together, students in Block O stage two card stunts during each game.


Smaller crowds would complicate those efforts. Card stunts require cramming hundreds of students together and having them hoist colored placards into the air to reveal an image.


If fans have to be spread out in the stands, Wead said the student group will explore alternatives like raising banners or flags, which would require fewer people. The section already unfurls a massive Block O flag following each Buckeye touchdown.


"We like to be as visual as possible," Wead said.


The student section also leads the stadium in chants of "O-H-I-O" at various points during the game, starting in the moments before kickoff.


"We feel we are an essential part of what it means to be in Ohio Stadium," Wead said. "You have a lot of fans that are going to be loud and enjoy their time there, but we kind of set that tone. At least that’s how we see it as we energize the crowd. People feed off our energy."


A raucous atmosphere is as synonymous with college football as any tradition, with large crowds filling stadiums in Columbus and across the country.


But social distancing is likely to transform what a game day looks and sounds like this fall.


jkaufman@dispatch.com


@joeyrkaufman