Conference USA endured a rough ride through the 2020 football season, just like nearly every other league in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Games were canceled after players and coaches tested positive. There was no telling on a week-to-week basis which teams would play.
C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod pointed to vaccines as a way for the league and its teams to avoid similar issues this season on Wednesday during the opening session of the league’s annual media days. She also laid out what the consequences could be for teams that fail to take advantage of the opportunity to inoculate their rosters.
“We’re in a position where we won’t be postponing or making up games,” MacLeod said in a prerecorded interview. “It may be that the healthiest team makes it through to the end. I would hate to see someone in the running get hit with COVID because they haven’t been vaccinated.”
MacLeod said vaccinating athletes is C-USA’s top priority.
C-USA released the interview on the on the first day of its annual preseason media event. The league elected to forgo an in-person session in favor of a Zoom teleconference. The conference’s East Division coaches and player representatives appeared on Wednesday.
North Texas coach Seth Littrell will join offensive lineman Manase Mose and defensive lineman Dion Novil when media days wrap up Thursday. C-USA’s West Division representatives are slated to appear on the second day of the event.
C-USA’s ability to navigate the season is sure to continue to be a topic as concerns rise over the delta variant. The average number of COIVD-19 cases this week is up 145% from two weeks ago with more than 80% of those cases coming from the delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several C-USA coaches said they are spending time educating players on the benefits of being vaccinated.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to educate our players, and I’m sure every school in the conference is doing the same thing,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said.
Charlotte coach Will Healy went to his players and asked about their concerns with vaccinations. He has tried to provide them information that will help them make an informed decision.
“I know what’s going to help us play football,” Healy said. “If everybody’s vaccinated, it’s going to help. But I need to understand where [our players] are coming from.”
Several C-USA players expressed confidence in their teams’ ability to get through the season, largely due to the availability of vaccines.
“We are better prepared because we know what we are up against,” Charlotte linebacker Tyler Murray said. “We know how last year went and are trying to avoid all that. We are getting the vaccine and getting the number of vaccinated players up. We know what opportunities are ahead of us and are trying to play football.”
Several of the coaches who participated in the first session of media days declined to say what percentage of their players are vaccinated, but several of the players acknowledged they have gotten their shots.
The decisions those players made should help the league’s teams.
“I believe that the league is in a better position,” Middle Tennessee safety Reed Blankenship said. “The vaccine is out, which gives us that choice. The vaccine can help with contact tracing. That is what really affected me last year. We’re moving in the right direction with everything and are out of harm’s way right now.”
C-USA coaches sees good, bad of potential playoff expansion
The idea of a C-USA team playing in the College Football Playoff could become a little closer to reality if the field expands from four teams to 12.
A proposal for expansion was presented this summer.
Marshall coach Charles Huff took part in the playoff during his time as an assistant coach at Alabama and sees both the positives and potential downfalls involved.
Huff named the wear and tear on athletes from additional games and the decline in interest in bowl games that are not included in an expanded playoff as potential drawbacks.
“For the players, the coaches and programs, I think it’s great to be able to compete at the highest high level,” Huff said. “But I do think there are some risks that we got to be aware of.”
Old Dominion coach Ricky Rahne is also intrigued by the possibility of expansion.
“It opens up a real opportunity for each one of us,” Rahne said. “You go win your conference and you’ve got a path.
“To have a little bit more of a realistic chance on that is unbelievable.”