SEC navigates pandemic as season begins

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Fans enter one of the gates before the game between the Missouri Tigers and Tennessee Martin Skyhawks at Memorial Stadium in 2018.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey remembers how nice the weather was a week ago in Birmingham, Alabama.

It was the last weekend until Christmas without SEC football. Despite the sun being out and the ability to relax without a coat, he understood how a conference that’s had 10 national champions since 2006 got to this point.

The SEC is one of the six FBS football conferences to not cancel at any point despite mass postponements going on around college athletics, relying on the latest data from medical experts to dictate a decision.

There are still “hold your breath moments” for Sankey that involve the league’s mandated tri-weekly testing for all student-athletes and coaches.

But to simply be at a game day is encouraging, he said. Mizzou kicks off its season Saturday night at home against No. 2-ranked Alabama.

“We’re close to the starting line,” Sankey said. “And we define that by saying our focus is on naming an SEC champion this year and that resulted in a reconfigured schedule, going to conference-only, delaying so we can start campus residence life again and have some time for that impact to lesson. And also, to spread out the preparation phase with the idea that it would support the best opportunity to play for a championship.”

Sankey’s goal of consistently seeing seven league games several times the rest of the year is possible, when not too long ago the chances of a full season looked bleak.

However, the coronavirus infection data is still worrisome moving forward.

In most years, if the SEC had every team ranked in the top 25 the week before the football season began, it would be a cause for celebrating for a historic achievement.

This year, however, every state but one that hosts schools from the conference that produced last season's national champion is in a top 25 that is counted in sickness and death.

The SEC’s 11 states all fall in the middle or higher in COVID-19 infections and deaths per capita since Aug. 1, including the top seven spots for deaths in that period.

Only two (Missouri at No. 17 and Kentucky at No. 26) are outside the top 11 for deaths. This contrasts with where the conference’s states stood on Aug. 1, with only one (Louisiana) in the top 10 spots.

To start the month of August, when traditionally SEC football teams would open fall preseason camps, five schools were in the bottom half of COVID-19 death rates.

The flip in data is virtually reversed when looking at the 11 states with schools in the Big Ten Conference. No state has a school in both conferences, but several Big Ten and SEC states border each other (Missouri and Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, Ohio and Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois, etc.).

On Aug. 1, the Big Ten had six states in the top 15 of coronavirus-related deaths. One week later, league commissioner Kevin Warren postponed all fall sports to the spring, only reversing course on that decision last week.

That might be because Iowa is the only state in the Big Ten’s footprint to currently have a COVID-19 death rate in the top 20 in the country. A majority of the league’s states (eight of 11) rank between No. 28 to No. 38.

Since Aug. 1, almost 27 people per 100,000 living in SEC states have died from COVID-19, while only just 7.4 in every 100,000 have died in Big Ten states in that period.

To make sure the virus doesn’t spread inside Memorial Stadium, Missouri Associate Athletic Director Tony Wirkus said event staffing will be higher to enforce face covering rules for the 11,700 people (20% capacity) allowed to attend the game than it usually is for a full-capacity stadium during a non-pandemic season.

“We’ve been targeting this for a long time,” Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk said Thursday. “... Everything from start to finish will be different. They’re really trying to do it in a safe and respectable way for everyone, but still have a great event and expect a great game on Saturday.”

The number of fans in attendance could fluctuate based on coronavirus infection rates and medical advances.

The overall infection rates show a similar pattern, with SEC being in a better place than the Big Ten at the beginning of August, but with the roles have swapped.

Although nine of the 11 SEC schools ranked in the top 19 for infection per capita on Aug. 1, there were two major outlier states (Missouri at No. 38 and Kentucky at No. 42).

Data through Thursday shows each SEC state is in the top 22 of infection rates since Aug. 1, and every one but Kentucky in the top 15. Missouri has risen is No. 10 in that eight-week span.

The Big Ten Conference only had one school in the top 15 for infection rates per 100,000 people on Aug. 1 (New Jersey at No. 5). Since then, the home of Rutgers ranks No. 45 overall.

The Big Ten’s highest-ranking state sine Aug. 1 is Iowa at No. 7, with the rest outside of the top 15. Five of the league’s represented states are No. 35 or lower among infection rates.

The combined infection rate for SEC states since the pandemic began is 2,201 per 100,000 residents, with 1,046 cases per 100,000 occurring since Aug. 1. The Big Ten’s total case rate is 1,873 per 100,000, with 571 cases per 100,000 since Aug. 1.

Sterk complimented Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz and his staff for how they’ve navigated the pandemic.

“I think (he did) a really great job,” Sterk said. “He’s got a lot of great staff around him, some veterans, and he’s wise beyond his years and he understands that he understands people. It was a challenge to keep the players together in the spring and just when he was hired to retain the players and coaches that he did. That was important.

“So, it’s culminating now. We’re dealing with a lot of things beyond his control ... I can tell you that they’ll be excited to play and they’re working on it together.”