Forde-Yard Dash: College Football's COVID-19 Struggles May Be Getting Worse

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“How To Be A Social Media Savage” handbooks sold separately by whoever runs the Maryland football Twitter account:

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THIRD QUARTER: COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND COVID, THE ONGOING STRUGGLE

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:

Air Force-Wyoming (21) is canceled, the second straight game the Falcons have lost. Air Force had a number of players take “turnback” options before the semester started and are not on campus. So its available numbers were lower to begin with.

Auburn-Mississippi State (22) was postponed due to an outbreak with the Bulldogs. The Athletic reported that the Bulldogs were down to the mid-40s in terms of available players, after barely having enough to play Vanderbilt Saturday. (Teams are allowed 85 scholarship players.) But some of the attrition is due to factors beyond the virus—injuries and players who have left the program, which always happens during a coaching change. Mike Leach is in his first season at Mississippi State.

(That game has been rescheduled for the SEC’s “COVID Weekend” of Dec. 12, alongside LSU-Florida and Vanderbilt-Missouri. If you want to give players a great reason to opt out en masse and not play, tell the Commodores — who are currently winless and might still be at that point — that they must travel to the coldest town in the SEC in mid-December to play at the tail end of finals week. The Dash would vote Hell No to that assignment.)

The LSU-Alabama game (23) is in jeopardy due to the Tigers’ COVID numbers. While that may save the Tigers from a trip to the wood chipper, it also makes coach Ed Orgeron’s preseason boast about his team’s virus situation look all the more silly. "Not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it," Orgeron said in mid-September. "I think that hopefully they won't catch it again, and hopefully they're not out for games.” The Athletic reported that LSU currently has one available scholarship quarterback, no tight ends and no long snappers. The Crimson Tide would like to play the game for the chance to smash a rival, but also to further integrate its young receivers into the offense in the absence of injured star Jaylen Waddle.

Utah (24) is trying to assemble spare parts from the scout team and walk-on ranks to play UCLA this week after missing its opener. Coach Kyle Whittingham told the media Monday that at the moment, the Utes “barely” have more than the minimum of 53 scholarship players available. He also said one player on the team had been hospitalized, which led the school to subsequently put out a statement: “One student-athlete who has not been participating with the football program since August recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. He has since been released from the hospital, is at home and is doing much better. Throughout this time he has been receiving full care from the medical team.” For the armchair epidemiologists who say college kids never get seriously ill from the virus, keep that young man in mind.

California (24) may have to relocate to have a chance to play due to its local health restrictions. It’s not that the Golden Bears have had an outbreak; it’s city regulations that cast a wide contact tracing net. Cal’s opener against Washington was canceled; next up (maybe) is a game at Arizona State.

Five different schools are returning to action Saturday after two consecutive weeks on the sideline, led by Wisconsin (25). The Badgers played one game and then disappeared into a COVID tunnel, and now emerge to play reeling Michigan. The other teams coming back from long layoffs: Army (to play Tulane); UTEP (to play UTSA); North Texas (to play UAB); and Florida International (to play Florida Atlantic). Thus far teams playing after two or more weeks off have gone 9–7.

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman (26), the landslide leading candidate for SEC Coach of the Year, is out Saturday after testing positive. He will turn over leadership of the team against No. 6 Florida to defensive coordinator and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom. Other head coaches who have missed games this year include Mike Norvell (Florida State), Jeff Brohm (Purdue) and Les Miles (Kansas).

Texas A&M (27) has paused its football workouts after a player and a staffer tested positive in the wake of the Aggies’ game against South Carolina. They are scheduled to play at Tennessee Saturday.

That’s all as of Monday afternoon. Plenty of time for other developments.

The ultimate example of the incompatibility between college football and pandemic best practices was the field storming (28) we saw at Notre Dame Saturday night. Which was followed by a remarkably craptastic missive from school president and lead hypocrite, Father John Jenkins (29).

Jenkins deemed it “disappointing” that the Notre Dame students stormed the field and engaged in other unwise weekend revelry. The letter said that many students will need to test negative to be allowed to leave campus for the extended Thanksgiving break—which is responsible stewardship for a national university that could be exporting the virus to every corner of the country. But it came from the same university president who returned from the infamous October White House super-spreader event with COVID, after failing to take precautions to protect himself and those around him.

The COVID melodrama never stops at Notre Dame. In August there was an outbreak that shut down in-person classes for two weeks and nearly sent everyone home. Then the team had an outbreak that forced the postponement of a game against Wake Forest. Now a field storming.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the South Bend Tribune that the school prepared for a field storming. Irish football coach Brian Kelly (30) flat-out predicted it to his players at their walk-through, and advised his players to hightail it for the tunnel. But if Notre Dame was actually concerned about the potential health risks associated with thousands of overjoyed fans surging onto the field and surrounding its players, there was one easy way to stop it.

Don’t put thousands of fans in the stands.

That’s what the Big Ten and Pac-12 have done. Other conferences have gone ahead with having limited numbers of fans, and the social distancing of said fans has been inconsistent. (SMU is the one school that did something about those not following protocols, booting the students out of one home game.) At many locales—including Notre Dame Saturday night—the social distancing was sketchy at best and deteriorated as the game went on.

Fact is, Notre Dame wanted some home-field advantage from its crowd of 11,011, and got it. Then it also got a field storming, and we’ll see what the ripple effect is from that.

It's probably also true that those students who stormed the field would have been joyously storming the hallways of their dorms, the bars on Eddy Street or the nearest apartment kegger. Trying to prevent the close personal contact of communal celebration in that moment was impossible, whether it was in the stadium or outside. If you have thousands of students on a college campus, and you play football, the emotions of the moment are going to overtake the discretion recommended by the administration.

MORE DASH: Big Brand Struggles | Heisman Race | Non-Passers