Dozens of games will fill this weekend’s slate, but as of late, the coronavirus is increasingly disrupting matchups in the Power Five conferences. The major conferences made it to November — even though the Pac-12 had yet to start and the Big Ten schedule had only just begun — with only 13 games postponed or canceled because of the virus, and four of those have already been played on a rescheduled date. But in the past two weeks, 12 games have dropped from the schedules of the Power Five leagues. Six matchups involving ranked teams scheduled for this weekend were canceled or postponed, including No. 1 Alabama’s game against LSU and No. 3 Ohio State’s trip to Maryland.
Through 11 weeks of the season, about 15 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision games have been postponed or canceled. The level of disruption was low through much of October but has increased this month.
The SEC lost four of its seven games this weekend, and like other leagues, the conference is running out of space on its schedule. Eight of the SEC’s 14 teams already have matchups set for Dec. 12, the weekend left open ahead of the conference championship game. LSU is scheduled to play Florida that day after the Gators had to postpone the earlier matchup because of an outbreak in their program. And now LSU, which is dealing with its own coronavirus disruption, needs a date to play Alabama, the game previously scheduled for Saturday.
Missouri is in a similar situation with a game scheduled for Dec. 12 and in need of another date. Teams not participating in the SEC title game could play Dec. 19, but that might not be an option for programs such as Alabama that are in contention to play in the championship game.
“I’m certainly shaken but not deterred,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday when asked about his confidence in the league’s ability to make it to the conference title game as planned.
The SEC announced Friday that games through Nov. 21 are set to take place as scheduled, but after that, the conference said all games “are subject to weekly evaluation in order to reschedule games that have been postponed.” This flexibility will allow the SEC to prioritize matchups that could affect which teams play in the conference title game. The Pac-12 made a similar adjustment Friday: UCLA will host California on Sunday after the teams’ Saturday matchups (Utah at UCLA, California at Arizona State) were canceled.
The College Football Playoff committee plans to release its final rankings, including the four teams that will compete for a national title, on Dec. 20, which has served as the marker for when conferences need to have finished their regular seasons. The semifinals will be held Jan. 1, with the championship game Jan. 11.
Cases of the coronavirus have spiked across the country, and college programs have not been able to keep the virus at bay. Colleges cannot insulate players from the general public in the same way professional leagues can. The United States recorded more than 152,000 cases Thursday, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. For comparison, football players were allowed to return to campus beginning June 1, when the country’s daily rate of new cases was around 20,000. When the season began in early September, the country averaged around 40,000 cases per day.
Sankey said contact tracing has become the most significant challenge for many teams. One positive test can require numerous players to quarantine for 14 days. The SEC requires a minimum of 53 scholarship players be available for a team to play, including at least one quarterback, four defensive linemen and seven offensive linemen. Sankey said the SEC has found few instances of on-field transmission of the virus, but it is spreading as a result of other contact among players.
The SEC, ACC and Big 12 started up in September, leaving open dates on each team’s schedule and approaching the season with flexibility. The open dates have proved useful, but at this point there are few opportunities for similar rescheduling efforts. Instead, conferences have begun filling dates in December.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 had a delayed start because they initially canceled their fall seasons. Neither conference has room on the schedule to reschedule missed games. Four Pac-12 programs couldn’t play in their openers last weekend, and two more games in the conference were canceled this week. Eight positive tests at Maryland meant a Big Ten matchup was canceled for the third consecutive week.
Multiple programs have reported dozens of football players contracting the virus since teams returned to campus in the summer. LSU Coach Ed Orgeron told reporters earlier in the fall that “most” of his team already had contracted the coronavirus and recovered. Orgeron’s team dealt with another outbreak in the past week, leaving the Tigers with only one scholarship quarterback before their game against Alabama was postponed.
The college football season is about a month away from its regular season finish line, but with the virus raging across the country, the path ahead probably will feature more positive cases among athletes as schedule adjustments become increasingly difficult.
“None of us thought this would be easy, simple,” Sankey said, noting the SEC’s small number of postponements before this weekend. “The fact we’re here is a tribute to a lot of great work. The challenge ahead is to refocus, elevate that level of discipline and let’s move forward and crown a champion. And that’s the objective and to do it in a healthy way.”