Virus touches college football, from upending schedules to making coaches ill

If coach Dana Holgorsen seemed relieved after his University of Houston football team finally played a game Thursday night, no one can blame him. Five times the Cougars had season-opening opponents either cancel or postpone games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When finally allowed on the field, the Cougars overcame five turnovers to outlast Tulane 49-31.

“We won, so that’s good, but there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get better at,” Holgorsen told reporters.

Houston’s story is only one of several to play out this season as colleges return to campus and try to find a way to coexist with COVID-19. Through Thursday, 26 FBS games had been postponed or canceled since the season began. That’s in addition to the upheaval of conferences retooling their schedules for later starts and shorter seasons.

The Gophers are scheduled to open a nine-game Big Ten season on Oct. 24 against Michigan.

In Houston’s case, the season was supposed to start Sept. 3 vs. Rice, but the Owls dropped out because of COVID-19. The next game, vs. Washington State, was eliminated when the Pac-12 originally canceled its season. The next game, vs. Memphis, was postponed, and the Cougars scrambled to fill that date with Baylor, until the Bears canceled 48 hours before kickoff. North Texas became the fifth program to beg out, canceling the Sept. 26 game.

“You can’t compare this to anything. … This is on a whole ’nother level,” Holgorsen said earlier this week. “The one thing that has given us hope is we sit here and watch other teams playing.”

Familiar names impacted

When Notre Dame and Florida State meet Saturday night in South Bend, Ind., on display will be two teams whose seasons have been impacted greatly by COVID-19.

The fifth-ranked Fighting Irish return after their Sept. 26 game against Wake Forest was postponed because of an outbreak. Notre Dame had 39 players in isolation or quarantine after 18 players tested positive.

Coach Brian Kelly pointed to a pregame meal before the season opener against South Florida as the culprit.

“We had somebody who was asymptomatic, and it spread like wildfire throughout our meeting area where we were eating,” Kelly told ESPN.

Meanwhile, Seminoles coach Mike Norvell tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t coach in the 52-10 loss at Miami on Sept. 26. “You learn from every experience,” Norvell told reporters. “We need to make sure we get things corrected and respond at a much higher level.”

BYU managing well

In the days before COVID-19, Brigham Young had an ambitious schedule for 2020. The Cougars, an independent team, had lined up two games against Big Ten teams — including a Sept. 26 road contest against the Gophers — three against Pac-12 foes and one against an SEC squad. That all changed in August, when conferences began postponing the season and BYU hustled to fashion a new schedule.

The results so far have been good. Ranked No. 15 in both major national polls, the Cougars have steamrolled Navy (55-3), Troy (48-7) and Louisiana Tech (45-14). Though no Power Five opponents are on the new slate, BYU still faces challenges in Houston, Boise State and San Diego State, so it has the chance to pad its résumé and earn the Group of Five’s spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.

Creative in California

Limited to practicing in groups of 12 or fewer because of tight restrictions in Santa Clara County, the San Jose State football program channeled “Animal House” and took the advice of Otter and Boone when the Delta Tau Chi fraternity was shut down.

“Road trip.”

No, the Spartans didn’t end up at the Dexter Lake Club, but they did move 320 north to Humboldt State in Arcata, Calif., where COVID-19 restrictions aren’t as strict and they can practice in preparation for their Oct. 24 opener against Air Force.

Coach Brent Brennan described the planning of the relocation as a “mad dash” but something that was necessary.

Helping ease the transition was the availability of a stadium and other facilities at Humboldt State, which dropped its NCAA Division II football program after the 2018 season.

Working through it

With the SEC, ACC and Big 12 already playing and the Big Ten to follow in two weeks, a small slice of normalcy has returned to college football. However, it’s easy to see examples of how pervasive the virus can be.

The nation’s No. 1 team, Clemson, had 37 players test positive during summer workouts. Ed Orgeron, coach of defending national champion LSU, estimated in September that most of his team has had the virus. “Hopefully, they won’t catch it again,” Orgeron said.

This week, Kansas coach Les Miles and Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin announced they’ve tested positive for COVID-19. They join Norvell, Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson and Toledo’s Jason Candle as FBS coaches who’ve contracted the virus.

“It’s a tough time, but we’re getting through it,” Sumlin said, referring to his program, though he could’ve been speaking about college football as a whole.


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