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For SEC football, COVID-19 is growing more difficult to handle

For SEC football, COVID-19 is growing more difficult to handle

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Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman tested positive for COVID-19. He'll miss Saturday's game at Florida. A Mississippi State outbreak has forced postponement of its game with Auburn, which announced Tuesday a pause in activities after nine positive tests.

Late Tuesday afternoon news broke that Saturday's Alabama-LSU and Texas A&M-Tennessee games are being postponed. Another coronavirus surge has hit the LSU roster. Texas A&M had already announced it was halting football activities because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The pandemic is getting worse, not better.

Kentucky is not without issues. UK coach Mark Stoops admitted Monday he is down three offensive coaches. While saying he couldn't go into specifics, Stoops admitted COVID-19 is a program problem.

"It's not out of control," said the coach, whose team plays host to Vanderbilt on Saturday. "Let's hope it stays that way."

Will the SEC make it to the Dec. 19 championship game?

"I don't think at this point it's going to shut down," the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum said Tuesday on ESPN after speaking with

Commissioner Greg Sankey on Monday night: "But we know the reality of the situation. The numbers get worse by the day. They're rising exponentially."

There's no immediate end in sight. Yes, Pfizer announced Monday that early trials for its vaccine have shown to be 90% effective. It may be April, however, before the vaccine is widely distributed. Meanwhile, with COVID-19 numbers rising, health experts are predicting some rough winter months.

"There isn't much we can do to prevent what we think is going to be about 2,200 deaths a day by Jan. 1," Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and an affiliate assistant professor at University of Washington Medicine in Seattle, told NBC News.

There's a mental cost to the virus, as well. Consider that players and coaches have had their routines disrupted, are being tested repeatedly, are forced to watch where they go, what they do, who they come in contact with for fear of contracting the virus.

A normal college football season can be a long, hard slog. This year, the SEC has added a 10-game conference-only schedule to go along with the COVID fight. That's a double grind.

"It is definitely different,' Stoops said Monday. "I feel like we are holding up fine. It is definitely different. I feel like the difference is, again, the work that we put in(to) relationships with our players and we are not able to do that as well. I am not able to communicate in a small room with them as often as I normally would for COVID restrictions and not wanting to spread the virus."

Team-building exercises, something Stoops has stressed, have taken a hit. For example: Before COVID-19, a player would be assigned to have dinner with another player he did not know well. The goal is to foster relationships through all cross sections of the team. With COVID-19 going on, that's been more difficult to accomplish.

"We have worked extremely hard in the past, (coaches) spending time with our players on Wednesdays, just have them over to their house or take them to dinner and really try to spend quality time with their players," Stoops said. "We are not able to do that. It is tough. We have done that once, when normally we would do that every Wednesday."

Luckily, Kentucky is coming off a bye week. A needed "physical and mental break," Stoops called it. But the Cats are a disappointing 2-4 with four games remaining, including two particularly tough ones — at SEC West leader Alabama on Nov. 21; at SEC East leader Florida on Nov. 28.

It's not just Kentucky. Across the SEC, you have to wonder about the players' health and mental state heading into the final weeks of the regular season. If they get to finish the season, that is.


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