Matt Baker: Three things we know, don't know about college football in the COVID-19 pandemic

Matt Baker: Three things we know, don't know about college football in the COVID-19 pandemic

Florida head coach Dan Mullen speaks to the media about the 2019 Orange Bowl during a news conference at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., on December 11, 2019.

Florida head coach Dan Mullen speaks to the media about the 2019 Orange Bowl during a news conference at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., on December 11, 2019. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)

Florida coach Dan Mullen thinks it's a waste of energy to speculate on all the uncertainties surrounding college football in the COVID-19 era. Instead, he tries to focus on two things: What he knows and what he can control.

Mullen and the rest of the sport got more insight into both Wednesday when the NCAA's Division I Council approved an updated calendar geared toward having teams ready for Week 1 kickoffs on Sept. 5.

In light of Wednesday's news, here are three things we know (or think we know) and three things we don't know yet about the season:


What we know

- Summer workouts are different

Most teams have already started voluntary workouts. Under the plan approved Wednesday, mandatory workouts will run from July 13-23 with no major changes. The big shift is July 24-Aug. 6, when teams can add modified walk-throughs.

"To me," Mullen said, "that is really the opportunity for the players to prepare themselves mentally, get out there through walk-throughs, to start getting some muscle memory to prepare for the season ... "

Those adjusted workouts lead into four weeks of preseason camp starting Aug. 7.

- No major schedule changes have happened yet

The revised summer schedule was intended to get players mentally and physically ready for the sport's traditional kickoff on Labor Day weekend. Consider it a tangible sign that major college football is still planning for a normal season with no significant changes.

But there have already been adjustments elsewhere. The NAIA pushed back its opening weekend to Sept. 12 and shortened seasons from 11 games to nine. Last week, the NAIA's Mid-South Conference - which includes a handful of Florida schools - announced an updated schedule with reduced travel to trim expenses.

On Wednesday, the Southern Heritage Classic - an annual Division I-AA game in Memphis between Jackson State and Tennessee State - was canceled because of the pandemic.

And several major schools, including USF, plan to end in-person instruction before Thanksgiving, when teams play their regular-season finales.

- Positive tests are popping up and aren't expected to stop

USF announced its first two positive cases in the football program Wednesday. Florida State and UCF have already had them, too. The Texas site OrangeBloods reported Wednesday that six Longhorns have tested positive and that more than a dozen players are quarantined.

Although college-aged people aren't at the most risk for major complications from COVID-19, schools continue to try to limit the novel coronavirus' spread. Even programs that haven't been hit yet don't expect to stay that way.

"We're going to have positive cases to deal with," said Stacey Higgins, Florida's associate athletic director for sports health. "We are going to have to live with COVID, to be sure."


What we don't know

- Will fans be allowed to attend?

The feeling around the sport is that the answer will be yes, but that answer remains fluid. Texas stadiums aren't expected to exceed 50-percent capacity. The Gators plan to wait until early August to decide whether spectators can enter Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and, if so, how many. Even if stadiums are open to fans, the number could differ throughout a conference based on state, local and university guidelines. The role of other spectators - like marching bands - remains undecided, too.

- How will testing work during the season? And what happens if a player tests positive before a game?

UF officials said last week that they have discussed, but not yet finalized, how often they'll test players and staff once mandatory practices and games begin. Their decision might differ from Florida State or Georgia or USF.

There's also no consensus definition of a cluster and what major steps a program would have to take to ensure an outbreak does not get even worse. Houston shut down its voluntary workouts last week after six athletes tested positive. What would a school do under those circumstances in August? What about October? We don't know.

"There's been a thousand different scenarios that we as coaches have been trying to think through," USF coach Jeff Scott said last week.

"Just one scenario is, if one of your quarterbacks were to test positive for COVID and he's been sitting in a room with the other four quarterbacks, do all of them have to quarantine for 14 days? It may be a little harder to go practice and play a game without a quarterback."

- Will coaches wear masks on the sidelines?

All staff members at UF must wear masks, and coaches at Miami must have their faces covered when they're near players. Mullen didn't mind showing off his UF mask on a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday, but he hasn't given much thought to how, or if, he'll coach wearing one when formal workouts begin next month, let alone when the season begins.

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