ATLANTA — For the first three weeks of its college football season, the Southeastern Conference and its powerhouse teams like Florida and Alabama dodged the worst of the problems that other leagues and schools had confronted while playing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Then came this week: swells of virus cases and contact traces in at least three football programs, the postponements of two games and the hasty isolation of college football’s most renowned coach, Nick Saban of Alabama, after he tested positive for the virus before the season’s most anticipated showdown, his second-ranked Crimson Tide’s Saturday night matchup against No. 3 Georgia.
More than a month of college football games in leagues across the country has shown the fickle and treacherous reality of playing during a pandemic. No week has unfolded as planned, and as of Thursday night, 31 games involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams had been postponed or canceled for virus-related reasons since late August. Hundreds of players, coaches and staff members nationwide have tested positive for the virus in recent months.
“We’ve just got to take it week by week,” said Derek Mason, the Vanderbilt coach, whose SEC game this Saturday against Missouri was postponed until Dec. 12 because his team would not have enough scholarship players available. “There is no monthly plan. You’ve got to go week by week, day by day.”
Football has sometimes struggled, at both the collegiate and professional levels, to limit the spread of the virus, in part because its leaders eschewed a restrictive environment like the ones that the W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. relied on to preserve their seasons. So-called bubbles were deemed unrealistic, leaving large football teams vulnerable to outbreaks seeded by regular travel and, among college programs, by homes on campuses that were sometimes hot spots for infections.
On Thursday, just days after the N.F.L. rescheduled several games because of new virus cases, the Atlanta Falcons moved to virtual operations because of a positive test, another sign of how the pandemic has disrupted the professional season and forced teams to adjust rapidly.
College football is even more sprawling than the N.F.L., with athletes who are unpaid beyond the cost of attendance and who lack the bargaining power of a players’ union to negotiate how the season and health protocols operate. The sport’s largely decentralized governance has left each conference to craft its own plans during the pandemic.
College sports administrators for months anticipated “bumpy spots,” as Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, put it in August, and they note that most games have happened as scheduled. So there is little sense — at least for the moment — that the season is nearing collapse, particularly as the Big Ten plans to start next week and the Pac-12 plans to begin games by early November.
“Until we have a vaccine, there’s going to be a sense of fluidity,” said Heather Lyke, the athletic director at Pittsburgh, which is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But she also said she was “more confident than I was at the very beginning of the season” that the A.C.C. title game would be played in December.
Still, the week’s succession of crises inside the SEC, home to 10 of the last 15 national champions, amounted to “the first time in a while that college football at least paused to think about something in relation to Covid,” said Paul Finebaum, an ESPN commentator who has covered the league for decades.
“It’s an illustration of the uncertainty of what we’re dealing with,” said Mike Holder, the athletic director at Oklahoma State, a Big 12 university that had its game this weekend postponed because of a virus outbreak at Baylor. “No one has the answers. There are no right answers. It’s just survive today and hope to be around tomorrow and do everything we can do to keep student-athletes safe, staff safe.”
Word of Saban’s diagnosis on Wednesday resonated widely, a reflection of the coach’s fame and a searing reminder that the virus can surface within even the most disciplined programs. But the league was facing mounting turmoil even before Saban — who remained asymptomatic, Alabama said on Thursday — learned he had the virus.
Around the time on Wednesday when Saban, 68, heard that he was the league’s latest virus case, the SEC announced a delay of Louisiana State’s visit to No. 10 Florida, where at least 23 people associated with the football team recently tested positive. It was the second postponement of the week for the conference, which announced the Vanderbilt postponement on Monday.
“As much as we want to give our kids the opportunity to compete, we understand this isn’t a normal year,” Scott Stricklin, the athletic director at Florida, said after the L.S.U. game’s postponement. It is not clear when the Gators will be able to play again, and Stricklin signaled that he expected more Florida athletic events to be upended in the coming months.
Although Vanderbilt, a private university, did not say how many of its players had tested positive, Mason said the virus had left the Commodores with “a shell of a team,” largely because of contact tracing. At Mississippi, Coach Lane Kiffin said his team was “not in a great situation, number-wise, at all,” though football officials said they anticipated that Mississippi’s game at Arkansas would proceed.
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The conference expects to receive the results of its regular virus testing on Friday morning.
“To go through three weeks with no disruption by comparison to peers, that was a pleasant surprise,” Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, said on Finebaum’s ESPN program. “To have disruption was something that could be anticipated, but you have to then react to the nature of that disruption, like we’ve had to this week, and then you have to see what it means moving forward.”
SEC officials and other observers said they were skeptical that the week’s events would dramatically shift public opinion against college football, especially in the South, a region that has sometimes been a haven of virus skepticism during the pandemic.
“When it comes to Covid and college football, most people had that discussion and debate over the summer,” Finebaum said in an interview on Thursday. “Even though three weeks went very well and this week has been an early Halloween ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ presentation, people are used to watching the games now.”
Yet there are still bizarre scenes.
Hours after he tested positive, Saban oversaw practice via Zoom and openly mused during a news conference over whether he might somehow be able to coach Alabama against Georgia. (Officiating experts expressed doubts and cited a recent rules interpretation that limited how a stricken coach could communicate with a team during a game.)
Saban’s quest for a sixth national title at Alabama notwithstanding, many coaches and administrators long ago concluded that the truest measure of a team’s success this season might not be its record. Instead, they said, it might be how well, or whether, the team managed to insulate itself from the virus.
“I expect the future to look like the first five to six weeks of the season,” said Holder of undefeated Oklahoma State, which, at No. 7, is the Big 12’s highest-ranked team. “There will be more upsets, postponed games, canceled games.”
He added, “Usually by this time you have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen and who the best teams are, but that’s not the case this year.”
Billy Witz contributed reporting from Los Angeles.