ACC navigates pandemic-induced schedule changes


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

The Pitt football program has paused all team-related activities “due to COVID-related protocols,” the team announced Thursday evening. 

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

The first two weeks of the Atlantic Coast Conference college football season have come to pass with jarring normalcy.

ACC title contenders Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami have rolled through their opening week competition and made early statements that their preseason hype was deserved. Meanwhile, Boston College and Syracuse occupy their expected places in the standings’ cellar.

None of what happened in between the lines was all that surprising — the play looked like any other early season college football weekend. It was sloppy but competitive, and still ripe with the hope that comes from expectations still too young to be underachieved.

But even in the second week of major-conference play, the scenes that surrounded these games were surreal. Cavernous stadiums either sparsely attended by socially distant fans or entirely empty. Even with artificial crowd noise pumped in, the unfamiliarly loud sound of colliding pads and bitter trash talk dominated in the absence of cheering crowds.

Pittsburgh’s North Shore, usually awash with tailgaters and fans, was barren the past two Saturdays as Pitt took down Austin Peay and Syracuse in consecutive weeks without fans in the stands.

Both 2020 Panthers gamedays have gone relatively smoothly. Seven Panthers sat out the Austin Peay game due to COVID-19 protocols, and three sat out against Syracuse. But Pitt has avoided the dreaded postponed or cancelled games that follow large-scale outbreaks.

But a few future Pitt opponents have not been as lucky. With Week 3 over, the Virginia Tech Hokies have not played yet. Both their season opener versus NC State and rivalry game with Virginia were postponed due to “positive tests and subsequent quarantining of student-athletes,” ACC releases said.

The Week 2 game between the Hokies and Wolfpack was rescheduled due to an outbreak among NC State players, while the Commonwealth Cup game’s delay was due to an outbreak in the Virginia Tech program.

The Wolfpack played their first game of the season this past weekend, when they hosted Wake Forest. They escaped with a 45-42 victory and will make up their game against Virginia Tech this week before traveling to Pittsburgh on Oct. 3 to face the Panthers.

North Carolina has suffered the only cancellation of the young season. Their game versus Charlotte scheduled for this past Saturday was called off after their opponents showed signs of a coronavirus outbreak. After meeting each of the past five years for Coastal Division round robins, the Tar Heels and Panthers will not meet in 2020.

While not ideal, the ACC planned for some cancellations and postponements. After reducing the length of the schedule by one game, they also gave every team two bye weeks and left the date of the conference championship game flexible. 

Both the Hokies and Cavaliers will now be able to make up games they missed during their common open date this coming Saturday. Then, they will make up their game against each other on Dec. 12 at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, VA.

That is one of the dates that the ACC has left open to play the conference title game, so depending on whether or not either team is in contention for a spot in the game, the ACC could choose to push it back another week to Dec. 19.

But even with the failsafes created by scheduling, teams and schools only have so many chances to play with. As fall semesters begin in earnest and athletes start to more fully integrate with the general student populations on their respective campuses, the virus will become harder to control and track.

The failure of schools to contain the pandemic on campus may not have immediately pressing consequences for a football program with open dates to fill, but as the days fill up with changed dates, the pressure will mount to keep cases contained.