By JOHN ZENOR
The Iron Bowl will be without its biggest star.
Nick Saban, the coach at No. 1 Alabama, tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday as the Crimson Tide prepares for its annual showdown with No. 22 Auburn. Since he was experiencing mild symptoms, it appears there won’t be a false positive reprieve for Saban like there was last month before another huge game against Georgia.
“He has very mild symptoms, so this test will not be categorized as a potential false positive,” team physician Dr. Jimmy Robinson and head trainer Jeff Allen said in a joint statement. “He will follow all appropriate guidelines and isolate at home.”
The Crimson Tide is set to face its biggest rival Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium without the 69-year-old, six-time national champion coach. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, a former head coach at USC and Washington, will oversee preparations and lead the team on game day.
Saban said he has had a runny nose, but no major symptoms. When he tested positive ahead of the game with Georgia, he didn’t have any symptoms. Saban ended up being cleared to coach in that game after subsequent tests leading up to the game came back negative.
This time appears different.
“It was a PCR test which was different than the false positive that I had before,” Saban said on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference. “I don’t really have any cardinal signs of the virus right now. I don’t have a fever, no loss of taste or smell, no fatigue, no muscle aches. … I’m the only person in the whole organization who tested positive this round.”
Saban will still run meetings and monitor practice via Zoom at home like he did ahead of the Georgia game. Sarkisian will still call offensive plays during the game, but Saban said other details were still to be ironed out.
“Last time I did this for three days, I absolutely did everything from home that I did in the office,” Saban said. “I just did it on Zoom.”
Saban said he has no idea how he got the virus, and it wasn’t immediately clear if anybody else within the program will be affected because of close contact. Saban believes that’s unlikely “based on how we manage things internally in the building.”
“I’m around nobody. I mean, I go home and I go to the office,” Saban said. “I have no idea. Now, there are some people in and out of our house on occasion, but I have no idea how this happened. We really practice social tracing, social distancing, all the things that we need to do to be safe.
“We’re always six feet apart in meetings,” he said. “We have staff meetings in large rooms. Everyone is required and we all wear masks. Players all wear masks in meetings.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn figures facing Alabama without Saban on the opposite sideline will be the latest bizarre aspect to “a really weird year.”
“I hope his symptoms are not severe or anything. Hope he makes a speedy recovery,” Malzahn said. “It’s going to be a really weird deal playing the Iron Bowl without Nick being there. Just another sign of a very unusual season.”
Saban is one SEC regular-season victory away from tying ex-Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier for second in the history of the conference. Spurrier’s 131 SEC wins trail only Alabama legend Bear Bryant (159).
While Alabama was hopeful the Tide will still be able to play on Saturday, two more Top 25 teams called off games this weekend: No. 7 Cincinnati won’t play at Temple because both teams are dealing with COVID-19 issues and No. 14 Oklahoma postponed its game at West Virginia due to recent positive tests and contact tracing. That game is now scheduled for Dec. 12.
The American Athletic Conference said the Cincinnati-Temple game could not be made up on Dec. 5, even though both teams have an open date, because league protocols “would not allow for a sufficient number of players to be available for competition on that day.”
The unbeaten and conference-leading Bearcats’ next game is scheduled for Dec. 12 at No. 24 Tulsa, which had its Saturday game against Houston postponed because the Cougars have been hit by the virus. Tulsa is also unbeaten in conference play and with a victory next week against Navy it would clinch a spot in the AAC championship — against Cincinnati.
With Thursday’s Colorado State game at Air Force also called off, 13 games this week have been postponed or canceled across major college football. That raises the total for this month alone to 56 games directly impacted by COVID-19 issues for at least one of the teams.