Forde-Yard Dash: Separating Coronavirus Spin From Reality

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the Big Ten opt-outs keep coming even as the Big Ten gets closer to playing:

MORE DASH: Big 12's Rough Start | Best, Worst Statues

THIRD QUARTER: CORONAVIRUS SPIN REPORT

The season has made its meandering way to mid-September, which is further than The Dash expected in mid-August. The intent is clearly to keep going, and perhaps the push toward a semi-full season of play will be successful. Best chance of that: the SEC, which wisely didn’t schedule anything before Sept. 26, and ironically the Big Ten, which has gone from canceled to the brink of a comeback. Elsewhere, it’s messy.

How is the sport doing in terms of upholding its stated reasons to play and adhering to its own established health and safety guidelines? Also messy. A brief rundown of some COVID-19-related spin vs. reality.

Spin: Ohio State (21) leads the assault upon Big Ten leadership for canceling fall football. Buckeye faithful insist that playing in 2020 is the only way to keep top players from opting out. A winter or spring season would be badly diminished without them.

Reality: On the doorstep of a return to play, two of the Buckeyes’ three best players opted out. Offensive guard Wyatt Davis, a first-team Phil Steele All-American, announced it last week. Cornerback Shaun Wade, also a first-team Phil Steele All-American, announced it Monday.

The Wade news was especially of the What the Hell variety, since it was his father, Randy, who led the historic and inspiring Helicopter Parents for Fall Football March Upon Rosemont last month to protest outside the empty Big Ten offices. From a Cleveland.com story regarding the protest movement: “If the Big Ten does bring back a fall season, Shaun Wade would play for the Buckeyes. If a season is moved to January or March, the plan would be for him to start preparing for the NFL draft.” Here on the cusp of that fall season becoming reality, Wade is out.

Spin: Coaches and administrators nationwide insist that having players within the structure of a season (22), with the motivation of playing games, is the best way (the only way!) to keep them virus-free. Otherwise their discipline will lapse.

Reality: Scanning the country from West to East, high virus numbers and/or local health restrictions have led to canceled or postponed games for BYU, Tulsa, TCU, Louisiana Tech, Memphis, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, East Carolina, Florida International and Temple. Oklahoma was missing more than 20 players for its opener Saturday against Missouri State. Kansas State was down two-dozen players against Arkansas State, which itself left nine starters at home for the game. Georgia Southern zoomed to near the top of the Fauci Cup standings with 33 players sidelined for its game against Campbell. Maybe the value of program structure was overstated.

And that’s just among the teams that have played or were scheduled to play by now. Several SEC programs have had outbreaks, but those haven’t yet impacted competition.

Spin: Coaches and administrators also have said often that they are not seeing evidence of the virus being spread by football players being in contact with each other. Social settings are the problem.

Reality: Maybe that’s still the case. But greater transparency would help make that case.

Consider the situation at Memphis (23), where the infamous Party Bus Theory butts heads with those within the program who dispute it. After at least 40 people within the program either tested positive or were quarantined, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the school put out a release saying, "The positive tests and subsequent contact tracing indicate that the majority of cases have been primarily linked to social events outside of official football activities.” The words “majority” and “primarily” keep it suitably vague; some more specificity would help.

Memphis football empty stadium

Memphis's game this week vs. Houston was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program.

The alleged party bus event was said to have happened after the Tigers defeated Arkansas State Sept. 5. But defensive lineman O’Bryan Goodson took issue with the Party Bus Theory on Twitter, saying in a since-deleted tweet: “Lies Dog! Nobody Had A Party Nor Was On A Party Bus!! Arkansas St needs to be the ones Tested! We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do, all this came after we played them!” And on Monday, coach Ryan Silverfield disputed the party bus assertion as well, saying that two players were picked up by family in a van outside their student housing.

See the above reference to Arkansas State having nine starters missing for its game a week after playing Memphis. Is it a coincidence that both teams would be heavily affected by the virus the week after playing each other? Bad luck? Do they have a Party Bus in Jonesboro, too? Answers, anyone?

Spin: Teams will maintain rigorous adherence to protocols established by the conference medical advisory groups. And we mean it. There is this from the ACC (24) medical advisory group’s August dispatch: “In all sports, student-athletes in the team bench area shall wear a face covering while not in the game. With the exception of student-athletes who are wearing their helmet on the sideline … student-athletes in all sports that exit the game will be expected to apply a face covering while in the team bench area.”

Reality: Let’s just say there were sporadic issues with sideline mask compliance in ACC games last week. Specifically, some Duke (25) and Miami (26) players (and coaches) need to be coached up on the protocols. On Monday, the NFL sent a memo to teams threatening disciplinary action for coaches not adhering to sideline mask rules; will college conferences be as diligent, or were the preseason safety guidelines just for show?

THE WEST’S FOOTBALL PLIGHT

It has come to this on the left-hand side of the country: With the Pac-12 and Mountain West not playing and BYU (27) looking at a 19-day gap (at least) between games, there is exactly one FBS team in the Pacific/Mountain time zones currently playing football. UTEP (28) is your team, western America.

And UTEP is not a good team. The Miners did rally to defeat FCS Stephen F. Austin in their opener, 24–14, but then served as cannon fodder for Texas in a 59–3 defeat Saturday.

This week, the Miners will host FCS Abilene Christian on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET, the latest kickoff of the day, providing the only option for fans who have grown accustomed to some late-night college football high jinks before bed. This is the sad state we’re in.

There is, however, some help on the way in October. Air Force (29), located in Colorado Springs will play a two-game fall schedule. On Oct. 3, the Falcons will host Navy. Some 35 days later, they will play Army. So the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy will be fully contested again this year, if nothing else.

As for the 1–0 Cougars and their wreck of a schedule: BYU’s next game is against Troy Sept. 26, then Louisiana Tech was added on Monday for an Oct. 2 matchup. The school obviously is still making up the schedule on the fly–but as it stands right now, the Cougars' last FBS opponent is Western Kentucky on Halloween. Then there is a three-week break before a game against North Alabama. 

If you’re looking for the western-most Power 5 program still playing, stop in Lubbock and say hello to Texas Tech (30). That’s also a pretty unappealing rooting option, after the Red Raiders gave up 600 yards to FCS Houston Baptist while hanging on for a 35–33 win Saturday.

That leaves Texas Tech last in the nation in total defense. It’s almost like Kliff Kingsbury never left.

MORE DASH: Big 12's Rough Start | Best, Worst Statues