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Know Your Opponent, Week Zero: COVID-19

The difficulties of this situation cannot be understated.

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

It appears that the Wildcats’ toughest matchup won’t be taking place amidst the tall grass of Ryan Field this year.

Rather, it will be a battle that takes place outside football facilities and in the heads of the players and personnel themselves.

While this may seem like hyperbole, the most difficult opponent Northwestern will face this year won’t be the Nittany Lions of Penn State or the Michigan Wolverines. It will be the looming threat of COVID-19 that not only hangs over Northwestern football, but over every college football program across the country.

Left and right, we’ve seen college football players exposed to COVID-19 — at least 18 down in Champaign, over 30 in Baton Rouge and even a few here in Evanston after NU’s first positive test was announced Monday (the team has suspended practices for the time being). While most recover fine, some do not, like Indiana OL Brady Feeney, who is struggling with heart-related issues due to the novel coronavirus.

We’ve also seen a number of high-profile players opt out of the 2020 season. Among them include Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Miami defensive end Greg Rousseau, both of whom were some of the best defensive players in the country last year. And just this past week, Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman and Purdue WR Rondale Moore, arguably the two best pass catchers in the conference, announced their decisions to forgo the season and prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. While Northwestern is yet to see a player opt out, it’s tough to say what will happen.

Despite all of these negative potential consequences, the FBS, as well as the Big Ten and other Power Five conferences, appear determined to have a season. The B1G released its modified, conference-only schedule on Wednesday, in which each team will see 10 league opponents rather than the usual nine.

Scouting an opponent that doesn’t appear on the schedule and hasn’t even fielded a team raises a uniques set of questions. What protocols and gameplans are in place to defeat this opponent and make a college football season possible? Let’s take a look.

The Biggest Updates

On July 29, the NCAA announced that they would let all major college football teams begin their seasons as early as August 29. The Big Ten is current scheduled to kick off their conference-only slate on September 3, with other Power Five conferences scheduled to begin their slates later in the month

It appears that this college football season will only be played among some of the top teams, if there is even a season at all. UConn became the first Division I FBS team to cancel their football season this past week and more can be expected to follow suit.

Additionally, the FCS, Division II and Division III fall championships were all canceled on Wednesday, narrowing the field down to just Division I teams.

Main Protocols

Recently, the NCAA put out a “Resocialization of College Sport Checklist”, with some of the most important checks highlighting the urge for physical distancing and the use of masks whenever possible.

During football season, masks are required for all coaching staff and personnel. Additionally, masks are required for any student-athlete that is not in the field of play, meaning that players on the sideline would have to mask up. Social distancing will supposedly be enforced wherever possible (which, of course, does not include the field of play, unless it’s an Illinois defender trying to chase down Andrew Marty).

When it comes to testing, football is rightfully classified under the “High Contact Risk” category by the NCAA. For sports in this category, diagnostic testing was to be done upon arrival to campus. During summer workouts (where we are now), surveillance PCR testing is to be conducted. For example, 25-50 percent of athletes and staff should be tested every two weeks if preventative action is not maintained. Additionally, there is extra testing for those who are at a higher risk.

During the football season, if we get there, there will be weekly PCR testing of all athletes, as well as “inner bubble” staff for whom preventative action is not maintained.

Testing will also be performed prior to campus departure and within three days of any team’s next game. Results must be shared between competing teams before kick off. Officials will also be tested prior to games.

If a player tests positive, the protocols differ for symptomatic and asymptomatic cases. For symptomatic ones, isolation and precautions can be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset and at least 24 hours after the natural resolution of a fever (if they had one). For asymptomatic cases, isolation can end 10 days after their first positive test. Anyone who came in close contact (as defined by the CDC) with the individual who tests positive will also be quarantined, and the real challenge to logistically staging a season comes with this rule: they must quarantine for 14 days as required per current national guidelines, without ability to test out of quarantine.

If we’re understanding this right, coaches could lose giant swaths of their teams for two weeks just for coming in contact with a confirmed positive, even if they subsequently test negative. That’s where the scheduling flexibility theoretically comes into play.

A discontinuation of athletics will be considered by the NCAA if there is a lack of ability to isolate new positive cases on campus or an inability to perform pre-competition testing, among other possibilities.

The Players’ Response

As mentioned previously, multiple college football players have already opted out of the 2020-21 season, but that hasn’t been the only response from the players. Multiple articles have already been published in The Players’ Tribune regarding the demands that college football players have for the NCAA regarding this season.

First up, many Pac-12 Players published an article earlier this week calling for not only better health and safety protections, but to protect all sports, to end racial injustice in college sports and for economic freedom and equity. Backlash ensued after Washington State football player Kassidy Woods claimed he was kicked off the team for supporting the article and its movement. He had already opted out of the 2020 season over COVID concerns.

It didn’t end there. On Wednesday, over 1,000 Big Ten football players published an article of their own. In it, they state their belief that the NCAA’s and the conference’s plans for a football season falls short in certain areas, and that any course of action moving forward must include player input.

The players also outline their very own COVID protection plan, in which they call for a third-party that is approved by the players to conduct COVID-19 testing rather than the conference itself. Additionally, they call for penalties for those who don’t comply to the rules, which is a good sign that many players in the Big Ten are taking this seriously.

Much of the plan also outlines a testing system that the Big Ten football players want to implement. Additionally, it calls for whistleblower protection when reporting those who break protocol, as well as automatic medical redshirts for any player who misses competition due to a positive test or a mandatory quarantine.

The players also call for certain financial protections, such as keeping scholarships and eligibility in the event the season is canceled, players decide to not play or they get sick during the season.

While tensions surrounding a college football season are very high right now, the NCAA appears determined to press forward with a season. Facing Penn State to open the season may be tough for Northwestern, but getting to that point might be even more difficult, especially after a positive test.