COVID-19 numbers put Michigan-Ohio State football game at risk

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The COVID-19 positive-test numbers don’t look promising for Michigan football, and its annual game against arch-rival against Ohio State next week could be in jeopardy.

Michigan canceled Saturday’s game against Maryland because of an increased number of positive COVID-19 positive results. There were 14 positive results among Michigan athletes between Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, according to a weekly release from the athletic department on Friday that does not specify the results by teams. There were 2,562 athletes and staff tested, with 15 positive results. That includes one staff member.

There is growing pessimism inside the football building that the Wolverines will be able to play at Ohio State on Dec. 12. Additionally testing is being done and the Michigan medical staff working with the program will have some answers on Sunday.

A report from the Associated Press on Thursday indicated 12 football players had tested positive. Michigan paused in-person activities on Monday and canceled the Maryland game on Wednesday.

Michigan is scheduled to take on Ohio State on Dec. 12.

In the previous Michigan COVID-19 testing data released by Michigan Nov. 27, seven athletes had tested positive. The Michigan COVID numbers include testing of the four teams and their staffs currently on campus – football, men’s and women’s basketball and hockey.

The Big Ten has the most restrictive rules of the Power Five conferences in terms of when a player can return after a positive COVID-19 test. There is a required 21-day layoff, because there must be cardiac tests and a week-long reacclimation period.

According to conference regulations, there is a “Test Positivity Rate and Population Positivity Rate" based on a seven-day rolling average. Because Michigan is not specific by sport in the data released, it is difficult to determine for certain where football falls in the Big Ten’s color-coded testing spectrum. Michigan’s team roster is comprised of 131 players.

More: Michigan mailbag: Harbaugh's future, waving white flag on season?

The test positivity rate is the number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered: Green is 0-2 percent, orange is 2-5 percent and red is greater than 5 percent.

Population positive rate is the number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk: Red is greater than 7.5 percent.

Last Friday, Ohio State, whose coach Ryan Day had tested positive, canceled its game at Illinois because of an increase in positive results. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters the Buckeyes could have played but said it was the right decision to cancel.

"The thresholds that the Big Ten has put in place, that the medical subcommittee has put in place, I don't think any team in our league has actually hit those," Smith told reporters last week. "I might be wrong, but I don't think so.”

Smith, in his most recent "Gene Smith Podcast," said he expects the Wolverines will play the Buckeyes Dec. 12 at Ohio Stadium as scheduled.

“They have a lot to play for,” Smith said, according to a Columbus Dispatch report. “I know that they're having some challenges this week because they had to shut down. But I think they'll be back. I know they enhanced their protocols.

“They stopped on Monday. So that gives them a good seven days to try and basically do what we did – to try to make the corrections that need to be made. I think they'll be back and we should be able to play unless they have a rash that’s uncontrollable. I know they want to play. I'm sure that they're working hard to make sure they have the chance to play.”

During a national broadcast Tuesday night, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, a former OSU quarterback, suggested Michigan would skip the game to keep the Buckeyes under the six-game threshold needed to qualify for the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes are No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and are the league's option to make the national playoff.

"I still think Michigan waves the white flag and potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week and then they’ll potentially get a game on the 19th,” Herbstreit said. He apologized to Michigan later that evening.

Michigan on Wednesday cancelled its home game against Maryland that would have been played Saturday. The Wolverines had paused in-person football activities on Monday and Tuesday “out of an abundance of caution,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday as they awaited confirmation of presumptive positives.

Harbaugh was asked Monday if the Thanksgiving holiday could have played a role in the increased spike. He said there wasn’t much travel and no players took flights.

“Our coaches and staff encouraged players to refrain from gathering for Thanksgiving meals and had a mid-week call with the players’ families to reiterate those feeling as the team headed into the holiday weekend,” Michigan football spokesman Dave Ablauf said Friday in an email.

“Many of our players live together so they could have chosen to eat together just like any other day of the week; even though eating in groups has been discouraged by the staff throughout the season. In keeping with the daily plan and process, players were provided grab-and-go Thanksgiving meals so they could eat at their place of residence.”

The earliest Michigan can resume in-person football activities is Monday.

"No decision has been made beyond that date,” Ablauf said.

The Wolverines (2-4) had been part of a small group that had played every game this year, along with Penn State, Rutgers, Indiana and Iowa. Northwestern had played all its games but it’s matchup with Minnesota on Saturday also is canceled.

Harbaugh was adamant about playing football this fall, especially after other Power Five conferences, including the SEC, decided to play. UM coaches and players participated in a #WeWanttoPlay protest organized in Ann Arbor by Michigan football parents on Sept. 5, the day Michigan was supposed to open the first Big Ten-only 10-game schedule. The Big Ten reinstated the season later that month, eight games with a one-game crossover at the end of the season, and began play Oct. 24.

Despite the number of game cancellations across the Big Ten, Michigan’s stiff testing protocols and adjusting practices when players have to miss a day here or there because of COVID contact tracing, Harbaugh said he has no regrets about having this season.

“I believe it has been worth it,” Harbaugh said Monday. “There are challenges in football, there are challenges in life. Responding and rising up to that challenge is something I believe in very strongly. That’s how I feel about it.”

Since Michigan began testing in mid-June, tests have been administered to 27,578 athletes and staff with 201 positives. Of that total, 179 athletes have tested positive.

Twitter: @chengelis