Editor's note: The Huskers’ game Saturday against Wisconsin has been canceled and logged as “no contest” after the Badgers announced on Wednesday that it had too many positive COVID-19 tests this week. Read more here.
What does it take for a Big Ten game to get canceled because of the coronavirus? Perhaps only a team’s own discretion and caution.
Word leaked out this week about positive COVID-19 tests inside Wisconsin’s football program — specifically with its quarterbacks. The Badger athletic department and coach Paul Chryst declined to comment publicly about specific players. But Chryst said Monday he was confident about the game with Nebraska being played, presumably because of roster size and players available at given positions.
Roster size and position limits would be one factor that could take out a team for up to three weeks, since players have to sit out a minimum of 21 days whether they have symptoms or not. For example, if all five Wisconsin quarterbacks tested positive, the Badgers could meet the Big Ten testing protocol thresholds — we’ll get to those in a minute — but they wouldn’t have any quarterbacks. The same thing could happen to kickers or some other position.
But there are other ways COVID-19 could knock a Big Ten team out of a game without the program necessarily being down for 21 days.
» Meeting the “red/red” threshold limit on the Big Ten testing protocols. That means 5% of the team, on a seven-day rolling average, tested positive for COVID-19, and 7.5% of the team population (coaches, trainers, staff, administrators) tested positive. A minimum seven-day halt is put in place for practice or competition.
» If 2%-5% of the team or 3.5%-7.5% of the team population tests positive, this is the “orange/orange” threshold. The minute any Big Ten team meets that, according to protocols, it appears to have the discretion to “consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition.”
How does a team meet red? Here’s where we do some math.
The Team Positivity Rate (TPR) is calculated daily. A team can test 170 people six days a week, and the Big Ten recommends 120 players and 50 staff — Nebraska is doing that, per a team official — but it allows flexibility in those ratios. That’s 1,020 tests per week.
In order to meet the red testing threshold on the TPR, a team that takes 1,020 tests would have to have 51 positives.
Meeting red takes a massive outbreak, the kind that would indeed shut down a team for three weeks. It’s hard to do. Given that a lot of these teams had players test positive months ago, it may be darn near impossible.
The Population Positivity Rate (PPR) is different in an important way. That denominator stays at 170 all week. It doesn’t change regardless of how many total people are tested.
By this measure, the testing threshold is 7.5% to get into red. And that takes only 13 positive tests among players and staff. That’s not a massive outbreak.
It’s also not an automatic pause. Only red/red is an automatic pause. Again: It takes a ton of positives to get to red/red. But orange/red? That can be reached with just a minor outbreak.
And at that point it’s up to the team in orange to decide how to proceed.
There’s another potential curveball. Some teams may not be testing 170 players and staff for a variety of reasons. One reason: Players who already tested positive months ago aren’t being tested now.
Remember when Wisconsin paused football and men’s hockey workouts in September? The Badgers did so because of rising cases.
The Big Ten has a policy that doesn’t require athletes to be tested within 90 days of their recovery from the virus. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that 56 football players had tested positive for the virus from early June through Oct. 26.
How many of those 56 are being tested now? It matters because the 170 could become smaller very quickly if those players aren’t being tested.
It’ll be worth watching over the next several days. Remember:
» It’s really hard to have a Team Positivity Rate hit 5% for a week, unless you’re testing way below the limit or you have a massive outbreak.
» It’s not hard to have a Population Positivity Rate hit 7.5% for a week, but that doesn’t necessarily shut down a team.
» We don’t know if Wisconsin’s issue is TPR or PPR. If it’s TPR, the Badgers will have major problems for a month. If it’s PPR, perhaps not.
The math is crucial.