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LSU outside linebacker Andre Anthony (46) pushes back on Florida offensive lineman Martez Ivey (73) in the second half of the Gators' 27-19 win over the Tigers, Saturday, October 6, 2018, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.

The rivalry week began with a plea, a brash call for a packed crowd amid a global pandemic, and it ended, days later, when a coronavirus outbreak forced LSU and Florida to postpone their high-profile football game for a date two months down the line.

LSU's scheduled football game at Florida this Saturday has been rescheduled for Dec. 12 because of a spike of COVID-19 cases within the Gators football program, the Southeastern Conference announced Wednesday afternoon.

The news came a day after the University of Florida suspended all athletic activities when a series of daily tests revealed 21 football players and two assistant coaches tested positive for COVID-19.

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The postponement ended a brief and controversial saga that began Saturday, when Gators coach Dan Mullen told reporters after his team's 19-17 loss at Texas A&M that he hoped Florida administrators would "pack the Swamp" with Ben Hill Griffin Stadium's nearly 90,000-fan capacity.

Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin was among the school officials who walked back Mullen's comments, saying that although Gov. Ron DeSantis recently allowed full capacity in the state's sports facilities, the university would still follow health guidelines that limit crowds in close proximity.

Mullen apologized Wednesday for his initial comments, and he spoke confidently about the protocols SEC and school medical officials have implemented.

It's a confidence that has been shared across the league. In three weeks, the SEC had played all of its games without disruption. Its patient plan to delay the season to a Sept. 26 start date and play a 10-game, league-only season was running smoothly.

Since Saturday, the conference has been broadsided by a succession of troubling coronavirus-related developments: Two games have been postponed; Ole Miss is dealing with an outbreak; and Alabama coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne have both tested positive for COVID-19.

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On Monday, Vanderbilt-Missouri became the first SEC game to be postponed.

Vanderbilt, which played with just 56 players against South Carolina last weekend, had more players test positive or go into quarantine — enough to drag its roster total below the SEC's 53-player requirement and force the league to postpone its trip to Missouri to Dec. 12.

The same circumstance disrupted LSU's game at Florida.

Stricklin told reporters Wednesday that 18 scholarship players and three walk-ons tested positive for COVID-19, and the outbreak left the Gators football team with fewer than 50 scholarship players available.

Teams that don't meet the limit still have the option to play the game, pending approval by the league, but there are also requirements to have at least seven scholarship offensive linemen (including at least one center) available, as well as one quarterback and four defensive linemen.

Stricklin didn't identify which players contracted the virus, and he didn't provide a number for just how many extra team personnel will be in quarantine because of high-risk exposure.

Depending on how far the outbreak extends, Florida's game next week against Missouri could also be affected. 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.

Such a timeline envelopes both the LSU and Missouri game.

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The discovery process is still early at Florida, and Stricklin said the athletic department is still searching for answer on how the outbreak began.

Stricklin suspected the players and coaches might have contracted the virus during their road trip to Texas A&M last weekend, although contact tracing hasn't yet confirmed the theory.

Florida sports medicine staffers also told Stricklin that a few athletes came forward after the outbreak and said they experienced virus symptoms late last week. One player was congested. The other had a headache. Neither player disclosed their symptoms to the team's medical staff, Stricklin was told, because they assumed they just had allergy symptoms.

Such a neglect was against the school's protocol, and Stricklin said he didn't want to speculate why the athletes didn't come forward sooner. He said "it could be as simple as not understanding symptoms" and compared it to people who think they just have the sniffles.

"There's a sense of frustration," Stricklin said. "But we understand this virus can sneak up on you and you can have a spread in the bat of an eyelash."

LSU coach Ed Orgeron told reporters earlier Wednesday during the SEC's weekly teleconference that he wouldn't be surprised if the game were postponed.

"Obviously, 2020 is what we're dealing with," Orgeron said. "I really think that the safety of the kids is the primary focus this week. So, if it's safe for us to play, we're going to play. If the best thing is for us not to play, we shouldn't play."

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LSU had the bulk of its coronavirus cases during the offseason. During preseason camp, Orgeron said "most" of the players had caught the virus already. No players were hospitalized and every case showed mild symptoms.

In LSU's second week of preseason camp, all but four offensive linemen were in quarantine after they either tested positive for COVID-19 or were determined to have high-risk exposure.

The effect on the position group foreshadowed the practical football problem Vanderbilt and Florida are now facing: Without enough personnel, a unit can't properly function, and a team must postpone its game.

“It’s very difficult," Orgeron said Wednesday. "And then you don’t know how many more players are going to get tested during the week. You have an outbreak like that, usually two or three more guys may be getting tested for it during the week, and you’ve got to look at all the guys under quarantine, so it makes it very difficult."

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Saturday's game veered toward postponement when Florida's testing numbers increased daily from Sunday to Tuesday, Stricklin said, and the university "reached a point where we don't think it's appropriate that we try to play the game this weekend."

Florida's team activities have been suspended "indefinitely," Stricklin said, and he did not offer a timeline for when they might resume.

Stricklin said he has been in contact with the SEC, as well as officials from Texas A&M and LSU.

LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said in a statement Wednesday "we are in full support" of the decision to postpone.

"It is disappointing for everyone, but prudent," Woodward said. "We wish all those at Florida who may be impacted the very best."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.