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Last Week in College Football: COVID Rears its Ugly Head

College football is always an unpredictable sport, but the coronavirus threatens to add another layer of chaos as the season enters a pivotal November stretch.

Clemson University Football Team Lead Protest March After Death Of George Floyd Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It’s a good thing Iowa’s football calendar guarantees a short season in 2020, because it appears the program could be in for what will feel like a very long season. One week after a disappointing performance against Purdue, the Hawkeyes blew a 17-0 lead against Northwestern, falling to 0-2 on the year as a result of deeply entrenched offensive ineptitude, poor late-game execution, and a defense incapable of compensating for the myriad of significant problems facing this team. Plus, if you think Iowa’s offense has been bad through two games, just wait until you see what it will look like once start receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette is inevitably suspended after being arrested for drunk driving on Saturday night.

Yet despite Iowa’s serious misfortune, other teams undoubtedly had worse Saturdays than the Hawkeyes did during week nine of the 2020 college football season. The Wisconsin Badgers, a team widely thought to be the class of the Big Ten West, have been devastated by the coronavirus, which at last count had infected 22 players and staff members. Wisconsin’s COVID-19 outbreak forced the Badgers to cancel last week’s jaunt against Nebraska, but could also put several future contests in jeopardy, making it a real possibility that the Badgers could become ineligible to compete for a Big Ten championship as a result of failing to play the required number of games. Meanwhile, Clemson managed to defeat Boston College without star quarterback and Heisman frontrunner Trevor Lawrence but has since announced that it will be without its signal caller in this week’s matchup against #4 Notre Dame. The irony of Lawrence, a national leader in this off-season’s “Let Us Play” movement, being ruled ineligible to compete due to positive coronavirus tests is palpable, and could seriously jeopardize Clemson’s ACC and national title aspirations if the starting quarterback ends up missing serious time.

Clemson wasn’t the only orange-clad team to see its playoff hopes take a serious hit this weekend. The Texas Longhorns won their first road game against a Top 10 opponent in the past decade by knocking off undefeated and sixth-ranked Oklahoma State in an overtime thriller which put the Big 12’s chances of earning a playoff berth in serious jeopardy. The Cowboys remain the favorites to win the conference, but with road trips to Kansas State and Oklahoma on the schedule in the next two weeks, the chances of Mike Gundy’s team finishing the season undefeated are far from a certainty. Furthermore, since Oklahoma State’s primary competitors for a Big 12 title (Kansas State and Iowa State) both have two losses to their name including defeats against teams from the Sun Belt, it’s hard to imagine a Big 12 team making the playoffs unless the Cowboys can run the table, especially with the growing prospect of a Clemson loss sans Trevor Lawrence allowing to ACC teams to sneak in to the final four.

Meanwhile, the positive vibes generated from Michigan’s strong showing against a ranked Minnesota team were completely negated by a stunning lose to their in-state rivals Michigan State. The Spartans were 24-point underdogs coming off their opening loss against Rutgers, but managed to blunt the Wolverine rushing attack and capitalize on a strong performance from true freshman wide receiver Ricky White who managed to repeatedly beat Michigan deep en route while pulling down eight catches for 196 yards. The Wolverines are talented enough to recover from this gutting defeat and put together a solid season, but a loss next week against a surprisingly strong #13 Indiana team could risk sending the maize and blue into a tailspin that could threaten to derail their season.

Not every college football heavyweight suffered a meaningful loss this weekend, however. The Oklahoma Sooners finally appear to have hit their stride after a 62-28 win over Texas Tech, Florida pushed past an ugly halftime brawl against Missouri to win 41-17, and Justin Fields and the Ohio State Buckeyes cleaned up against a Penn State team that is clearly worse than most experts projected before the season began, but showed it hadn’t given up its fight despite starting the season 0-2. With next weekend featuring several important matchups including two Top 10 clashes in Clemson/Notre Dame and Florida/Georgia, intriguing games for Group of Five teams like BYU, Boise State, and Liberty, and the long-anticipated return to action of #12 Oregon and the Pac-12, the stakes of each remaining college football game promise to grow progressively higher. The coming weeks will reveal which teams will best be able to weather the typical chaos of the college football season as well as the additional complications of the growing coronavirus threat. If nothing else, November should be an extremely interesting month.