UPDATE: The ACC announced early Wednesday that the Notre Dame at Wake Forest game will be rescheduled for Dec. 12, after Tuesday’s indefinite postponement. The below story has been updated to reflect that, largely via changes in conditional verb tenses.
At first glance, Notre Dame postponing a game feels drastic, dramatic, a worst-case scenario. In 2020, it is not. Postponing the trip to Wake Forest is not only prudent, patient and necessary, but also inevitable, manageable and expected.
An optimistic and arguably foolish reliance on football obscured those expectations, but if taking a step back, they existed all along. That anticipation is the exact reason the ACC built two idle weeks per team into this truncated season, not to mention a week before the conference championship if it is necessary, and it is necessary..
To quote Irish head coach Brian Kelly after beating South Florida on Saturday, “We live in this world where right now, you’re never prepared for it, but we are aware of it and we know it could happen.” Kelly was referring to replacing two defensive starters on short notice due to positive coronavirus tests and subsequent contact tracing, but he might as well have been discussing this game of Schedule Jenga.
Notre Dame has moved one block, but the tower can still stand steadily. How long it does so all depends on how soon the Irish have to move another block, admittedly a decision that may not be up to them.
Each move reduces the options moving forward while tilting the tower a degree further. But there will be more moves, they are inevitable. It is quite literally the basis of the game within this metaphor as well as the only feasible means to a 2020 season.
The ACC opted not to adjust Clemson’s, Boston College’s and North Carolina’s schedules to fit Notre Dame into Wake Forest’s idle week on Nov. 7, but instead turn to the final scheduling block of a slate of ACC games on Dec. 12, already featuring Virginia at Virginia Tech and now including the Irish and the Demon Deacons.
The convenience of Notre Dame and Wake Forest meeting on their mutual idle week, next week, Oct. 3, depended on a few untenable factors, most of all the breakdown of the 23 Irish players currently in isolation or quarantine. If a glut of offensive or defensive linemen is within those 23, then it is most likely Notre Dame needs to take at least two weeks off from competition, only hoping to host Florida State on Oct. 10. The unofficial national standard mandates seven scholarship offensive linemen and four scholarship defensive linemen.
If the trenches did remain somewhat intact, and this rash of 13 positive tests did not extend much further in Wednesday’s testing of the entire roster, then the Irish would have been able to return to practice by the end of this week and be ready for next. It is that uncertainty that jeopardized the trip to North Carolina so early in the week.
“I would say that if you’re out of business Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, you’re in trouble for having a team that can practice and be prepared,” Kelly said at the start of the month. “That’s assuming a lot of things go wrong.
“If they do, my answer to the question would be if you lose two or three days early in the week, you’re hard-pressed to get your team ready.”
Until Notre Dame can ascertain exactly how far this outbreak spreads, it can not justifiably hold practice. Thus, Kelly had lost Tuesday and Wednesday, and therefore the Irish were hard-pressed to face the Demon Deacons even if the 23 presently removed from the team remain only 23.
Positive tests will add to that. Contact tracing will add to that. The passing of any time in this never-ending year will add to that, not to mention weekends with a line to get into The Linebacker Lounge, downtown South Bend bars all at capacity and supposedly non-transferrable football tickets that are, in fact, easily-transferred all threatening the stable status of the broader Notre Dame community.
But once the Irish have a handle on how much to add to that total of 23, they can return to practice and, then in time, games.
Games are, quite possibly, the safest part of the week. To date, reports of community transmission on a Saturday are nil. To wit, the timing of these newest positives suggests they were most likely infected but not yet contagious when they beat South Florida, and the Bulls’ postgame tests yielded no new positives. South Florida’s tests would not yet show any infection picked up at Notre Dame Stadium, so it is taking a pause from practice “out of an abundance of caution” until such an infection can be ruled out, but that set of negative results affirm the Irish did not pick up this problem from their guests.
UPDATE 5:15 P.M. ET: South Florida has now postponed its game this weekend at Florida Atlantic. It is unclear if the Bulls have ruled out swaths of their roster via contact tracing or if they are dealing with the same lack of practice issue that was the initial concern for the Irish, but either way, if positive tests turn up in Tampa via Notre Dame, this all gets much dicier.
Obviously, games remain the goal, as well. When asked about his halftime comments this weekend urging his team to shutout the Bulls in the second half, Kelly pointed out how hard these 18- to 22-year-olds work to get to the weekend.
“I wanted our guys to have a mindset that we have to do so many things to get to Saturday,” Kelly said. “It’s really hard with all that is going on that I didn’t want our guys to get distracted at any time. I wanted them to stay locked in, stay focused and get after it for four quarters.”
Admittedly, part of the reason for a lack of community transmission is a shortage of fulfilling that goal. Through two “full” weeks and one light opening weekend, 34 games have been played between FBS teams while 17 have been postponed or canceled, not including this bump to December.
The entire college football landscape is filled with Jenga towers, some (Houston, Virginia, Virginia Tech) already leaning wildly and others (Clemson, Miami, Pittsburgh) standing solidly. They will all tilt at some point, as Notre Dame’s is right now. It’s inevitable in 2020, but not so daunting as to topple this endeavor just yet.