Southeastern Conference’s Crises Show How College Football Teeters Day by Day

ATLANTA — For the first three weeks of its college football season, the Southeastern Conference and its powerhouse teams like Florida and Alabama dodged the worst of the problems that other leagues and schools had confronted while playing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Then came this week: swells of virus cases and contact traces in at least three football programs, the postponements of two games and the hasty isolation of college football’s most renowned coach, Nick Saban of Alabama, after he tested positive for the virus before the season’s most anticipated showdown, his second-ranked Crimson Tide’s Saturday night matchup against No. 3 Georgia.

More than a month of college football games in leagues across the country has shown the fickle and treacherous reality of playing during a pandemic. No week has unfolded as planned, and as of Thursday night, 31 games involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams had been postponed or canceled for virus-related reasons since late August. Hundreds of players, coaches and staff members nationwide have tested positive for the virus in recent months.

“We’ve just got to take it week by week,” said Derek Mason, the Vanderbilt coach, whose SEC game this Saturday against Missouri was postponed until Dec. 12 because his team would not have enough scholarship players available. “There is no monthly plan. You’ve got to go week by week, day by day.”

Football has sometimes struggled, at both the collegiate and professional levels, to limit the spread of the virus, in part because its leaders eschewed a restrictive environment like the ones that the W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. relied on to preserve their seasons. So-called bubbles were deemed unrealistic, leaving large football teams vulnerable to outbreaks seeded by regular travel and, among college programs, by homes on campuses that were sometimes hot spots for infections.

On Thursday, just days after the N.F.L. rescheduled several games because of new virus cases, the Atlanta Falcons moved to virtual operations because of a positive test, another sign of how the pandemic has disrupted the professional season and forced teams to adjust rapidly.

College football is even more sprawling than the N.F.L., with athletes who are unpaid beyond the cost of attendance and who lack the bargaining power of a players’ union to negotiate how the season and health protocols operate. The sport’s largely decentralized governance has left each conference to craft its own plans during the pandemic.

College sports administrators for months anticipated “bumpy spots,” as Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, put it in August, and they note that most games have happened as scheduled. So there is little sense — at least for the moment — that the season is nearing collapse, particularly as the Big Ten plans to start next week and the Pac-12 plans to begin games by early November.

“Until we have a vaccine, there’s going to be a sense of fluidity,” said Heather Lyke, the athletic director at Pittsburgh, which is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But she also said she was “more confident than