COLUMBUS — Ohio State officials are unsure when the team can practice again, let alone play next week at Michigan State, after an outbreak of COVID-19 put the No. 3 Buckeyes’ Big Ten title hopes in danger.
“I have no clue what this afternoon or tomorrow will bring or next week will bring,” athletic director Gene Smith said Saturday.
Three more college football games across the country were canceled or postponed Saturday, including Florida State hosting Virginia. For the second straight week, the Seminoles had their home game called off hours before kickoff and after their opponent had already traveled to Tallahassee, Florida.
Last week the issue was Clemson and Florida State not agreeing on whether the game should be played after a Tigers player who was positive for COVID-19 traveled with the team to Florida.
This week, one positive test for a Florida State player returned Saturday morning led to contact tracing that left the Seminoles with only 44 scholarship players.
“We deeply regret that many Florida State and Virginia fans have already traveled to the game as well as Virginia’s team,” Florida State athletic director David Coburn said. “We simply had no way of knowing we would not be playing until this morning. We made every effort to play, but we could not do so in a way that was safe for the players.”
Ohio State canceled its Saturday game at Illinois on Friday night. Across college football, 19 of the 58 games originally scheduled for this week were called off because of COVID-19 issues. Also called on Saturday morning was San Jose State at Boise State, a key matchup in the Mountain West. Boise State said it was pausing all football activities.
Before the day was over the first postponement of next week was announced. Miami at Wake Forest won’t be played Dec. 5 as the Demon Deacons deal with COVID-19 cases. That ACC game had already been pushed back because of Miami’s outbreak.
The Buckeyes’ disruption could be the most significant, impacting the Big Ten and national championship race.
If Ohio State (4-0) cannot play its final two regular-season games it would likely not reach the minimum number (six) required to be eligible for the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes had an earlier game canceled because of a COVID outbreak at Maryland.
This time Ohio State has the outbreak. According to Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s team physician, the program had virtually no positive tests this season until Wednesday’s testing.
Borchers said the percentage of positive individuals among Ohio State players and staff hit one of the Big Ten’s warning “guideposts” on Friday night, leading officials to cancel Saturday’s game at Illinois.
Borchers said that benchmark was 7.5% of the 170 individuals deemed Tier 1 in the program, including players, coaches and staff. That means at least 13 people in the Buckeyes camp tested positive, although Borchers declined to provide specific numbers.
One of the positive tests was coach Ryan Day, who wouldn’t have been on the sideline even if the team had gone to Champaign, Illinois.
Day, his voice slightly raspy, participated in a Zoom call with the reporters Saturday and said: “I’m resting comfortably, but I have an extremely heavy heart.”
Players who test positive have a 10-day isolation period followed by a 10-day return-to-activity period under Big Ten protocols, Borchers said. So while Day might be able to return for the Buckeyes next week at Michigan State, the players who have tested positive will miss at least one more game — if the game is played at all.
Ohio State’s final regular-season game is Dec. 12 vs. Michigan and the Buckeyes could play another on Dec. 19 even if they are not eligible for the Big Ten title game.
The College Football Playoff has no minimum number of games required to be eligible for selection.
Ohio State has paused all football activities. Day said if the team could get back on the field by Thursday it might be able to play next Saturday.
Borchers said the Big Ten benchmark that would have forced a seven-day shutdown -- 5% positives of all tests administered -- was not reached, so the decision to cancel Saturday’s game was made by Ohio State and was not forced. The positive tests were spread out among players and staff, with no identifiable clusters, he said.
“What we’re seeing in our case is kind of a community type of spread,” Smith said. “We didn’t see spikes in specific areas. Could we have played? Sure? Was it the right thing to play? No.”
Day said as the positive cases started to show on Wednesday, the team adjusted its practice schedule, meeting virtually, no helmets or hitting on the field, everyone masked up. They’d already decided to fly to Illinois on Saturday morning instead of Friday.
“It wasn’t until (Friday) when we did testing, and with enhanced testing that it got to a point where it became very clear that we needed to pause,” Borchers said of the late decision to cancel the game. “Unfortunately, this wasn’t a decision we could early in the week. This was not a decision from my standpoint that could be made until (Friday).”
The program will keep testing daily and no one can say when the team might be able to take the field again, if at all.
“We certainly have looked at data and looked at what’s happened with other teams,” Borchers said. “To try to forecast what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone for this next week, I can’t do that.”
Smith said there have been no conversations in the Big Ten about adjusting its minimum games requirement. The minimum could drop below six, but almost all of the 14 Big Ten games scheduled over the next two weekends would have to be canceled.
Smith said Saturday that was the last thing on his mind.
“The tactics and strategies we will put in place today, tomorrow and the next day is all with effort to ensure their safety and possibly give them a chance to compete next weekend,” he said. “It’s not about the Big Ten championship game, it’s not about the CFP. It’s not about those things. It’s not about how many games we have to play. It’s about one thing: Their health, their safety, and making sure each day we give them a chance to possibly play next weekend.”