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Each College Football Playoff participant will use the COVID-19 testing protocols created by its own conference as opposed to a uniform testing standard, sources tell CBS Sports. Teams meeting on the field after going through different testing protocols is something that has rarely occurred this season as there have been only a handful of nonconference games nationwide.

With as many as four different conferences participating in the playoff, that could lead to testing and competitive balance issues. Most significantly, Big Ten medical protocols call for athletes who test positive to quarantine for 21 days. That's at least seven days longer than any other Power Five conference.

In those rare nonconference games this season, Power Five programs have typically paid for their opponent from the Group of Five or FCS to upgrade their testing that week so both teams matched. The playoff and bowl games will essentially mark the first time conflicting testing protocols meet on a large scale.

"They basically agreed that the conferences will trust the other conferences' protocol," CFP executive director Bill Hancock told CBS Sports, referring to the CFP Management Committee

Take for instance the case of an SEC team (minimum three tests per week) meeting a Big Ten team (daily testing). The testing disparity could create a case where one team has more players available for kickoff or later finds out they have fewer players available due to the frequency of receiving timely results.

Would the conference with the less stringent protocol adopt the more stringent protocol at some point before the game? That's certainly possible. Even though the differences may be slight among the Power Five conferences, there are essentially five different testing standards.

"It would be nice to have a uniform standard, but the conferences that are going to be powerful enough to be in College Football Playoff probably have similar enough protocols," said Zach Binney, an epidemiologist from Emory University. "The differences are probably minimal enough, but you'd probably go with the stricter protocols to have a game or not."

The CFP Management Committee, consisting of the 10 FBS commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, briefly discussed uniform testing, according to Hancock. It was determined that would be too complicated to adopt.

"It made no sense to start over with the CFP and New Year's Six games," said one high-ranking Power Five official on the condition of anonymity. "There would be different testing personnel, different collection methods, different testing labels. It was a level of anxiety nobody needed."

The less disagreement between teams on testing protocols the better. Even within conferences, that has been an issue. Clemson and Florida State got into a heated disagreement after their Nov. 21 game was postponed and eventually canceled.

"The ACC thing was going to happen sooner or later right before games," that official said. "Basically, we're not forcing anybody else's policy."

Medical officials, coaches and athletic directors from competing schools commonly have to sign off on an "attestation" at some point shortly before games that states which players are available. The ACC and Pac-12, at least, use a third-party (neutral) test administrator who oversees game day tests.

With such high stakes, will teams be honest with each other when it comes to the testing results?

"Everyone involved is motivated, has been motivated, will be motivated to make sure the participants are all healthy," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. "Based on different realities, there are different methodologies to do so. I think we've all demonstrated we can all arrive at meeting the same expectations."

There has been no formal discussion about delaying playoff games if coronavirus intervenes, according to Hancock.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby caused a stir last month when he said, "I don't know if I see us playing a championship game in February, but you just never know. These are unusual times and things that might not otherwise be acceptable have to be considered in this kind of circumstance."

Bowlsby later downplayed those comments.

The management committee decided last month not to replace a semifinal team that can't play due to COVID-19. That doesn't mean there would be a forfeit. It also leaves open the possibility the CFP could push back the Jan. 1 semifinals and Jan. 11 national championship, sources told CBS Sports.

"They've talked about everything," Hancock said of the committee. "Anything and everything. It was decided that every conference use its own protocols. It's what the teams are accustomed to. They know the testers. The testers know them."

Testing has been a daily concern for coaches, adding a new distinct layer to an already complicated job. The Big Ten and Pac-12 test daily. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC require testing three times a week. However there are potential playoff teams who decided to test more frequently on their own. For example, No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Florida now test daily. The Gators began doing so after an outbreak.

"I don't worry about it anymore," said Dabo Swinney, coach of No. 3 Clemson. "Early in the season, the first couple of weeks, you're a little freaked out about it. … Now you get the tests back quicker. But [back then], here comes that text. You're like, 'OK.' It just becomes kind of a part of our deal as we went through the season. Now, it doesn't even phase me."

Eventually, the coronavirus decides. Whatever the protocols, there is no preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak in midweek before a game. Countless teams have been forced to postpone or cancel games in the lead up.

Power Five COVID-19 testing protocols

ConferenceMin. frequencyMin. quarantineNotes


3 per week

10 days

Opponents must meet standard: 1 week

Big Ten


21 days

Big 12

3 per week

10 days



10 days


3 per week

10 days*

* Plus 4-day acclimation period

Michigan this week canceled its game against No. 4 Ohio State, which is coming off its own coronavirus problems. With that game not being played, Ohio State (5-0) might have a problem even getting to the CFP. The Big Ten requires a six-game minimum to be eligible for the Big Ten Championship Game.

Roster minimums required to play a game could be another sticking point. The SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 require 53 scholarship players to play. That list must include seven offensive linemen, four interior defensive linemen and one quarterback. Teams can still decide to play on their own if they fall below that 53-player threshold.

The ACC does not have such a roster minimum but requires "an adequate number" of players which includes seven scholarship offensive linemen.

"It's your opportunity to feel comfortable that you're playing against somebody who has a different protocol than you have," one Power Five medical professional said summing up the CFP's approach.

Approximately 18% of all games have been either postponed or canceled this season. So far, nine bowls games have been canceled for various reasons. If the math holds from this point forward, five more postseason games will not be played.

Problems could loom. South Carolina went to Kentucky on Saturday with 46 players; the Gamecocks lost by 23. The SEC allows a limit of 70 players on a travel squad. Between injuries and COVID-19, Louisiana-Monroe traveled only 59 players to Arkansas State, including only 20 defenders. That list included only two linebackers. Twenty-six first-time starters played for the Warhawks, who lost 48-15.

"It's like the injury report, 'This guy's out.' You can't sit around and dwell on it," said Brian Kelly, coach of No. 2 Notre Dame. "You gotta have the next guy ready to go."

Notre Dame's last positive came prior to the Florida State game on Oct. 10.

The CFP hasn't discussed playing in a bubble. For starters, it would likely take too long to test into it if there were any positives. There are 12 days between the Dec. 19 conclusion to the season and the CFP semifinals. Most schools adhere to current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, quarantining those who test positive for 10 days and those identified via contact tracing for 14 days.

Plus, there are the optics. Subjecting unpaid college athletes to a bubble in order to play football adds to employee-employer look the CFP and NCAA want to avoid. The CFP gets approximately $475 million from ESPN to televise the games annually.

Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday the Power Five is allowing schools to follow new CDC guidelines for contact tracing. Those guidelines shorten contact tracing quarantines from 14 days to 7-10 days with a negative COVID-19 test necessary to end the isolation. The quarantine can only be shortened by a school if local health departments have the same guidelines. That could be a game-changer as the postseason looms. 

The Big Ten's 21-day quarantine for a positive is by far the longest of any conference. Based on that standard, any player who tested positive after Nov. 28 is ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 19. Any player who tests positive after Dec. 11 will be ineligible for the CFP semifinals. Any player who tests positive after Dec. 28 will be ineligible for the Jan. 11 title game.

The Big Ten did not respond to questions asking if the length of that quarantine would be reconsidered.

The bowl experience is expected to be drastically reduced in the CFP's seventh year. Teams will arrive only two days before their games. They will mostly sequestered between the hotel, bus and game.

"Each team is going to be responsible for testing under their own protocols and testing their own teams," Fiesta Bowl executive director Mike Nealy said last week. "[They will be] at the hotel and then their own testing procedures to get them to the game. My responsibility is really testing anybody [working] on the field or around the team."

The Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl will be played without fans. The Rose Bowl is one of two semifinals this year, joining the Sugar Bowl. Not all bowls have announced attendance plans or lack thereof.

Attendance at the site of the CFP National Championship -- Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida -- is currently capped at 13,000 for NFL games. That is expected to be the standard for the CFP.