Leistikow: Amid COVID-19 pause, Iowa hopes to play Music City Bowl. But is it realistic?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When he held a Sunday-afternoon bowl-announcement news conference from his home, Kirk Ferentz already knew about widespread positive COVID-19 tests among his coaching staff but wasn’t planning to reveal details beyond his own diagnosis that has him isolating for 10 days.

“We haven’t talked about COVID at all this year and don’t plan on it now,” Ferentz said then. “If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t have announced mine. But it would have become obvious at some point, I think, and it is public knowledge — or at least public information.”

So don’t expect Ferentz to expand on the identities of the several players or other five coaches who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, a development the Register first reported Monday night. The biggest next questions are how many more positive tests might be looming; and whether the TransPerfect Music City Bowl will be played (or should be played) after Iowa paused workouts “for a minimum of five days” in light of the football-program outbreak.

With no media availability scheduled Tuesday, we can only go back to Ferentz’s Sunday comments on the topic of whether this game will be played. Throughout that Zoom call, Ferentz referenced time and time again how much he values every minute with the team. And, no surprise, the Iowa program recruits players who tend to feel the same way.

“Selfishly, that’s what I love doing — is going to practice,” Ferentz said, acknowledging that the Big Ten Conference received a huge luxury by getting access to daily-antigen rapid testing as a way to play a football season during a pandemic.

A view of Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans and site of the TransPerfect Music City Bowl. The game is on as scheduled for now between Iowa and Missouri, the bowl says.

To that end, he later added: “We’re not taking one day for granted moving forward. We know each and every day, if we get one, boy, it’s a blessing. We want to make sure we’re maximizing it.”

The earliest Iowa can return to practice is Saturday, the day after Christmas. That would be the equivalent of a Tuesday of a normal game week. Not ideal, but logistically possible to be ready for the 3 p.m. kickoff against 5-5 Missouri at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

“Playing (on) short weeks at the end of the year, it’s not that big of deal if everybody handles it right,” Ferentz said.

It’s also notable that Missouri isn’t beginning practices until Saturday, either. The Tigers have been short-handed all year due to COVID-19 and contact tracing. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, they’ve played with fewer than 60 available scholarship players in six of their 10 games.

First-year coach Eli Drinkwitz's approach seems to mirror Ferentz's. After meeting with his seniors, Drinkwitz said the Tigers would move forward with the game despite being short-handed. Two key Missouri players have already opted out of the bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft.

“We’re going to have some adversity in this game, but it’s an opportunity for us to compete,” Drinkwitz said in the Post-Dispatch. “… You’ve got to remember, when this thing started it was started by players saying, ‘Let us play. Let us play. Let us play.’ Our team still wants to play.”

Iowa’s biggest hurdle to play the game as scheduled will be Big Ten protocols. The percentages are the percentages, and medical experts — football team doctor Andy Peterson and UI infectious-disease representative Jim Torner — are charged with testing and assembling the numbers.

If the program is “red/red” under Big Ten protocols — over 5% positivity on daily player tests over a seven-day rolling average and over 7.5% positivity on football population (among approximately 170 “Tier 1” athletes, coaches, staff) — then the team is forced to pause activities. Based on information the Register has obtained, it would seem challenging to get that latter number under 7.5% by Saturday.

However, if the program is “orange/red” — orange being between 2% and 5% player positivity — then Big Ten protocols say the team “must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention (alter practice and meeting schedule, consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition).” Torner said in a Tuesday e-mail to the Register that athletes' daily-test results will be a key factor over the next week.

Simply based on Ferentz’s approach to date, the guess here is if Iowa will try to play if the rules and medical experts say they can play.

But if it’s really an “orange/red” situation, there should be legitimate debate about whether playing is the smartest thing to do.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta has said that the Music City Bowl will cost his athletic department money.

For what it's worth (literally), athletics director Gary Barta said Monday that this year's bowl games would be a financial loser for the Big Ten. So playing isn't about the money.

If the game is played, it’ll arguably be the least significant matchup for the Iowa program since 2012, when it lost its last six games to finish 4-8.

Even the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl had major implications over the program’s future at quarterback. And while the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl might’ve been a low-tier game nationally, it was important then for Iowa to subdue a five-bowl-game losing streak. Iowa is favored by more points against Missouri (15) than it was against any Big Ten foe during a 6-2 regular season; this is hardly a marquee postseason matchup.

Of course, having the game very likely means more of the coronavirus will return to Iowa. There's little way around that, with the travel over the holidays involved and the fact that Tennessee is a national hotspot — just as Iowa's daily cases have slowed. Thousands of fans would come from out of state to this game. College athletics officials may not like hearing that, but the reality is all these bowl games with fans present considerable risk of introducing more virus back at home. 

What’s next? We wait.

I asked the Music City Bowl folks if they would consider postponing the game. Their response: “We understand Iowa has paused football activities, but we continue to plan for the TransPerfect Music City Bowl to be played on Dec 30.”

Game on? Tenuously. For now.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.