How COVID-19 could impact SEC football title race through quarantines, quiet stadiums
Who will rise to the top of the SEC football standings by how they cope with COVID-19?
Just like home-field advantage, weather and turnover margin, the impact of the pandemic on each team could determine key games and the SEC title race. Here are just a few factors related to COVID-19 to keep an eye on as the SEC season kicks off Sept. 26:
Will home-field advantage even be a factor?
Every SEC school except Kentucky and Vanderbilt has announced its attendance guidelines, ranging from 20% to 25% capacity for home games. It could take the bite out of some valuable home venues around the conference.
COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS:How SEC football teams are handling stadium policies
Is The Swamp at Florida as intimidating with only 17,000 fans in it? LSU is hard to beat at night at Tiger Stadium, but does that hold true with one-fourth of the stands full? The Vols can be sparked by a packed house of 102,455 at Neyland Stadium, but that number will be closer to 25,000 this season?
Who loses their quarterback because of COVID-19?
One quarterback is already off the table. Georgia’s Jamie Newman, a Wake Forest graduate transfer, said he opted out of the season because of “uncertainties of this year amid a global pandemic” and to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. It takes away an accomplished quarterback from a national title contender and led ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit to change his SEC East pick from Georgia to Florida.
COVID-19 TRACKER:Which SEC football players opt out, test positive
Other quarterbacks could be affected during a 10-game season. Tennessee’s Harrison Bailey and Vanderbilt’s Danny Clark and Jeremy Moussa already have missed practices because of COVID-19 infections or contract tracing. And that’s only the absences that have been reported.
The SEC already will start the season with a relatively shallow crop of proven quarterbacks, led by Florida’s Kyle Trask, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Auburn’s Bo Nix. If any quarterback is quarantined during a game week, it could alter an outcome and the standings.
Which team is affected most by players opting out?
At least 21 SEC players have opted out of the season, and more could be known once regular-season depth charts are released for Week 1. Ja’Marr Chase, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, is the most notable on the list, but three LSU teammates also opted out. It will make it difficult for the Tigers to defend their national title, which already was a tough task.
Vanderbilt leads the conference with five players opting out, including four offensive linemen. Three players from Auburn’s defense opted out. Perhaps neither team was going to win a division title, but those absences could swing the outcome of impactful games.
It’s hard to see the Commodores upsetting an East team with a makeshift offensive line. And a depleted defensive depth chart could prevent Auburn from beating Alabama again in the Iron Bowl, which might impact the West race.
Which freshmen are ready to contribute in a free season?
The NCAA granted a free year of eligibility for athletes in fall sports. That means each football player now gets six years to play five seasons, so there’s no need for freshmen to sit out this season for redshirt purposes. Everyone can play, and they all might be needed if COVID-19 trims rosters for some games.
SEC POWER RANKINGS:Will traditional powers rise to top in conference-only schedule?
That unique circumstance gives an edge to teams with game-ready freshmen. Most linemen take a redshirt year to develop size and strength, but the physically mature ones could have an impact this season. And freshmen could have a higher value on special teams if depth charts are depleted, so look for key plays in that area determining close games.
Whose coaching changes came at a bad time?
Arkansas’ Sam Pittman, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin are new head coaches in the SEC. Probably none of those teams would’ve kept their former coach if they knew a pandemic was coming, but the transition has been harder because of it.
Spring practices were limited or never began. Offseason in-person meetings were prohibited for a few months. And it’s difficult to build a rapport among players and new coaches with social distancing.
It’s a similar hindrance for new coordinators, who would’ve had a full spring practice to install a scheme and playbook. Instead, they mostly did so through Zoom calls and other technology. There are 14 new coordinators or combinations of play-callers in the SEC. They each had to alter play-book installations because of the pandemic, which could show during the season.
Who will lose a key player before a big game?
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said a team probably could lose about 30 scholarship players to COVID-19 quarantines and still play a game with a 55-man roster. If so, it might take a large outbreak to cancel or postpone a game – that is, unless the infections come at the same position. But losing one key player right before a game could have a big impact.
SEC FOOTBALL SCHEDULE:Week-by-week games with kickoff times and TV information
The SEC requires three COVID-19 tests during game weeks for each player. Generally, that means taking a test early in the week and in the middle of the week and then a rapid diagnostic test near game day.
Teams are accustomed to playing without key players because of injuries, but they often have ample time to prepare and some anticipation of the player’s unavailability. Imagine adjusting to a positive COVID-19 test without warning of a star player before Alabama-LSU, Georgia-Florida or similar games.
What if a coach is quarantined before a game?
Just considering their age, coaches are at a greater risk of COVID-19 effects than most players. But even asymptomatic cases or contact tracing could take a coach off the sideline or out of the coaches’ booth for a game.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said he is taking the “designated survivor” approach with his staff meetings. Coaches are separated to prevent an infection of a large swath of the staff.
But even one key coach could swing a game. The absence of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen, Ed Orgeron or others would have a psychological effect on their team. And changing a play-caller at the last moment would be challenging. Graduate assistants and quality control analysts never have been so valuable.
How has COVID-19 already impacted this season?
Tennessee had 44 players out and postponed a scrimmage. Ole Miss had 27 players in quarantine. Auburn and Vanderbilt paused practice because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests. Other SEC teams also might have canceled practices because of COVID-19, but that news has been easier to contain with reporters mostly barred from attending practices.
It might seem like a small factor. But coaches often talk about the importance of each rep in deciding position battles and configuring the depth chart. Practice time missed now could have a lasting effect later.
Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.