LINCOLN — The college football league with the most aggressive coronavirus testing plan isn’t even playing football yet.
That’d be the Pac-12, which in early September announced an arrangement with the medical company Quidel for daily, rapid COVID-19 antigen testing starting sometime this fall. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said it’s the kind of on-site, quick-result testing he didn’t know would be available when the league decided Aug. 11 to postpone fall sports during the pandemic.
The Big Ten made that decision, too, due to what Commissioner Kevin Warren called “uncertainty” at the time. He’s received criticism ever since.
Three other major college football leagues — the ACC, Big 12 and SEC — weren’t affected by the Big Ten and Pac-12 dominoes. They forged on. And as those three leagues join the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Sun Belt and other conferences in playing college football this September, the ability to test — and get rapid, consistent results that assist with contact tracing — may be what keeps the sport afloat in the coming months.
“Tests are becoming more reliable, more available, faster turnaround, they're tending to be less expensive,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said on a league teleconference. “All of those things are positive trends."
The Big 12 begins limited play this week, with expanded conference action next week. The ACC begins its schedule in full this week. The SEC will wait until Sept. 26 to kick into gear. The Big Ten and Pac-12 haven't announced when their seasons will begin.
Every school, regardless of schedule timing, will have to navigate around the same icebergs. They are:
» Testing during the week and tracing positive tests back to high-risk contacts.
The NCAA has decided football, basketball and other sports are “high-risk contact” endeavors, meaning 15 minutes of contact around a COVID-19 positive case puts an athlete in quarantine. The tracing can take out whole parts of a team. The more time between tests, the more contacts made, the more high-risk encounters in practices between the tests, the greater the chance of more players having to quarantine because of one COVID-19 positive case.
That’s why several leagues require multiple tests per week, including tests that come back with rapid results. Some tests still require a lab for results. Others with rapid, on-site machines can be tested in a training room.
The SEC is testing twice per week. The ACC and Big 12 are more aggressive at three times per week. As tests become cheaper, more available and easier to administer, team officials will better isolate cases.
» Crowd attendance.
At most college football games played thus far, only a fraction of the stadium’s capacity has been filled. Most schools have had to follow state and local health directives in determining capacity. In the SEC, none of the teams that have announced their stadium capacities are going over 25%. At Missouri, it’s 25% — or 15,655 people. The Tigers host Alabama on their opening night.
When Nebraska was still planning on a fall football season, NU Athletic Director Bill Moos had hoped for 50% capacity at Memorial Stadium, but his staff had gamed out smaller crowd alternatives. Moos said the biggest logistical question didn’t involve how fans behaved once they entered the stadium, but getting them in and out of the facility. That may have meant excusing fans by section or row.
“It might be like a wedding or church, where the usher takes you out row by row,” Moos said Aug. 5. “I don’t discount anything in that regard. We need to be careful. It may take longer to enter, and longer to exit."
Moos was confident fans would have to wear masks at games. Unmasked, fans may have been part of what’s called a super-spreader event, in which the virus is shared among large groups of people.
On TV, the lack of big crowds has yet to have a major effect, but that may change as the stakes of games get bigger.
» Weird, hard-to-hear whistles.
Because officials are masked up for games, they’re using press-button whistles that already seemed to have negatively affected Southern Mississippi in a loss to South Alabama. A Southern Miss running back, slowed for no gain, flipped the ball to his quarterback, who scored a touchdown. Officials claimed to have whistled the back down, but no whistle could be heard on the replays. In a big game, it could play a factor.
» Evolving sideline etiquette.
As the opening weekend of games unfolded, coaches — especially play-callers — seemed to look like they were wearing bandannas or scarves more than masks, which hung around their chin or neck as they argued with officials. The NBA and NHL, with true, closed-off bubbles, have coaches typically conducting themselves like they usually would. Football coaches are operating in open environments.
Players have their own water bottles and often have masks available, but in early games, cameras have not captured them wearing masks often on the sidelines. A 300-pound defensive lineman may not be able to catch his breath so easily behind a neck gaiter.
» A depleted roster without a deleted game.
TCU already postponed a game against SMU due to the number of players who’d either tested positive for COVID-19 or were quarantined because of a contact. There are other circumstances, such as the one at Syracuse with several starters out for a game, including an offensive guard with a 6-foot, 288-pound tight end/H-back available to take his place. It’s less than ideal from a roster standpoint, but it’s a football game that Syracuse will play.
The Big 12 set a roster minimum of 53 players, with some positional minimums as well. Each team must have at least one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four interior defensive linemen available. If a team has 60 available players and two available quarterbacks, and both are true freshmen, saddle up kids. You’re playing.
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