SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $49 for one year. Save 59%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $49 for one year. Save 59%.

Rob Oller | COVID-19 remains continuing threat for Ohio State football team

Rob Oller
roller@dispatch.com
DISPATCH MUG headshot Rob Oller

Never mind how a native New Englander got hooked on country music. The bigger question is how Ryan Day is going to execute the second half of his Texas two-step.

Step one — a move we will call The Bullhorn — proved wildly successful. Loud and proud describes how Day and his Ohio State coaching staff got the point across to the Big Ten that not having fall football would be like Blake Shelton singing “Welcome to the Jungle.” Just wrong.

Day and his lieutenants, including suddenly protest-woke recruiting coordinator Mark Pantoni and his ubiquitous exclamation points on Twitter (!!!!), flooded social media with much passive-aggressive lament over the past five weeks.

Yes, the messaging changed a bit, from initially just wanting “our guys” to be able to participate in games to eventually pressing for them to fulfill their destiny of competing for a national championship. But the core missive was always, “Let’s play football (!!!!) safely … as possible.”

Buckeye Nation loved the strategic push-back. Conference suits undoubtedly hated it. In the end, the protest noise merged with updated medical information and TV dollars to convince Big Ten presidents and chancellors to vote unanimously — in Big Ten parlance that means 14-0, or maybe 12-2 or 10-4; it’s squishy — to bring back football.

Getting Saturday ball back on the Google calendar was the easy part. Step two — we’ll call it The Bubble Wrap — may prove more difficult. The Buckeyes must navigate the pandemic nearly flawlessly to have a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff. That is, if there is a playoff, which is no certainty.

COVID-19 continues to call the shots, and given current virus case counts among teams, there remains the likelihood the season will sputter along with games getting canceled and players dropping in and out of commission.

The NCAA schedule tracker already resembles Gen Z flake-out culture. Charlotte at the last minute canceled Saturday’s game against North Carolina. Other postponements and suspensions are sure to continue as student-athletes — can we dispense with the charade and begin calling football and basketball players athlete-students? — engage in social non-distancing.

Colleen Kraft, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, told USA TODAY that it’s “really hard’’ to see a strategy for the Big Ten to move forward with a fall season because of the high case rate on college campuses.

How will Day deal with all the variances as his “once-in-a-lifetime team” embarks on the Hunt for a Not-So-Red October? (Not to get too deep into the weeds, but the Big Ten’s COVID-19 safety testing system will color-code the team’s health population as good-to-go green, uh-oh orange and recuse-yourself-to-quarantine red.)

What happens if/when an Ohio State starter contracts COVID-19 and must quarantine for three weeks? The Big Ten protocol calls for daily testing, and any player who tests positive will sit out at least 21 days, and even then can return only upon approval of a cardiologist.

Ohio State fans will want to see quarterback Justin Fields outfitted in bubble wrap and isolated from all civilization to guard against testing positive the week of, say, the Penn State game. Speaking of which, the Buckeyes playing a whiteout game in Happy Valley without fans would make Day valley, valley happy.

Fields is fully aware of the need to stay safe by wearing a mask and social distancing.

“This is a small sacrifice, not going to parties or hanging out with people,” Fields said Friday. “A small sacrifice for a bigger reward. The COVID protocol, if you test positive you’re out for at least 21 days; that’s three games right there. You might as well sit the rest of the season out.”

Germane to the bigger discussion of season legitimacy — to asterisk or not to asterisk? — how will the College Football Playoff committee handle voting as teams play different numbers of games in stadiums that have some/few/no fans and with the virus messing with depth charts?

The Big Ten is slated for nine conference games but doesn’t begin until Oct. 23-24. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12, with 11 and 10 games, respectively, are underway. The Southeastern Conference kicks off its 10-game schedule Sept. 26. The Pac-12 may or may not begin in late October.

Fields said the number of games is not as important as what happens in those games.

“If we handle business like we’re supposed to on the field, everything will take care of itself,” he said.

Off the field, the Buckeyes must bubble the best they can and hope the ’rona doesn’t wipe out a season that was just brought back from the brink. Oh, and win all nine games.

“With a limited amount of games, we have less room for error in trying to make the playoff,” Fields said.

It’s going to be a wild ride. Buckle up. And wear a mask at your viewing party.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD