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The start of the fall semester threatens BYU football’s bubble, but the Cougars say they’ll continue to adapt

(Photo courtesy of Jaren Wilkey | BYU) Payton Wilgar during BYU football practice in Provo, Aug. 7, 2020.

With the start of BYU’s fall semester less than a week away, students are making their way back to Provo for classes. But it’s not the usual hustle and bustle the campus has seen previous years.

On average, BYU is home to more than 30,000 daytime students. That won’t be the case this year as the University is offering a hybrid model for classes that combines in-person and remote learning. BYU also has expanded the number of BYU online courses.

Still, the addition of even a fraction of BYU's student population, which are returning to on-campus housing in phases, will threaten to burst the BYU football bubble.

Sophomore Max Tooley has noticed a difference between the return to school this fall compared to previous semesters. It’s been less social.

“People shy away from human interaction, almost,” Tooley said. “But I don’t know, I feel like at the moment there’s not as much going on on campus. So, it hasn’t been too much of a change. But I’m sure in the next couple of weeks we’ll get more of a taste of what it’s going to be like.”

Since the start of fall camp three weeks ago, the Cougars have been able to keep a bubble environment with the team and staff. While each person goes home to different locations or living arrangements, the team and staff has taken on the necessary precautions and avoids going out to unnecessary places or situations.

Coach Kalani Sitake said he and his staff will continue to educate the players, but what they are doing at the moment may change — just as precautions and information has changed since the pandemic started.

“It’s not like we’re doing the same things now that we did a month ago or two weeks ago,” Sitake said. “We’re always trying to evolve and try to find ways to stay on top of everything, whether that means a certain type of test we have out there or keep promoting the different resources that we have … I think the key for us is the social distancing and trying to educate our players, when they’re not here, how to take care of themselves.”

Along with the return of students to campus, visiting teams could also pose a threat to the Cougars' bubble.

BYU is set to start the season on the road, visiting two military institutions first (Navy Sept. 7, Army Sept. 19). Then the Cougars will be home for the rest of the 2020 season.

Teams will be coming in from Alabama, Texas and Kentucky.

Alabama is currently under an amended Safer at Home Order that went into effect July 31. While the state of Texas is not under similar orders, Harris County (Houston) has the state’s highest case count among counties. Harris County is also currently on Level 1, or severe, of its color-coded system — meaning outbreaks are present and worsening and residents should avoid leaving home.

The state of Kentucky also has the State Health Operations Center operating at a Level 1, its highest activation level.

While each team is surely taking every precaution to maximize their chances playing this fall, transmission of coronavirus can come down to something as simple as a handshake.

When asked about how the Cougars plan to maintain their bubble when visiting teams come to LaVell Edwards Stadium, Sitake said “that’s not in my area of expertise.”

”I’m worried about what [opponents are] trying to run offensively and defensively and special teams-wise,” Sitake said.

However, the bubble will be key to helping make sure BYU gets to play its revised 2020 schedule.

Being the only college football team left in the West with plans to play a fall schedule hasn’t gone unnoticed, Tooley said. The sophomore is grateful for the opportunity.

“You never know when it’s going to be your last play, last play of the season,” Tooley said. “So, I think we’re just feeling blessed to be able to have this opportunity to go out there and show what we have while the rest of the West doesn’t necessarily have that opportunity. I think every opportunity that we’re going to get this year, we’re going to feel grateful for and we’re going to make the most out of it.”

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