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The news on Wednesday that Alabama coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19 landed different this time around. Sure, there was some surprise and plenty of empathy. And certainly, the familiar wave of well wishes that accompany such news was passed on.
But the notion of Saban testing positive and missing the Iron Bowl game against Auburn this weekend didn’t register as a shock. It was greeted with transactional acceptance, like an ankle sprain rearranging the depth chart.
Saban says that he’s feeling fine. A release from Alabama says he has “mild symptoms.” That’s the good news.
Saban’s positive COVID-19 test just reminds us where we are with the virus both in this college football season and in this country right now. COVID-19 has become such a persistent disruptor that we have become numb to everything that’s missing. Saban is the 18th college football coach believed to have tested positive for COVID-19, an unofficial tally based on those who have made their diagnosis public.
The notion of Saban not on the sideline for No. 1 Alabama against Auburn this weekend is both surreal and normal. It’s also a harbinger for what this closing kick of the college football season is going to feel like over the next six weeks as it slogs to the finish.
Saban’s diagnosis and disappearance from the sideline this weekend is a reminder that the legacy of this season will always be tinged by what’s been lost. Eighteen games disappeared from last week’s schedule, including Clemson vs. Florida State being called off hours before kickoff. (Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has done his best to make sure no one has forgotten that.)
This week, so far, No. 7 Cincinnati lost a game at Temple that could have helped further state its playoff case. The Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State has been cleared off the schedule. The annual game between Wisconsin and Minnesota won’t be played for the first time since 1906.
The fleeting nature of the schedule and the sporadic availability of players and coaches have joined the dark cloud of uncertainty as the sport’s few constants this season.
It will be strange not to see Saban in Tuscaloosa on Saturday when Auburn visits as a 24-point underdog. His perma-grimace, folded arms and steely glare have been reliable in the sport’s defining rivalry since 2007. Saban’s presence has been in the rivalry long enough that the coach who beat him that day, Tommy Tuberville, is now a United States Senator after muddling through two other head coaching jobs.
In mid-October, prior to Alabama’s game against Georgia, Saban tested positive for the virus. That diagnosis turned out to be a false positive. Alabama made clear in its release that this one is not.
On the SEC conference call, the 69-year-old Saban said he doesn’t have the “cardinal signs” of the virus, which he listed as fever, aches, loss of taste or smell and fatigue. He added that he doesn’t have “anything of significance.”
Saban will be replaced on the sideline by Steve Sarkisian, Alabama’s offensive coordinator who is the former head coach at Washington and USC. (Sarkisian will continue to call plays.) In a season littered with disruptions and uncertainty, Saban missing on the sideline will resonate as one of the more powerful moments.
No one is regretting the season being played, but there’s plenty of worry about how it’s going to finish. How many more bowl games will disappear from the calendar? Will the playoff committee get creative to protect the teams that make it or operate with a strategy of hope? Will players on bad teams who’ve sputtered through the season bow out? Are players showing outward signs of animosity that their daily sacrifices are being made for the sake of ESPNU inventory?
The tone in coaches’ voices is different now than earlier in the season. There’s a wariness, an exhaustion and helplessness that wasn’t there in September. Everyone is grateful to have made it this far, to have kept athletic departments afloat and found a way to give players an opportunity to play games. But the emotional toll can’t be ignored.
There are plenty of officials around the sport concerned about this white-knuckle trip to the finish. Chaos in college football has gone from a concern to the new normal.
And there will be no more powerful example of that than Nick Saban’s figure missing on Saturday, a giant of the sport leaving a glaring reminder of the difficulty to push to the finish.
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