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Ohio State's Gene Smith says College Football Playoff still on amid COVID speculation

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith on Tuesday pushed back against speculation over a possible postponement of the College Football Playoff championship game due to a rise in coronavirus cases within the Buckeyes’ program, saying the final remains on schedule for Monday night.

“Our goal is to play Jan. 11,” Smith told The Dispatch. “We’re doing the same thing we've done all year. We communicate every day with the Big Ten on where we are, and they communicate with the CFP. That’s where we are.”

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Smith offered the comments in response to published reports that said playoff officials have held discussions surrounding a potential postponement of the title game to Jan. 18.

Reports from the outlets, which included Sports Illustrated, attributed the potential disruption to COVID-19 issues within the Buckeyes’ program.

The Buckeyes held practice and meetings at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday afternoon, continuing preparations for the title game in Miami Gardens, Florida, against top-seeded Alabama.

“We're following the same protocols that we've always had,” Smith added.

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne tweeted that he has had "multiple conversations" with Smith and added that both teams are looking to play on Monday.

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But the extent of an increase in positive cases at Ohio State is not well known. Citing privacy concerns, the school has declined to disclose testing numbers of players and coaches throughout this season.

Sixteen players were unavailable for the semifinal against Clemson, though some of them were sidelined due to various injuries and were with the team on the sideline in the Sugar Bowl.

Ohio State’s COVID-19 case numbers are believed to be smaller than the outbreak that led it to cancel a Thanksgiving weekend game at Illinois, and Smith said he expected the Buckeyes would be “good to go” against Alabama unless a similar spread of the virus occurs.

More than 20 players were out for both of the Buckeyes’ games last month, including in the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern on Dec. 19.

When asked to describe his level of optimism that the final will go on as scheduled on Monday night, Smith replied, "I can't share that. Golly, this is COVID, man. Who knows what tomorrow is gonna bring?"

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren confirmed there have been discussions about the state of the title game, but viewed them as routine ones.

“We had them before the Big Ten football championship game, and then the Sugar Bowl semifinal game, and then this week,” he said. “You just have to communicate always. We’re playing football in a COVID environment."

He added, "It's COVID. We have to remain day-to-day. But I'm getting ready to travel down to Florida, and the game is scheduled for January 11 and I'm looking forward to a great game on Monday.”

Warren's flight is scheduled to leave from Chicago on Friday.

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock also told outlets that there had been no scheduling change for the championship game.

Asked if he had a sense of how widespread Ohio State’s current coronavirus outbreak is, or if there is one, Warren said, "I don't even know if there is one."

About 170 people within Ohio State’s program, which includes players, coaches and staff members, are tested each day for the virus.

Playoff teams opted to follow protocols previously established by their conferences during the regular season, including testing frequency, quarantine guidelines and cancellation thresholds.

That means a sizeable outbreak could prompt a shutdown for Ohio State.

Big Ten programs are required to suspend all organized activities, including practices and games, if both their test positivity rate exceeds 5% and their population positivity rate surpasses 7.5%.

When the Buckeyes canceled their game at Illinois during the regular season, they exceeded the population positivity rate threshold. The 170 people within the program are considered part of the population. They were not above a 5% test positivity rate, though, team physician Jim Borchers said at the time.

Following the previous outbreaks, coach Ryan Day said Monday that the team has tried to stay vigilant in following protocols.

“The virus still hasn't gone away, so we've got to make sure we're really vigilant in that area, which is still a struggle day in and day out,” he said. “It's just hard.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

brabinow@dispatch.com

@brdispatch