Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Playing in the midst of a global pandemic means that what happens off the field has a huge impact on whether anything can happen on the field.
AUSTIN, Texas — Forgive Tom Herman his superstitions.
Asked on Monday about the success of the Texas Longhorns in avoiding positive COVID-19 cases since the on-boarding process for football began back in June, Herman was reluctant to address the issue.
“I hate to even talk about it because I don’t want to jinx it,” Herman said. “We could certainly be next — I don’t think anybody has a secret formula. I think our guys are really bought in. I think they understand the diligence that’s necessary.”
In recent weeks, Herman mentioned that the players have been so diligent in reporting any potential symptoms that Texas has held them out of practice as a precaution until the medical staff could rule out coronavirus. Compared to other teams around the conference and the country, the Longhorns were able to open the season without the type of issues faced by many other programs.
This weekend’s opponent as the Big 12 opens conference play, Texas Tech, has had 75 football players test positive since returning to campus back in June. About a dozen players missed the game against Houston Baptist that ended in a two-point win for Texas Tech. Oklahoma was missing about 30 players for its season opener against Missouri State.
Multiple games planned for Big 12 programs have been canceled or postponed, including two attempts by Baylor to open the season — in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, just having enough available players to take the field is an accomplishment. In fact, Kansas State may not be able to open Big 12 play this weekend. At the least, there are already serious concerns.
Three times a week, schools in the Big 12 test football players and staff. From those tests emerges a portrait of recent program-wide decision making. Thanks to the high-contact nature of football, contact tracing from practices can eliminate entire position groups — risky decisions by a single player can reverberate through an entire program. Previous success in making the right decisions doesn’t provide any promises about continued maturity.
“I just really think our guys have bought in, which is not an easy thing to do here in Austin at the University of Texas — to live the life that that they’re having to live in order to stay safe and COVID-free,” Herman said. “For the most part, our guys continue to be diligent and it’s because they believe and they understand that in order for us to have a successful season, they’re going to have to go above and beyond this year. To this point they have. It’s up to us to make sure that we continue that level of diligence.”
The season’s first road trip provides logistical challenges that Texas didn’t face leading up to the opener against UTEP at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Adjustments for that game included separate rooms at the team hotel for each player — Herman joked that it makes bed checks much more tedious — and no team meal on Friday. Instead, players grabbed their meals and ate alone in their rooms.
“I think I said a few words to them,” Herman said. “We had a quick 15-minute chapel reflection and then get your food and go to your room.”
Now the operations staff is working on the seating chart for the plane flight to Lubbock. Contact tracing protocols mean that if Texas does have a positive case, all the players in the two rows in front of and behind that player would have to quarantine. Even if they were all wearing masks for the entire trip.
“Will you request a seat for Sam Ehlinger in the cockpit?” Herman was asked.
“He’s gonna fly on his own plane,” the Texas head coach joked.
Once the Longhorns arrived on the South Plains, the atmosphere at Jones AT&T Stadium won’t look like it normally does when Texas comes to town — even though college football isn’t playing in a bubble without fans like the NBA, Herman believes that there won’t be much home-field advantage this season.
“When you take the crowd out of the equation, there really is no difference playing at home or on the road,” Herman said.
Even with fans in the stands in recent years, Texas has played well enough to win in Lubbock consistently, with five straight road victories since the infamous loss in 2008 and an 8-2 record in the last decade. The only losses during that stretch came in 2015 and 2017 at home.
The line is also unique for this series and for Herman’s tenure at Texas — the Horns are favored by 18 points on Bovada as of Monday evening, third highest among all Big 12 games since Herman took over after the 2016 season.
Texas will face several challenges against Texas Tech, as Herman and his staff don’t have a strong idea of how new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will try to defend the Horns after Houston Baptist attempted 51 passes and only 24 runs in the season opener. As a result, Herman believes the game will provide a test for the staff’s ability to make in-game adjustments based on what they see in real time.
The defense will face a unique test, as well — Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman has missed the games against Texas due to injuries in both of his first two seasons with the Red Raiders. He’s healthy at the moment, however, after throwing for 430 yards and two touchdowns against Houston Baptist.
“We had always thought, when healthy, this guy was one of the better ones in the Big 12,” Herman said. “I think he proved that two Saturdays ago with his performance against Houston Baptist. We definitely know that he is more than capable. He is one of the better ones, again, in our league and we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
So the Longhorns won’t just need to stay safe and COVID-free in the coming days, they will also have to avoid a letdown against a team that oddsmakers believe will be overmatched by the visitors. All that confidence comes despite the fact that the opening win over UTEP came against arguably the worst FBS team in the country.
Still, Herman feels good about where his program is at right now despite those competition caveats.
“Other than we did what we were supposed to do, from that game I do think that just from the veterans being around here, seeing the makeup of different teams as well as just the overall sense of what this team is capable of, I do think that there’s a lot of confidence in that locker room,” Herman said.