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The College Football Qualifier Additional Variable: Omicron

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No team has beaten the regular season like Georgia. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a game before the SEC Championship, secured a berth in the college football playoffs, and have a shot at winning the program’s first domestic championship since 1980.

But while Georgia has not been beaten on the court, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has made troubling gains against the Bulldogs. At least two players have tested positive for Covid this week and dozens of other teammates, most of them Georgia quarterbacks, have been sent in contact tracing protocols.

This makes idling the last week of December the most critical part of the season for any playoff team. How Georgia, Michigan, Alabama and Cincinnati spend next week will be as important in determining the national champion as what happens on the field.

“We’re going to do our best, but as we prepare for the next two weeks we should expect infections,” said Dr Katie O’Neal, assistant professor of medicine at LSU who chairs the task force. medical from the Southeastern Conference. . “Everyone is going to see this virus. It’s too contagious not to expect to see cases.

Avoiding an easily transmissible variant of Covid-19 would be difficult at any time of the year, let alone in December, when the normally routine cadence of the college football calendar begins to unravel during final exam periods and holidays. Unlike professional leagues, there are no uniform health protocols in college football and schools operate under the guidelines they devised months ago in a very different coronavirus landscape.

“The onset of power surges is almost always linked to a disruption in our routine, whether it’s coming home, Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas,†O’Neal said.

Complicating matters is that the organizers of the semi-final games – the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla. – leave it up to participating schools to determine the diets. test. Currently, none of the playoff contenders are requiring Covid testing for players, unless they are unvaccinated, symptomatic, or have been identified by contract tracing as having close exposure.

“Everyone suffers from covid fatigue. Sometimes when you’ve been successful, it’s natural for all of us to let our guard down, â€said Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State Football Physician, who also helps guide the Big’s Covid protocols. Ten Conference since the early days of the pandemic. “Institutions around the world are examining… what should we become more vigilant about as Omicron emerges. “

But with so much still unknown about the new variant, each of the four schools playing in the semi-finals on December 31 opted for slightly different health protocols. Michigan is keeping its athletes in Ann Arbor for Christmas to mitigate the risk, while the other three have let the players go home to their families for the holidays. It is not known whether Alabama, Cincinnati and Georgia will require athletes to test negative before joining the team for organized activities.

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said this week his squad were “90% stronger”.


Photo:

Jason Getz / USA TODAY Sports

Vaccination rates among the four teams are extremely high – above 98% – but the pressures for booster shots have been patchy and late. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said this week his squad was “90% strengthened,” while the sports departments of Georgia and Michigan held clinics this week to strengthen their football teams. Cincinnati did not comment on the percentage of the football team that received a recall.

If any of the teams playing in the semifinals have experience navigating high-pressure games in the midst of a pandemic, it’s Alabama. Saban’s side won it all last January after a 2020 regular season that was anything but ordinary. Even though vaccines were not yet widely available last December, Saban said he “didn’t have the heart” to keep his players on campus for Christmas.

One of the main reasons he felt comfortable sending 18- and 20-year-olds to states all the way to New Jersey and California last season was the discipline they had shown over the years. three months prior to the 2020 regular season. Although Alabama postponed a few games, the disruption was never due to outbreaks in the locker room at Crimson Tide.

In 2021, everyone in the Alabama program began wearing masks in indoor facilities more regularly in December as the flu and a stomach bug plagued the locker rooms. This week, Covid has come too: Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Doug Marrone have tested positive.

Saban will let his team go home for the holidays despite the push. Players who live close to the Tuscaloosa campus will return over Christmas and fly to Dallas the next day, while those traveling to the West Coast will have the opportunity to meet the team in Texas.

O’Neal said the risks of such trips across the country could be mitigated if players are tested before training resumes. The SEC, however, leaves each of its 14 members to decide whether to require athletes returning from winter vacation to be tested before they re-enter.

Georgia are also giving their players a brief hiatus during the holidays. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart also encouraged his players, who he says have over 90% vaccination rates, to wear masks indoors and stay away from crowded gatherings.

“We ask the guys who are not to be extremely careful. We took some precautions around the building and to be smart, â€said Smart.

Nonetheless, Georgia could be at the start of an epidemic. Local outlets reported that star wide receiver George Pickens tested positive for Covid on Tuesday alongside quarterback JT Daniels, sometimes leaving. The rest of the Bulldogs’ quarters have been quarantined as close contacts, per SEC protocols.

Cincinnati, who will face Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, are following similar guidelines and will allow players to return home for Christmas. A spokesperson for the university said on Tuesday that the soccer team “continues to monitor the situation closely and will adjust our protocols if necessary.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh celebrates during the Big Ten Championship game.


Photo:

Kirthmon Dozier / Zuma Press

Michigan, Georgia’s Orange Bowl opponent, has taken a tougher approach. As of Wednesday, the team had not reported any cases of Covid, and a team spokesperson said Michigan was following Washtenaw University and County guidelines, which require students to wear face masks. indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. Additionally, every player on the soccer team received a booster shot this week following an email from university president Mark Schlissel last Friday stating that all students, faculty and staff would be required to receive a booster injection before February 4 or as soon as they are eligible thereafter. .

Michigan is one of the first universities to deploy a campus recall warrant, as memories of a nasty campus-wide outbreak in late January loom. The entire Wolverines sports department was shut down for two weeks after a returning UK water polo player tested positive with the more virulent UK strain B.1.1.7 and cases of ‘Ann Arbor rose.

Given how easier it is to pass on the Omicron variant, health experts have said something similar could happen in 2022, even with vaccines and boosters as mitigating factors.

“There’s no guaranteed way to avoid this,†O’Neal said. “We shouldn’t be comfortable right now. It’s going to be a really tough winter season. “

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, left, is set to face Alabama and Nick Saban in the Cotton Bowl.


Photo:

Jeff Dean / Associate press

Write to Laine Higgins at [email protected]

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