The Southeastern Conference hasn’t played down football in the 2020 season, but the SEC has seven teams ranked in the top 25 in the Amway Coaches poll.
The SEC also dominates another Top 25 list: The highest COVID-19 infection rate among countries with Power Five football programs. Those nine schools include the Florida Gators, which rank in the top six of the two lists.
COVID-19 and the pledge to start the season leaves the conference in a precarious position as all 14 teams begin their season this weekend with most of their stands filled to 20-25% of capacity.
“I’m still in the moment to hold my breath – a little bit,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said this week.
The good news for SEC teams and fans is that the daily average of new cases per 100,000 people in their counties has declined 32% this week to 25.8, nearly double the national average of 13. 4.
“I was really surprised to see that the numbers have dropped dramatically in the SEC counties combined and individually, as well as 13 counties,” said Pooja Naik, a master’s candidate in public health at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory, who conducted the data analysis for USA TODAY.
Nonetheless, Naik says she’s worried about the thousands of fans screaming together in “the same airspace” that could spike infection rates again.
“We have to understand that the falling numbers don’t necessarily give us a green signal to stop social distancing and stop using masks,” Naik said. “It wouldn’t be surprising to see a completely different picture of our data next week.”
The numbers, however, are equally encouraging across the country. About two-thirds of counties with Power Five programs have seen their daily COVID-19 cases decrease over the past week. SEC schools are highlighted below in red.
Beyond the SEC, COVID-19 will be an important scenario throughout the clashes with the ACC this weekend.
Wake Forest’s match with No.7 Notre Dame has already been postponed to December 12 due to an epidemic on the Notre Dame team which has 13 isolated players and 10 others in quarantine.
A diagnosis of COVID-19 has ruled out new Florida state coach Mike Norvell from his team’s game with 14th-ranked state rival Miami in Miami-Dade County. Miami Dade has nearly triple (39.5) the national average for new daily infections.
On the other end of the coronavirus spectrum, the University of Virginia will likely open its season against Duke on Saturday after its three previously scheduled games were postponed by COVID-19. Case rates in the home counties of the two schools are nearly half the national average.
Among the one-third of counties that increased their daily COVID-19 cases this week, five posted triple-digit increases. Kansas state, which is set to play Oklahoma’s No.3 on Saturday, has seen cases jump 250% in Riley County to a Power Five high of 60.3 new cases per day.
The Pac-12, which plans to start a seven-game season on Nov.6, represented all other counties with triple-digit increases, including Boulder County where new cases doubled to 43.3 per 100,000.
The Big Ten, which announced last week it would begin playing at the conference in mid-October, saw a cumulative 24% drop in cases among its university counties, but the daily rate in the county of Center, where Penn State is located, remains above four. times higher than the national average.
An overview of the new daily COVID-19 case rates for all counties with SEC conference schools: