College football’s next steps after Nick Saban coronavirus diagnosis and high-profile postponements

After three relatively smooth weeks of SEC competition, COVID-19 caught up with the nation’s highest-profile conference within a span of three days.

The SEC postponed its first game Monday, as Vanderbilt, which had only 56 scholarship players available in last week’s 41-7 loss to South Carolina, could not safely play its next contest at Missouri. Tuesday brought reports of a significant COVID-19 outbreak at Florida, just days after coach Dan Mullen had implored university administrators to “Pack the Swamp” this week against LSU.

The Swamp will be empty after the SEC on Wednesday postponed the LSU-Florida game. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin soon revealed 21 positive tests among players. Then, hours later, Alabama announced that coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne both had tested positive for the virus. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, whose team hosted Alabama last week, also hinted Wednesday about a spike in cases within his team, although Saturday’s game at Arkansas remains on track.

“Obviously,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt told reporters, “it has been a tough day.”

Those tough 72 hours once again raise questions about the season’s viability in the midst of a pandemic. Will college football get to the finish line? How many outbreaks and postponements are tolerable? What will the continued positive tests within the SEC indicate about game travel, testing, and the role of coaches, who are starting to contract the virus at a higher frequency?

Athletic administrators across the country who spoke to ESPN on Wednesday and Thursday aren’t panicking. While not dismissing the SEC’s problems, they say they expected game postponements and positive tests for notable coaches and players, and pointed to an entire offseason spent planning and revamping schedules to add flexibility for when disruptions occur. They continue to monitor virus data and trends, but have had no conversations about stopping the season.

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“We all have invested a great deal of time and energy, the student-athletes have invested a great deal,” Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek said. “I think this was expected. Our SEC medical task force told us there was going to be another spike in mid-to-late October, and I think that’s what we’re all seeing right now. That’s why we built in the make-up dates at the end of the season, because we thought something like this may occur, where we were going to lose some games during the season.”

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said circumstances now are far different than they were in the spring, when college athletics essentially came to a screeching halt with one positive test from within the NBA.

“Part of the reason things shut down in the spring was because universities shut down,” Radakovich said. “The fear of the unknown back in the spring was very much in the forefront. Now,