How it started ... and how it's going for college football amid COVID-19

A few days before Ohio State played Indiana last month, Buckeyes center Josh Myers detailed what has become his new routine this season: Wake up, drive to the football facility, log in for class on Zoom, take a coronavirus test, finish class, get ready for meetings, practice, eat and go home.

There are no deviations on weekdays, no trips to the grocery store, no place to go other than his house and the facility, where he eats all three meals a day -- socially distanced, of course. Myers also praised the lengths Ohio State coaches and medical staff went to with protocols -- distanced team and position group meetings as well as avoiding clusters of players around each other at practice.

The goal, of course, is to stay as safe as possible so the Buckeyes have a chance to compete for a national championship.

"I can't think of a worse situation than being undefeated and having games canceled to the point where we can't make it to a conference championship because we haven't played enough football games," Myers said at the time. "That would be a living nightmare."

Only three weeks after talking to ESPN, Myers was one of 23 players unavailable to play against Michigan State after coronavirus issues swept through the program. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day tested positive and watched from home. Though Ohio State did not release information on positive results and contact-trace quarantines related to its players -- or how the outbreak started -- what happened in Columbus follows what myriad programs across the country have gone through since the season began in September.

Even the best-laid plans and protocols can be rendered useless against a virus this relentless. With three games canceled, including this weekend's Michigan contest, the sense of urgency is more intense at Ohio State, with a potential Big Ten championship game and a College Football Playoff spot on the line.

But as game cancellations and player opt-outs have mushroomed recently, and as college football enters its most critical four weeks, a massive surge in COVID-19 cases within the United States is testing the notion that the season will conclude, as scheduled, with the national title game on Jan. 11 in Miami.

The hope is that the remaining bowl games will be played and a national champion will be crowned. The key word, of course, is hope. Because in this season, of all seasons, there are simply no guarantees -- and that is something that hasn't changed since August.

"2020 has been a year where you're not going to get everything that you want and you've got to find a way to make due," said Miami coach Manny Diaz, whose No. 10-ranked Hurricanes were recently unable to play for two weeks because of coronavirus issues of their own. "I don't care if you're undefeated and ranked No. 1 or if you haven't even won a game. It's been a hard year."

Playing college football in the middle of a pandemic turned out to be a messy, disjointed, head-scratching and soul-searching endeavor. Though administrators predicted getting through it would be a grueling slog with stops, starts and, yes, cancellations, it was not until practices began that coaches and players got a window into what it would actually take to play. Interviews with coaches and players from multiple conferences and geographic areas reveal the different ways they went about trying to play a season as safely as possible within their respective programs.

That includes asking players not to return home to visit family members; to stay in town during open dates; to limit interaction with anyone outside the football program; to avoid large gatherings; to always wear a mask; and, in rare instances, to room alone in a hotel for the entire season or move to an entirely different state just to play football.

All this while undergoing coronavirus testing anywhere from three times a week to daily -- and isolating for 10 days with a positive test or quarantining alone for 14 days as a result of contact-trace quarantine guidelines. Coaches have detailed examples of players who were contact traced multiple times, forcing them to be alone for 28 total days or longer. There also were instances of false positives, including one that cost Stanford quarterback Davis Mills a game against Oregon.

"The players don't get the right of an opinion on what coronavirus is or what it's not, which is what the country's been so divided on," Diaz said. "They have to be perfect, and they've had to be perfect since June in terms of keeping themselves healthy and keeping the virus as much as possible out of the building. It's not something you can be 'kind of good at.'"

In some cases, programs succeeded beyond measure. In others, multiple months with zero positive tests came crashing to an end once November and December rolled around. In all cases, the work put in made it physically exhausting and mentally draining, taxing everyone inside the program as critics asked whether it was worth it to play in the first place.

Those who have made it this far say yes.

"It's what the players wanted," Diaz said. "I still think the turning point of 2020 was that one weekend in August. It seemed like we were on the brink and the players stood up and said they wanted to play. They deserve all the credit, and that's why to me, whatever it takes to get us to finish the season, they deserve it."

Not all players went through with the season, as many opted out before it even started or once it began. Those who played or opted out but plan on returning to college football will get another year of eligibility. No matter the choice, the challenges continue to test everyone.

Boston College coach Jeff Hafley estimates the Eagles collectively underwent more than 8,000 tests since their return in July and that they have had only one positive test. It happened on the final week of its regular season. In the ACC, only Boston College, Syracuse and NC State completed their schedules by this past Saturday. Hafley said he has fielded calls from coaches asking what BC has done to avoid cases. In his estimation, it starts with campus protocols that emphasized wearing masks and warned of severe punishment for house parties or other protocol violations.

But the Eagles also have been extremely rigorous in other ways. Here are two examples: Players showing any symptoms were isolated from the team and had to undergo additional testing before returning. In the instances where family members could attend road games, players were asked not to hug or touch them. The only positive case happened when a player went home for Thanksgiving. He remains with his family at home in isolation.

"Imagine not being able to go give your mom, dad, brother, sister a hug after the game. You want to talk about sacrifice?" Hafley said. "These kids did that. We didn't know if we'd play our first game, and we look around and everything keeps getting canceled, and somehow our guys found a way. Is luck involved? Yeah, there's got to be some luck. But it's also got to be these kids, who have listened to every little thing we told them to do. I don't know how many people could have done that."

At SMU, coach Sonny Dykes meticulously planned the entire calendar in August, trying to fill six days a week with something for players to do, between weight lifting, conditioning and practice. It was his way of keeping them busy so they would not be tempted to leave and visit family and friends in town. At the team hotel, for both home and away games, players slept one to a room and had all their meals boxed and delivered to them.

For Thanksgiving, they set up picnic tables that stretched 70 yards in the indoor practice facility: Two people sat at an 8-foot table as they ate and watched the Detroit Lions football game. But Dykes could see the grind of the season take a toll in the team's poor performance against East Carolina.

"We were just so emotionally worn out, it was hard for our guys to get up to play," he said.

SMU only had three players test positive all season. But its game against Houston this past Saturday, which had already been postponed because of coronavirus issues with the Cougars, was canceled after a staff member tested positive -- and the resulting contact-trace quarantines knocked out too many players to be able to play.

"I can't believe we made it this far and this happened," Dykes said. "Every single day is ... you don't know what's coming."

For a school like Florida State, that is especially true. Last month, Clemson learned it had a player test positive after it arrived in Tallahassee for its game against the Seminoles. The medical doctors from both teams could not agree to proceed forward with the game, so it was called off hours before kickoff. Afterward, Seminoles coach Mike Norvell said the last positive they had inside the Florida State program was his own in September.

But a week later, everything changed. Positive tests inside the Florida State program forced a second straight game to be canceled on game day. Sitting at 2-6, with only 44 players available because of coronavirus protocols, injuries or opt-outs, the Seminoles could have bailed on the season. Instead, they wanted to keep playing, so the ACC rearranged the schedule to give them two final games.

"It's an opportunity to play football," Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis said. "We've got to get better for the future, and we've got to focus on these next two games and try to get wins and go out with a positive mindset. It's all a learning lesson. Hopefully, we'll never have to go through something like this ever again."

Norvell, sensitive to the question after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney accused the Seminoles of ducking them, said, "I know there's a lot of things talked about nationally about teams' perspectives. These guys are competitors, and we are a young football team. We need every rep we can get. When that's taken away from you, it is emotional. We want to play."

Then there are the lengths teams have to go to on the practice field to get to Saturday, from handling drills and contact differently to what has to happen when a portion of players are unable to practice because of coronavirus issues. Diaz said Miami had coaches practice on the scout team because they were short on players.

"When the ball's kicked off, everyone wants the sport to look the way we want the sport to look," Diaz said. "There's a lot of challenges Sunday to Friday to get us to that point. I told the players that when you run out of the tunnel, you're not going to hold a sign saying, 'I covered a kicker pretending to be a wide receiver all week.' No one cares. They just want you to cover the guy. So they deserve a lot of credit for that."

With the College Football Playoff committee remaining steadfast it will reveal its final rankings on Dec. 20, there are contingencies in place should the conference title games be called off for coronavirus issues. But there are still questions remaining about bowl season, in general, and the playoff games, in particular, if there are teams unable to play.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster, but as long as there's a College Football Playoff, I won't complain," Myers said.

Much of the season has rested on the hope it would all work out. But now that we are in the final month and inching closer to the championship game, there needs to be more than just hope involved in getting the season to the finish line.