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Niyo: Michigan doing its best to avoid traps battling 'different animal'

John Niyo   | The Detroit News

Stay positive, test negative. That’s been the mantra inside Michigan’s Schembechler Hall for months, the one Jim Harbaugh keeps repeating and players have taken to heart. And with the Big Ten season ready to kick off this weekend, at long last, that’s not about to change. Even when it comes to hugging mom and dad.

Saturday night, the 18th-ranked Wolverines will begin their season under the lights at No. 21 Minnesota. ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town to hype the opener, but the crowd at TCF Bank Stadium will be limited to players’ immediate families. And even then, they probably won’t see much of each other. Maybe a little time together after the game, but not much more than that.

“As a team, we’re pretty much advising each other and being told to keep our distance,” said Andrew Vastardis, Michigan’s fifth-year senior center. “It’s hard, but working as a common goal, it’s a little thing to give up. It’s nice that they’re allowing our families to come to games, so we can at least have them in attendance and have that support. … But we’re all working toward a goal and it’s a necessary sacrifice.”

Sacrifices, they’ve made a few. And few teams appear to have done it with more discipline than Michigan up to this point, which is just one of the reasons Harbaugh sounded so “excited” Monday when he met with the media for the first time since the Big Ten reversed course and announced its return-to-play plan for a fall football season. Harbaugh talked about a “oneness” the Wolverines have displayed through a virtual spring, a frustrating summer and then a preseason camp that has had fewer setbacks — or reported COVID-19 cases — than many other schools.

“It’s just been that kind of group,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of really good leaders, a lot of guys that are really invested, a lot of guys that really like each other, a lot of guys that really like football. Every step of the way, I think they have relied on each other more.”

And this fall, that’ll matter more than ever, perhaps, given the pandemic that’s still raging across the country and the needle the Big Ten is trying to thread here.

Already, this convoluted college football season has seen 33 games postponed or canceled due to coronavirus outbreaks. That list includes three SEC and Big 12 games last weekend, as well as this week’s LSU-Florida game after more than 20 Florida players — and Gators head coach Dan Mullen — tested positive for the virus. 

Testing 'second nature' 

The Big Ten hopes to avoid that sort of chaos thanks to a league-wide daily testing regimen for its football programs that began in late September. It’s similar to what NFL teams have been doing since August, and more extensive than what other Power Five conferences have done before kicking off this fall.

And it's a daily routine Michigan senior linebacker Josh Ross says is now “second nature” for him and his teammates, who get nose swabs for antigen tests every morning with results returned in 15 minutes or so. Presumptive positive cases get referred for confirmation PCR tests, and each school has a “chief infection officer” on staff who reports those findings to the Big Ten’s medical subcommittee.

But it’s also far from a foolproof plan, particularly since the Big Ten left itself no wiggle room by scheduling an eight-game regular season with no bye weeks. (The championship game is set for Dec. 19, just in time for the College Football Playoff Selection Day on Dec. 20.) And Monday, the league got another reminder of the twists and turns that lie ahead when Purdue coach Jeff Brohm confirmed he'd tested positive for COVID-19 and will self-quarantine for 10 days, meaning he’ll miss his team’s opener against Iowa this weekend.

“It definitely can happen to anybody — anybody can get it,” Harbaugh said. “So we’re sticking together and trying to do as much as we can to keep ourselves safe and healthy, and others as well. That’s been a huge priority for us really since back in March. And we’ll continue to stay vigilant in regards to that.”

For the players, it’s even more imperative. While coaches and administrators will be required to follow CDC guidelines after positive cases, athletes will be required to sit out at least 21 days.

That’s partly why the Pac-12, which won’t begin play until Nov. 7, came out Monday with revised tiebreaker rules and minimum roster thresholds for games, including 53 healthy scholarship players and even position-specific requirements. (The Big Ten is expected to have new tiebreak rules in place before the season starts this weekend, as well.)

It’s also why Harbaugh stopped just short of officially naming Joe Milton his starting quarterback ahead of the season opener. Only because there’s no guarantees with any player. Or any coach, for that matter. 

“Tough for me to say anybody’s going to be starting,” Harbaugh noted, “when they have to test on Friday before we leave to be able to make the trip and then have to test negative on gameday to be able to play.”

'Preparing for ghosts' 

Injuries and off-field trouble have always played havoc for college coaches in the past.

“But this is a completely different animal,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “If a kid tests positive, they’re out three weeks. That's almost half the season now. So a kid could test positive on Friday, he's out for three straight games and you were planning on having him as the starter the next day.”

Harbaugh said Monday that his team has no one on the roster currently who’ll be unavailable to play Saturday due to a positive COVID test result. Fleck, meanwhile, sounded like a coach who certainly does, but “I’m just not going to tell you the number,” he added.

“There's a lot of reasons why, but this is how the whole year is going to be, and there are no excuses,” added Fleck, whose Gophers are coming off an 11-win season and were ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time since 2004. “We've got to be able to find a way. Our team has known that from Day 1 back in March. We said the same thing before anybody was out. Whether by the opt-out, injury or COVID, we said the same thing: Whoever finds a way to do this better, for longer.”

Whoever does that may very well be the team that gets crowned the Big Ten champion again, regardless of who’s the runaway favorite now. Ohio State looks like a sure-fire national title contender on paper, but what happens if, say, Justin Fields tests positive and misses games? What happens if cases spike and local guidelines change and force a campus-wide quarantine?

“Coronavirus doesn't care whether you're a freshman or a senior, whether you have experience or no experience, it doesn't discriminate,” Fleck said. “It's going to find you on your football team somehow, someway, which it has in certain instances. There's going to be teams that have more of it and less of it. … But again, it's preparing for ghosts, preparing for the unknowns, and you just have to be ready for it.”

Ready to make sacrifices, too. Whether it’s living a relatively monastic life on campus — Ross says he’s “not going anywhere” other than his apartment or Schembechler Hall this fall – or keeping even your own relatives at arm’s length.

“Just be smart about it,” Vastardis said. “Wear a mask. Don’t go somewhere and let your guard down. I know personally, my mom’s a teacher and she’s getting back into classes and she’s around little kids all day. So the way we’ve talked about is we’re just gonna be smart. Keep each other safe, that’s really all it is.”

And for the players, that’s really all they need to hear, especially now that the season actually is here. They hope.

“I woke up this morning and I honestly I thought, ‘It’s game week. It’s time to go,’” Ross said. “There’s been so much anticipation for this week. I mean, we started camp and then camp ended and we didn’t know if we were ever gonna have a season in 2020. So we just take advantage of every day and practice as hard as you can, because at any moment it can be taken away.”