The decisions that most affect the University of Wisconsin football team’s season won’t be made on the field.
They won’t be play calls from coach Paul Chryst or defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. They won’t be penalties or a blown coverage. They won’t be the reads quarterback Jack Coan makes or halftime adjustments.
No, the 2020 Badgers season will boil down to the choices players, coaches and those around them make. Playing football as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause issues on campus, in the city of Madison and college towns across the nation will have innumerable challenges — so much so the Big Ten Conference postponed the season in part to allow science to provide answers to as many of these challenges as possible.
Arguably the most difficult challenge to overcome is protecting players from the virus in their lives away from the football facility.
“You can go to the grocery store and get (COVID-19),” senior safety and team captain Eric Burrell said. “Anywhere you go, you don’t know where you could get it. People travel in and out of the airports, grocery stores, walking on State Street, it’s everything. This (coronavirus), it ain’t no, ‘It’s just going to be in stadiums,’ it’s everywhere.”
The Badgers medical staff has strict protocols to follow from the Big Ten, which include daily testing of players and detailed processes of isolation and monitoring if a player tests positive. Those procedures are designed to prevent COVID-19 from spreading during practices and games. But they won’t be much help against potential spread outside of those scenarios.
That responsibility falls onto the players.
“This is the one time that we’re truly asking them to be selfish,” Chryst said. “I think they’ve got to express that to the ones they love and family members and whatnot. … That’s going to be the battle all year long.”
Creating their own bubbles
UW won’t be renting out a hotel or taking over an apartment building to house its football team during this unprecedented season.
These “bubble” concepts have worked for the NBA and NHL as they finished their regular seasons and held their postseason tournaments in isolated venues that limited people entering or exiting in order to keep the virus out.
The stakes are high. Besides the obvious health risks of acquiring COVID-19, Big Ten football players will be held out of practice and games for at least 21 days should they test positive. That means missing at least one-third of the nine games guaranteed to conference teams. The Badgers have had mixed success containing the virus — according to Public Health Madison and Dane County, the Badgers football team and staff has had 42 positive cases of COVID-19 since June.
Chryst said in a September appearance on the “Wilde and Tausch” radio show the program is putting trust in players to isolate themselves as much as possible.
“They know the consequences to it. We have guys who got it and maybe wish they’d not had someone over that came over to their place. They might not have even invited them, but you’ve got to speak up to roommates who may not be in football. They don’t have the same kind of goals or things at risk,” Chryst said. “We know what the rules are, we know that it’s real, we just have to do the best we can to stay as healthy as we can.”
Chryst said a majority of UW players have their classes online, which eliminates the risk of exposure from in-person classes. But it also adds to the untraditional nature of the season.
“Some of the only times that I get to talk and interact with some of the regular students on campus are when I go to class,” senior quarterback Jack Coan said. “Now we don’t really have that, which kind of stinks. It’ll be different.”
Junior linebacker Jack Sanborn said it will be strange eliminating the social aspects of college life, and making conscious efforts to tighten their social circles to ensure their safety. But he said they’re necessary steps to having a season — a trade he’s willing to make.
“It’s crazy times. It’s the world we live in. What you do outside of the locker room and outside of the stadium affects everybody: The team, the coaches, the football staff,” Sanborn said. “But three months ago, we would’ve dreamed of being in this situation. Now it’s here, and it’s up to us not to lose it.”
No fans allowed
When it announced the season would be returning in October, the Big Ten also said no fans would be permitted at games. Only family members of players and coaches will be allowed into the stands, with each campus being responsible for distancing those folks in their stadium.
This may be a significant advantage for the Badgers in three of their four road games this season — Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa — where large, loud crowds are expected. Not having to contend with those fans’ noise should help communication on the field.
The flip side to that coin is the Badgers, whose home record in Chryst’s tenure is 29-5, won’t have a Camp Randall crowd in their favor at home. “Jump Around” will still play between the third and fourth quarters, but the distinct sway of the historic stadium won’t happen.
“The freshmen were asking about it and I told them, ‘There’s nothing like running out of the tunnel for the first time ever at Camp Randall,’” junior tight end Jake Ferguson said. “Your heart kind of beats out of your chest and you lose your breath and you’re like, ‘Holy s—, this is real.’
“I’m disappointed that they don’t get to feel that, but in due time they will. It’s whatever we’ve got to do to play. … I think I can say that every guy on this team, ‘Who cares? As long as we get to play.'”
A Big Ten spokesperson did not answer messages asking if teams will be permitted to play crowd noise like the NFL has allowed at its games.
Other conferences are allowing a limited number of fans into stadiums. There hasn’t been public discussion about the Big Ten changing its mind on allowing fans, but as this year has shown, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
New eligibility possibilities
One change the NCAA made to eligibility rules this season in light of the pandemic may help the program in the long run.
The NCAA Board of Governors in August approved a blanket waiver for all fall sports athletes, granting them an extra year of eligibility even if their team plays this fall. For younger players, this means they can play in as many games as coaches choose and retain their year of eligibility and their redshirt season. In a normal season, players can appear in as many as four games before using their redshirt.
This eliminates coaches having to shorten rotations at positions in order to preserve a redshirt. Last season, for instance, the Badgers didn’t play freshman quarterback Graham Mertz past Week 5 and cornerback Semar Melvin didn’t play in the Rose Bowl so they could redshirt.
Maintaining the year of eligibility could allow some of the class of 2020’s top prospects, such as outside linebacker Nick Herbig, a chance to play more snaps this year.
Chryst said not having to take a young player out of a role earned to avoid the four-game maximum does provide flexibility. But he said coaches must determine when a player is ready to play.
“That’s always been the goal, come in and contribute,” Chryst said. “As a coach, if you put a guy out there before he’s ready that doesn’t necessarily help the player, and it doesn’t help the team.”
UW hasn’t yet announced how it will handle the extra year of eligibility for seniors going forward. When the NCAA gave a similar waiver to spring sports athletes after their seasons were nixed, the Badgers made waves by being one of the first programs to not extend their scholarships.
UW’s athletic department cited “a time of unprecedented uncertainty in college athletics” in its decision.
“We appreciate everything that you’ve done. But move forward. The future is in question, and we can’t promise you anything,” athletic director Barry Alvarez said at the time.
There are 21 UW players entering their final years of eligibility. With a talented 2021 class — sitting at 19 scholarship players — coming in and the financial losses the athletic department are dealing with, extending scholarships for football players may not be in the cards.
“Our administration and coaches are in communication with student-athletes on this issue, but it is too early in the process for any decisions to have been made,” a UW athletic department spokesman said. “We continue to monitor the changing environment and will make decisions that are in the best interests of our student-athletes and programs, while also taking into consideration the financial situation the department is navigating.”