Breaking Down the Differing COVID-19 Protocols Among the Power 5

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Despite heavy skepticism about the feasibility of a 2020 fall season, college football has been underway for three weeks and is not showing any signs of slowing down. A lack of strict standardized COVID-19 protocols from the NCAA has led to varying responses from the participating Power 5 conferences: the ACC, Big 12, SEC and now Big Ten, which recently announced its plan to play this fall after all. The four seem to be influencing each other as they create and adjust their own COVID-19 protocols and surge ahead, determined to participate in a 2020 season.

All four conferences have released their interpretation of the NCAA’s general guidelines and are addressing many important matters differently.

One of the most significant disparities has to do with the amount of testing each school is conducting. The NCAA is requiring weekly testing for participating teams, with planned additional testing for athletes who are displaying symptoms or have been exposed to the virus. It recommends a test is conducted 72 hours prior to the day of competition and is allowing this competition test to account for the weekly testing requirement.

While the SEC’s initial protocol met the NCAA’s standards of weekly testing, it has since updated its policy to match those in the ACC and Big-12. All three conferences are now testing their athletes three times per week, including the competition test occurring three days before a game.

The Big Ten has outdone everyone by committing to conduct daily tests starting Sept. 30 (Indiana began daily testing last week). The conference was influenced by the Pac-12’s announcement to conduct daily testing as well, though the Pac-12 has yet to reverse its decision to postpone a fall 2020 season.

COVID-19 testing sign outside Spartan Stadium in East Lansing

All four conferences have differing procedures regarding the types of tests they are administering. According to the CDC, the most accurate test is considered the “cranial dip”, a viral Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test which is known for going deep into the sinus cavity. NCAA guidelines encourage schools to use this test as their weekly testing requirement but will still accept alternative methods since the testing technology is constantly evolving.

The current protocol for SEC, ACC and Big 12 teams is two weekly PCR tests and one rapid antigen test. While the PCR test is the most reliable option, results can take time. Schools in these conferences are conducting a rapid antigen test the Friday before their game and are able to receive their results later that day.

The Big Ten has again raised the bar, requiring that their teams use rapid antigen tests and report their daily results to the league through an appointed Chief Infection Officer. If a player receives a positive result, the school will then confirm the case with the more accurate PCR test.

The Big Ten’s decision to increase testing could influence other conferences moving forward. Alabama football coach Nick Saban has already confirmed the school has intensified testing measures to better protect its players, going above the minimum standards set by the SEC conference.

"One of the things that we've done here internally that I'll share with you is we are doing daily testing with our players. We just thought that it gives the players a better peace of mind,” Saban said. "It's the best thing for the players—it's the best thing for the program. We have the capabilities and resources to do it so we're happy to do it.”

Other schools in the SEC have not yet announced anything similar, but members of the conference have expressed support for the idea.

As one conference tightens its health and safety standards, others begin to follow. The SEC has updated its guidelines for game cancellations, which are similar to protocols first laid out by the Big 12.

Big 12 teams need to have at least 53 players available for each game, including walk-on or scholarship players. Teams in the SEC have the same player minimum, but all 53 athletes need to be on scholarship. Both conferences have player minimums for certain position groups, requiring four available interior defensive linemen, seven available offensive linemen and one quarterback. The biggest difference is that the SEC gives schools the option to continue playing even if they do not meet these parameters. The conference is not planning on canceling games unless the team feels it is too heavily impacted.

So far, 16 college football games have been either postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 cases and/or contact tracing since late August, including seven matchups involving at least one Power 5 school. While the ACC and Big 12 are already underway, the SEC kicks off this Saturday and the Big Ten will return in later October.

Unlike the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, the Big Ten’s guidelines for a team’s eligibility use data from both population positivity rates (players, coaches, staff) and the team’s daily reported positivity rates (just the players) to determine whether there will be adjustments to a weekend’s schedule. Teams will be forced to stop practice and competition if both the population positivity rate goes above 7.5% and team positivity rate is greater than 5%.

None of the participating Power 5 conferences have guidelines relating to the overall positivity rates of the entire school’s population. In a survey conducted by the New York Times of more than 1,600 schools, at least 81,000 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported among students since the nation’s return to campus this fall. The New York Times considers this a “near-certain undercount” as schools struggle to both adequately test their entire population and report their results.

Reports of schools suspending Greek life, canceling on-campus living and conducting remote classes represent various attempts to control outbreaks on campus. An increase in cases on campus could affect the school’s football season, especially as conferences deal with a late start and minimal time to reschedule games.

The SEC, ACC and Big 12 all have two open dates which can be used to make up for rescheduled games if necessary, but the Big Ten’s delayed start does not afford this luxury. There is no wiggle room for the conference as it commits to playing nine games in nine weeks with no allotted time for any necessary rescheduling.

The Power 5 conferences’ attempts to participate in a full 2020 football season will need to be adaptable as information about the virus constantly seems to evolve. One conference tightening their policies may continue to influence the others as they work to conduct a successful season.

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Here is a comparison of the COVID-19 protocols around weekly testing and more of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12:

SEC

Required weekly testing: Three times per week
How long must a player sit out after a positive test? Minimum of 10 days from the positive test and then a four day period of acclimatization
How many players are required to play a game? 53 scholarship players, including four available interior defensive linemen, seven available offensive linemen and one quarterback, but a school can choose to play with less

ACC

Required weekly testing: Three times per week
How long must a player sit out after a positive test? Minimum of 10 days from the positive test
How many players are required to play a game? The conference has not announced a minimum roster requirement but does state that each team needs “an adequate number” of players, including seven scholarship offensive linemen, according to ESPN’s Andrea Adelson

Big Ten

Required weekly testing: Daily
How long must a player sit out after a positive test? Minimum of 21 days after the positive test
How many players are required to play a game? Positivity rates must be under 5% of the team (just players) and under 7.5% of the team population (players, coaches, staff)

Big 12

Required weekly testing: Three times per week
How long must a player sit out after a positive test? Minimum of 10 days from the positive test
How many players are required to play a game? 53 scholarship and walk-on players, including four available interior defensive linemen, seven available offensive linemen and one quarterback