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Tipsheet: COVID-19 surge leaves SEC scrambling to salvage football season

Tipsheet: COVID-19 surge leaves SEC scrambling to salvage football season


Playing college football during a global pandemic has proven to be as difficult as expected.

Some players opted out of playing. Some players have contracted COVID-19 or been exposed to the coronavirus. On top of that, teams have suffered the usual number of roster-depleting injuries.

This week Missouri won't play Georgia, Alabama won't play LSU, Auburn won't play Mississippi State and Texas A&M won't play Tennessee.

"I'm certainly shaken, but not deterred,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters.

The pandemic has hammered the SEC this fall and disrupted the competitive flow.

“I think we kind of expect disruptions during this season so how we handle them is probably the most important thing right now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters Wednesday. “What we’d like to do is try to keep our team in some type of rhythm.”

Some postponed games will end up being cancelled. “There are plenty of scheduling suggestions on Twitter," Sankey said. "But I don't run the league based on Twitter, just so you know."

The conference has had to devise new tiebreaking procedures to decide which teams reach the SEC Championship Game. The SEC would be willing to push back its title game to make sure it gets played, since it would have a large impact on the College Football Playoff selection process.

"We're all going to have to be flexible," Sankey said. "So I'm not going to hypothesize about change, but I'm not inattentive to the potential that change may need to occur."

Other conferences are facing the same challenge, especially the Big Ten – which waited until the arrival of cold and flu season to start playing games.

What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Two games involving Wisconsin have been postponed and this week Ohio State will not play Maryland.

As it becomes obvious that more and more games will not be made up, the CFP selection process gets more difficult.

"No one knows how many games any team will be playing,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN. Everyone's goal is to get the games in within the cone of safety. For the selection committee, it's status quo. This is not a surprise. Most of us expected games to be postponed or canceled. Everyone is moving forward as best they can."

Here is what folks are writing about the pandemic disruption in college football:

Dennis Dodd, “This is now a COVID-19 crisis redefined for college football. We're 38 days from the conference championship games and two additional from the College Football Playoff semifinals commence -- and yet -- the sport is running out of runway. The SEC on Tuesday postponed three games over coronavirus concerns. For the first time, there is the possibility the conference may cancel a game. Alabama-LSU came into the season as the game of the year. Now, it might not even be played. Will that particular game matter? The answer isn't altogether evident, but the more time that ticks off the calendar brings a clearer answer: What ifs? are turning into what nows? The count now stands at 52 FBS games this season that have been canceled or postponed. That's approximately a full Saturday of games for all 127 teams playing this fall. On the surface, that shouldn't be a surprise. Ten of those games were lost last weekend at the same time COVID-19 cases were spiking in 43 states.”

Pat Forde, “From the beginning of this Year of the Virus, it has been clear that the sport least compatible with curtailing COVID-19 is college football. The logistical hurdles were obvious and immense. Yet the powers that be persisted, and we have had a season, and it has been successful in terms of avoiding health calamities. But it hasn’t been easy—and if anything, it is showing signs of getting harder. The virus continues to surge nationally, and most campuses and college towns are not exempt. The single biggest challenge to conducting higher education—and the football tail that often wags that dog—is changing the behavior of college kids. They’re going to do what they want to do, and what they want to do in terms of social interaction is often directly at odds with what health experts want them to do. So we had late-summer campus spikes related to return-to-campus parties and Greek rush activities. Lately we have seen spikes in the aftermath of Halloween. In the football world, where the millionaires in charge insisted that the players would hunker down and stay healthy if they had the motivation of a season, the outbreaks have not stopped. Last week, 49 out of 59 games were played—a 17% postponement/cancellation rate. That was an uptick from the season average, which had been 14.3%. And this week is off to a challenging start.”

Ryan Phillips, The Big Lead: “Do we actually think the SEC will be able to fit all of its games in with no more hiccups? The pandemic is raging nationally at record numbers. This thing isn't going away. We're going to get some makeup games but the conference will run out of time trying to fit others in. I'm not suggesting the NCAA stop this madness; we're too far along for that to happen. But we shouldn't expect anything like smooth sailing for the rest of the year. Team selections for conference championship games could be a disaster and the seeding and selection of the CFP teams will be positively bonkers. No one will agree on anything and everyone will have a legitimate beef. This wasn't a great idea from the start and we're seeing a disaster play out in real time.”

Dan Wolken, USA Today: “The College Football Playoff has held firm that no matter what develops over the next six weeks or so, its semifinals will take place on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, California, and New Orleans, just as they would in a normal year. The winners of those games will then play in Miami 10 days later for the national championship. But as COVID-19 cases rise exponentially around the country, a winter surge that is presenting even greater challenges to the college football season than we’ve seen at any point, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the CFP is taking a massive risk here.  It’s time to start talking about a bubble . . . At this point, the best-case scenario for the Playoff seems to be that once teams are picked on Dec. 20, they will essentially try to bubble up as much as they can on campus until Dec. 30 when they’ll fly to the bowl sites, do a walk-through on New Year’s Eve and then play on Jan. 1. The routine would be similar prior to the championship game on Jan. 11.”


“Mental agility is the definition of 2020, which we talked to our team about early in the season. So it's one of those deals where you find out and you have a plan for plan 'A' and you have a plan for plan 'B' and we had obviously been working that way all year, kind of saying that if a game was canceled, what we would do and have a plan for it.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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