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The stadium is quiet before the Tigers' home opener against Mississippi State during the coronavirus pandemic, Saturday, September 26, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

Greg Sankey saved a presentation slide from an athletic directors meeting in mid-July. This week, the Southeastern Conference commissioner felt it timely to recall.

Its message: Once the football season begins, we will encounter circumstances we cannot currently imagine.

All of the planning, all of the protocols, all of the delayed practice and regular season dates, all of the scheduling hoops hurdled to ensure postponement possibilities — all of the efforts and thinking the league's leaders combined still could not fully prepare for an unpredictable and sneaky virus that borders the omnipresent.

The insuppressible and mysterious nature of COVID-19 was enough to postpone the season entirely, some medical experts said in the summer, and the majority of college football's smaller conferences put off their seasons to the spring because they didn't have the will or the resources to play sports in a pandemic.

The SEC was among the six FBS conferences which moved forward, accepting the risks involved with a virus that has infected eight million Americans and killed over 200,000. Only two tenths of a percent of the deaths have been people aged 15-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this low percentage was among the factors that made the risk reasonable among league members, although the virus' long-term effects are still not fully known.

So the SEC and the others proceeded, implementing a litany of precautions to mitigate large outbreaks.

Mask mandates. Thrice weekly testing. Frequent facility sanitation and constant medical checkups with team doctors. An extra bye week ahead of the SEC championship game to move regular season games if they needed to be postponed.

The SEC was prepared for positive infections within their teams, and, when its delayed and shortened league-only season began without disruption for three weeks, Sankey told ESPN's Paul Finebaum on Wednesday it was "a pleasant surprise."

While the league's season ran smoothly, the other major conferences, which had previously postponed their seasons, announced they'd be returning this fall: the Big Ten and Mountain West on Oct. 24; the Mid-American on Nov. 4; the Pac-12 on Nov. 6.

Pundits applauded Sankey's prudent foresight, and a confidence grew widely enough that, last week, Florida coach Dan Mullen requested school administrators "pack the Swamp" with Ben Hill Griffin Stadium's nearly 90,000-fan capacity.

It was then the SEC began encountering the circumstances it could not have imagined. In a dizzying and turbulent week, the league was hit in the teeth by a succession of troubling coronavirus-related developments.

Missouri-Vanderbilt and Florida-LSU were both postponed to Dec. 12 due to COVID-19 spikes within the Vanderbilt and Florida programs. Ole Miss announced it was experiencing its first in-season outbreak.

"While we're surprised by what happens, we're not surprised," Sankey told Finebaum, "and that's part of preparation and conversation. But we all have work to do to stay healthy and pull off a season in a positive way."

The SEC has now reached a critical juncture, the initial breach of its contingency plan, and it is now trying to navigate forward.

Other college football conferences have already experienced similar breaches.

In total, there have now been at least 32 FBS games either postponed or canceled due to coronavirus outbreaks. The University of Houston was among the schools with multiple disruptions; the school had four games either pushed back or outright canceled before they finally began their season with a 49-31 win over Tulane on Oct. 8.

Including the 68-year-old Saban, seven FBS head coaches have tested positive for the coronavirus — a few of them in higher-risk age groups: Arizona's Kevin Sumlin (56), Arkansas State's Blake Anderson (51), Florida State's Mike Norvell (39), Kansas' Les Miles (66), Toledo's Jason Candle (40), UCLA's Chip Kelly (56).

Nearly all of the coaches experienced mild symptoms. Anderson had a 10-day fever in September. Saban told reporters Wednesday that "I feel fine" and is "not very concerned" about what has to this point been an asymptomatic experience.

Saban said his biggest concern is that once teams start leaving their facilities for road games, the circumstances become much more difficult to control.

"When we're in our own personal bubble here, I think everybody's in a much safer place," Saban said. "I think as soon as you travel, you get exposed to a lot more things and a lot more people, if that makes any sense. Even though I've worn a mask on the sidelines, I wear a mask all the time in the hotels, on the bus, in the plane... nobody really knows, you know, how this occurs."

College football could not operate in one isolated bubble, like the NBA constructed in Orlando, Florida, where, from July until October, the professional basketball league did not experience a single reported case of COVID-19.

The SEC's circumstance is more like what the Miami Marlins experienced in the summer, when, for eight days, the team sat in limbo on the road after 18 players and two coaches tested positive after their season-opening series in Philadelphia.

Even then, baseball is a non-contact sport, and MLB players are professionals that don't spend time taking classes on college campuses. The expanded variables college football presents makes finding the source of an outbreak more difficult, and sometimes programs are only left with theories as to where it all began.

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin also identified travel as a potential problem. He said for the 11 weeks the Gators prepared for the season, from the summer until September, the athletic department only had had 10 positive cases.

Florida's outbreak last week, which included 21 players and two assistant coaches, followed the team's road trip to Texas A&M.

"The travel situation, I think, is going to get a really close review," Stricklin told reporters Wednesday. "I think there's been some NFL teams who have had issues with that very thing. There's no secret that's the one part of playing sports that's a little more complicated."

Indeed, several NFL teams have dealt with positive cases. The Tennessee Titans experienced the largest outbreak after its road game at the Minnesota Vikings, and the franchise had to postpone two of its games this month.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean at Emory University's School of Medicine, said travel introduces problematic situations. Particularly placing people in small, cramped spaces with little ventilation: buses and planes. Then there's hotel stays and environments where there's less control than if the program were within its own facilities.

"We're all trying to do the best we can," said Del Rio, who is a member of the NCAA's COVID-19 advisory panel, "but the best is not necessarily possible all the time."

Del Rio said in August that communities should have fewer than 10 new daily cases per 100,000 population and a testing positivity rate of less than 10%, although those specifics aren't part of any NCAA mandate.

Such rates would show that there is a low enough virus transmission in the community to safely proceed with multiple activities, including contact sports. As of Friday, only East Baton Rouge Parish met both benchmarks.

Sankey recently sent a memo to the SEC's members to tighten up behavior, saying there will be fines for not following the league's COVID-19 protocols. According to ESPN, multiple SEC schools will be fined $100,000 for lapses last week. For every week a school doesn't follow the protocols, the report said, the school's conference revenue will be cut $100,000.

Both of Florida's and Vanderbilt's outbreaks dropped their rosters below the SEC's 53-scholarship player limit, and Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason told reporters Wednesday that, although there have been outbreaks, "I don't think anybody owes anyone an apology" because "we're dealing with times that nobody's ever seen or had to go through before."

"We are playing football in a pandemic," Mason said, and after each round of testing on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, "everybody's holding their breath. Everybody across the conference."

Florida’s Stricklin is still holding his breath. As of Wednesday, the Gators still did not have contact tracing data available that would reveal just how many team members will have to quarantine because of high-risk exposure to the nearly two dozen people who tested positive. According to SEC policy, players who test positive must isolate for at least 10 days and those who have high-risk exposure must quarantine for 14 days.

Florida’s game next week against Missouri also was postponed. To avoid giving Missouri an unplanned two-week break, the SEC moved the Tigers’ home game against Kentucky from Oct. 31 up a week, then tentatively scheduled Florida-Missouri for Oct. 31.

“We have no control over what’s happening down in Florida and wish them the best,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said Wednesday, “and whatever the SEC deems is the next step for all of us is what we’ll adhere to.”

The SEC has nearly reached the halfway point of its season. Nine weeks still remain for the conference to rebound from its first coronavirus setback, before the league is scheduled to play its title game on Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Testing won't solve the problem," Sankey said. "Hygiene won't solve the problem. Social distancing, alone, won't solve the problem. Wearing masks. All of that together is intended to put us in the best position to be health as we move forward, and that will give us satisfaction if we can accomplish that goal in a big way."


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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.