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SEC vows to push ahead amid messy week: 'There’s always going to be potential for disruption'

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

Nick Saban appeared on a Zoom call on Wednesday evening, and the face of the SEC proclaimed good health after his positive COVID-19 test.

Saban, who turns 69 later this month, said he felt fine and would be researching ways he can help coach No. 2 Alabama from afar in its game with No. 3 Georgia on Saturday night.

“I’m not really that concerned much about my health,” Saban said.

Saban’s positive COVID-19 test and inevitable absence from the Georgia game on Saturday continued a messy week for the SEC.

With two games postponed this weekend and at least one likely to be next week, the SEC is in flux. Also on Wednesday, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin revealed that his team is dealing with a significant virus outbreak.

The message from Saban’s Zoom on Wednesday night was clear: He’s going to attempt to coach virtually with the same vigor he coaches on the field. “I didn’t see anything different about practice,” he said, noting he could actually see more.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey echoed that sentiment in an interview with Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night. When asked about the league’s messy week, Sankey clarified that it was the “first messy week.” Through three weeks, there’d been no SEC games canceled.

“Our testing plan has been effective,” Sankey said. “In this environment, there’s always going to be the potential for disruption. We’ve seen it in other leagues, now we’re experiencing it for the first time.”

OXFORD, MS - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide signals a touchdown against the Ole Miss Rebels at Vaught Hemingway Stadium on October 10, 2020 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, pictured signaling a touchdown against Ole Miss on Oct. 10, won't be on the sideline Saturday against Georgia. (Photo by Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

When asked if the SEC would consider changing testing policies to the daily rapid testing that the Pac-12 and Big Ten are using, Sankey pointed out that that system has been criticized and pointed to Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades’ recent concerns about false negatives.

“I think we looked at the big picture from the beginning and the potential for disruption and the movement of our season,” Sankey said.

The news broke earlier Wednesday that Florida’s game with LSU on Saturday got postponed. This was expected after an outbreak of more than 20 Florida players. A source told Yahoo Sports that the cancellation of Florida’s game next week with Missouri is considered an inevitability, although the announcement may not come for a few days. That would potentially mean two straight missed weeks for Missouri, as the Tigers’ game with Vanderbilt was canceled earlier this week.

Of the 29 games that have been postponed around college football since Aug. 26, two are from the SEC. (A number likely to rise to three.)

The SEC waited until late September to start play to endure the inevitable spikes that accompanied students returning to campus. While the sport flailed, the SEC held its cards and appeared to exhibit patience.

And while the league executed three weeks with minimal disruption, it has now found itself dueling with the NFL for headlines regarding outbreaks, marquee names testing positive and a game schedule that’s toppled over like a Jenga tower.

When college presidents expressed hesitancy to play football this season, they didn’t want to become the Miami Marlins. The Marlins, of course, were the poster child for the MLB’s early COVID-19 issues. When they initially had problems, MLB felt pressure to shut the season down. But it soldiered on.

Adjustments were made. Lessons were learned. And teams and franchises got comfortable being uncomfortable. The SEC is now officially uncomfortable.

“I haven’t been comfortable since March 9,” Sankey said on Wednesday night. “That was the Monday of our men’s basketball tournament.”

On Saturday, in the league’s marquee moment in the regular season’s signature game, COVID-19 will be the co-star. The vacancies on the schedule and Saban missing from the sideline will be the biggest story looming over the weekend. (Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne also tested positive, but Saban indicated no players have.)

To Saban’s credit, he has been one of the sport’s biggest advocates for mask wearing and pandemic responsibility. He even filmed a video in May with Alabama’s mascot, Big Al, where he scolds the elephant for not wearing a mask.

Saban’s talking points on Wednesday would have all been CDC-approved. He mentioned social distancing, mask wearing and said: “Assume that everyone you come in contact with may be infected.”

He added that his biggest concern was for his family. “I’m pretty isolated in terms of what I do,” he said. “I’m hoping none of them have a problem with this.”

In all likelihood, Saban will be watching Alabama’s game with Georgia from home on Saturday. If the experience of FSU coach Mike Norvell is parallel, Saban won’t be able to be in contact with any Alabama coaches during the game.

The strange sight of Alabama playing without Saban on the sideline is going to be just another of the bizarre moments this year. And it’s another twist in a rough week in the SEC.

“You don’t have the kind of control perhaps that one would want,” Sankey said. “That’s reality in a COVID-19 environment. We all have to acknowledge that as the current normal. Nothing is linear. We’ll keep our attention on doing the best possible work and adjusting when issues arise.”

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