As more postponements and cancellations due to COVID-19 hit college football, we must ask whether we can actually reach the finish line of the 2020 season.
News hit on Monday that the football game between Mississippi State and Auburn would be postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the Bulldogs roster. As the coronavirus swirls its way around the SEC, the game between Alabama and LSU is also at risk as the Tigers deal with another upswing of positive cases on their team.
Since the start of the year, three games have been postponed in the SEC. Many more have been canceled or postponed around the rest of the country. As we get closer to December, it will become that much harder to reschedule those contests.
Such announcements have become a common refrain in a 2020 season impacted by an ongoing pandemic. They are becoming increasingly common for some of the conferences that pushed hardest to make sure college football returned this season come hell or high water.
When the United State first started coming to grips with the coronavirus back in March, it was already obvious that the 2020 season would look nothing like any college football fan had seen in their lifetimes. The closest comparison was the 1918 season, when the Spanish flu forced cancelations and some teams and conferences called off football.
As we have seen throughout 2020, many similar situations have played out. Some teams already have eight games under their belts; others have just one contest so far on their resumes. There are still a few teams that have yet to take the football field after the Mountain West and Pac-12 were forced to call off several games on their opening weekend due to COVID-19 cases.
There is no common thread or real point of reference for comparison this year. With leagues focusing on conference play to mitigate travel and shore up protocols for dealing with the virus among their member schools, assessing relative strength is largely guesswork.
This only shines a brighter light on the reality that college football, for all of its pageantry and invented traditions, is a sport that bathes in a pool of uncertainty.
At this point, the course of the 2020 season begs the question whether teams will actually make it to the end of the year unscathed. The push to play college football proved more powerful than the health of athletes who are ostensibly still students.
We have yet to see a college football player face life-threatening issues from the coronavirus, at least at the FBS level. That isn’t to say that the football fraternity has escaped death, after Division III defensive tackle Jamain Stephens died of COVID-19 complications in early September. Even a minuscule chance of fatality is still a chance, especially when you increase contact within and between teams of 100 or more athletes — and dozens of additional staff members who are often much holder.
Not only players but also coaches have been impacted by positive results. Florida’s Dan Mullen, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, Sam Pittman at Arkansas and Nick Saban at Alabama are some of the notable coaches to be diagnosed with the virus.
We also have no clue as to what long-term issues might arise from contracting the virus. Fears about myocarditis kept the Big Ten off the field earlier this fall. While that proved less concerning than originally feared, there is still so much we have yet to learn about this novel coronavirus. Recovery is no joke, even for healthy young men. Clemson’s Xavier Thomas, for instance, took months to recover breathing capacity after contracting the virus in April.
Thomas was hardly the only player to deal with COVID-19, as the Tigers lost to Notre Dame in Week 10 without Heisman-hopeful quarterback Trevor Lawrence able to take the field. When the Fighting Irish won in overtime to take charge in the ACC race, we were reminded how dangerous it can be to allow fans in attendance at the stadium. Jubilant and basking in the afterglow of a historic upset, Notre Dame supporters stormed the field in South Bend even as the virus rampages throughout the Midwest.
The university president —who himself downplayed the virus when he traveled to Washington D.C. for a superspreader event at the White House — chastised the student body for carelessness. Whether the chaos in the marquee game of Week 10 impacts the two teams of participants down the road has yet to be seen.
A few hours west in Madison, Wisc., hopes to return to the field in Week 11 after their own COVID-19 issues swarmed through the locker room and forced the cancellation of games against Nebraska and Purdue. The Badgers cannot lose another game to cancellation if they hope to remain in the Big Ten race, as only teams with six or more games will be considered for division championships this season.
Individuals have been forced to take responsibility for questionable institutional decisions all around, both within and outside college football. Thus we are at the point now where the normal course of the 2020 campaign is impossible for any and all teams at the FBS level. Getting to the finish line is still very much in question, and as teams find they have nothing left to play for we could see more teams opt back out of the season before it concludes.
Given what we have seen this year, it might very well be the wisest decision of all.