In keeping with the weirdness that is 2020, here’s some offbeat news regarding Thursday’s college football game between Miami and UAB, the season’s first to showcase a Power Five program.
The Hurricanes’ turnover chain, a program staple since 2017, must be disinfected after each use.
Welcome to sports in a pandemic.
“It’s not a turnover mask,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said, “which would have made some sense this year.”
Darn little about 2020 makes sense, so as the Hurricanes and Blazers, from Birmingham, Ala., prepare for their 8 p.m., kickoff on the ACC Network, you wonder if results nationally also will defy convention. After all, the coronavirus derailed spring practices and offseason conditioning, and heaven knows what infections and subsequent contact tracing will do to game-day rosters.
Champions other than Clemson in the ACC and Oklahoma in the Big 12?
Hasn’t happened since 2014.
A season in which Alabama isn’t ranked No. 1 at some juncture?
Such blasphemy last transpired in 2007, Nick Saban’s first year leading the Crimson Tide.
Most anything is conceivable.
“I’ve never been anywhere where you’re planning practices by the minute,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. “We’re usually weeks out with [planning] what we want to do on the [practice] field. You can’t operate that way right now.”
Doeren speaks from experience. When COVID-19 cases and contact tracing sidelined much of his roster, N.C. State’s opener at Virginia Tech was delayed from Sept. 12 to Sept. 26.
“I think the contact tracing part of this has been, I don’t know if frustrating is the word, but the hardest part,” Doeren said, “because these kids want to be out there, and they’re being told they can’t, and they feel completely healthy and in some cases are. But that’s the safest thing for them, so we’re following CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and [ACC] medical advisory board suggestions.”
Sudden-change plays — think turnovers, sacks and long touchdowns — often decide football games. How many did you produce? How did you respond to your opponent’s?
That oversized impact was the genesis of the turnover chain, Miami’s sideline celebration of takeaways. Intercept a pass or recover a fumble, don the perfectly gaudy necklace and pose for the cameras.
Well, sudden change this season will also revolve around game-week adjustments mandated by the virus. How will teams respond when players and/or coaches are suddenly unavailable?
The ACC’s in-season protocol requires COVID testing three times per week, and Duke has doubled down on the minimum with daily testing for athletes in football, men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and volleyball.
The encouraging news to date is that the handful of football games staged have not caused infection spikes among the participating teams.
“I absolutely think that’s the case,” Diaz said. “But as we have told our players with every test, we are just earning the right to get to the next game. I think we have seen, around college ball, if you look at some of the testing numbers that are being released, that the guys can protect themselves pretty well and help keep the spread down.”
But enough about COVID spread. What about point spreads?
If the betting lines are accurate, the seven contests involving 11 ACC teams this week will produce negligible fourth-quarter tension. None of the spreads is single-digit, and the conference’s preseason top-25 squads — No. 1 Clemson, No. 10 Notre Dame and No. 18 North Carolina — are especially large favorites.
Vegas likes the Tigers by 33 at Wake Forest, the Fighting Irish by 19½ against visiting Duke, and the Tar Heels by 21 at home over Syracuse. Little wonder.
Clemson dominated Wake by a combined 115-6 in 2018 and ’19, and Notre Dame dusted Duke 38-7 last year.
Fans will not be permitted at UNC on Saturday, but Syracuse hasn’t defeated a top-25 opponent on the road since 2010.
Georgia Tech-Florida State is this week’s other conference game, and I’m curious to see new head coach Mike Norvell’s impact on a Seminoles offense that has underperformed in three consecutive seasons. Norvell went to FSU from Memphis, where the Tigers joined Ohio State and Oklahoma as the only teams to rank among the nation’s top 15 in scoring in each of the last four years.
That’s a credit to Norvell, his staff, their players and the talent Justin Fuente stockpiled at Memphis before he left for Virginia Tech in late 2015.
Norvell, Fuente, Diaz, indeed all the coaches and players I’ve encountered this offseason, have professed heightened gratitude for the chance to play this fall.
“This team, I think, has a deep, deep appreciation for the opportunity to play ball,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “the opportunity to practice, the opportunity to compete. ... These guys have literally fought for their season. They fought to play.”
Even if it means playing in front of no fans Saturday night at Wake Forest with piped-in music and crowd noise.
“They can pipe in Marvin Gaye or whatever they want,” Swinney said. “Crank it up.”