The Minutemen will fly into Augusta on Friday, stay the night, play Georgia Southern at 4 p.m. (ESPN2) on Saturday, then head home after the game.
It will be the first time a majority of the players have been out of state since they were sent home in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to campus in late June.
The pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still around, more so in some places than others. UMass postponed its season in August because of it, but called an audible a month later when a majority of the country kicked off in the fall.
UMass only has one game on its schedule, but that could change at any moment. It’s how the Minutemen landed Georgia Southern. Early last week, Appalachian State canceled its game against the Eagles that was supposed to be played Wednesday. App State’s program has been shut down by the coronavirus and it opened a hole in Georgia Southern’s schedule. In stepped the Minutemen. It probably won’t be the only time UMass plays backup this season.
In an unstable season the Minutemen are well aware of how quickly things can change and what they are up against. They have repeatedly talked about how fluid and fragile the season is.
“They are educated every single day,” UMass coach Walt Bell said. “That’s at least two or three minutes of a five-minute team meaning that I have with our guys every single day. We address it every day — there are two opponents. The first opponent is making it to the plane and doing everything that we need to do, not just the two or three hours we’re together, but the other 20, 21 hours a day when they aren’t in our building. We have to continue to be as safe as humanly possible knowing that the first fight that you have is that certifying test to get on the plane and the second fight is the opponent.”
Football season is in full swing at the college level, yet it hasn’t gone smoothly. No. 8 Cincinnati postponed its game against Tulsa on Thursday due to an unknown number of positive tests within the Bearcats’ program. It became the fifth game — and fourth since Sunday — to be rescheduled this week. Overall, it’s the 30th game involving FBS teams to be postponed or canceled since Aug. 30.
On Wednesday Alabama announced that coach Nick Saban tested positive for the coronavirus. The second-ranked Crimson Tide is still scheduled to host No. 3 Georgia Saturday night.
UMass has tested well since players and coaches returned over the summer. The program has conducted over 2,600 tests and received only three positives.
One positive test came from an arriving player in late June. A second positive test came over the summer when a player returned to campus following a trip home for personal reasons. A third positive came sometime between Sept. 28 and Oct. 5. Details surrounding that third positive have not been made available.
Since Oct. 5, UMass has conducted over 300 tests with no positives.
Despite the results, Bell is not ready to call what UMass is doing a success.
“There is so much luck involved. There is so much where you’re located. There’s so much based on population. We’re just doing everything we can to stay as safe as humanly possible. We hope it stays that way,” Bell said. “I don’t think it says that we’re supermen or it says that we’re extra special. It says that our kids are being mindful about doing what we’re asking them to do, but there’s plenty of kids across many a program who have been mindful and trying to do everything they were asked to do and got unlucky, for a better word. We just try to be as mindful as we can. I’m really proud of our team and what we’ve done, but I know especially in the corona-verse that as soon as you start to pat yourself on the back, you’ll get embarrassed. Happy for our guys right now and I hope it stays that way.”
This weekend will be the first test for the Minutemen, on and off the field. On the field the team is going in against Georgia Southern with far less preparation under its belt than its opponent. That’s due to the stop-and-start nature of its season.
Off the field the team will be breaking its bubble. The Minutemen have done well on campus, avoiding the spike that saw over 100 members — mostly off-campus students — of the university test positive for the coronavirus. Bell was cagey when asked if he had concerns about breaking the bubble and hitting the road.
“It’s a hard question to answer simply because it’s become so political that any answer I give is probably going to make some people excited, make some people really upset,” Bell said. “I’m sure Georgia Southern and the University of Massachusetts are doing everything they can to keep our kids safe. The health professionals in our country think it’s safe for us to do this and I’m sure both teams are doing everything they can to exercise as much safety as humanly possible.”
MORE KALE — Bell has raved about the Ellis Merriweather, the junior college transfer who will likely be the top option out of the backfield this season. Merriweather is listed at 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, but Bell said he’s snack away from 230.
“I’m all good with it,” Bell said. “Nobody likes to tackle big dudes.”
Merriweather said his snack of choice would be kale. “They say it’s a super food,” he quipped.
The running back was asked about what people need to know about him and he didn’t hold back. “I’m a freight train and I’m going to bring it every single play. They better bring it to.”
DEPTH CHART — Bell made sure to say he didn’t put a lot of effort into making his first two-deep depth chart. He did say to expect to see a lot of different players on the field against Georgia Southern.
“There will probably be 25, 30 guys who play snaps in the game and play significant snaps,” he said. “We had 17 practices and no real fall camp. So from a conditioning level alone we’re going to have to play a bunch of guys. Not only on top of it being your first game, where there’s going to be a huge adrenaline dump and no matter what type of shape you’re in, you’re going to get winded quicker than normal, we’re going to have to play a ton of guys. There will be guys not on that two-deep that play in the football game and get significant reps.”
Mike Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.