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Looking Back at the Wild & Weird Memphis COVID-19 Saga

Memphis is finally back to playing, after a month off that started with a party bus

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It’s now been a month since Memphis opened their season against Arkansas State. It’s been a month since the Tigers began their defense of the AAC, which came with a trip to the Cotton Bowl.

Memphis’ defense of the season came with a promising win, 37-24, over Arkansas State. A month later, the win is even more impressive to those who buy into the transitive property theory, because Arkansas State beat Kansas State, who in turn beat perennial power, Oklahoma.

So, what better way to celebrate a victory during a pandemic than a party bus?

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go well. Over 40 players were shut down, either due to positive tests or contact tracing. In their statement about the issue, Memphis said, “The positive tests and subsequent contact tracing indicate that the majority of cases have been primarily linked to social events outside of official football activities.”

Despite the admission that the testing issues came from activities unrelated to football, head coach Ryan Silverfield denies that it was related to a party bus. He did say that two of the players were picked up by family, in an extended van, which was used for family and friends to go to games. So, not a party bus, just an extended party van.

The difference is worthwhile to Memphis, if only for the perception. The idea that they celebrated an out of conference win so irresponsibly is a stain on their reputation. Of course, saving that perception seems to have gone out the door with the initial report of a party bus, and the fact that an extended van for tailgating is essentially a party bus anyways. Silverfield also only ever said, “We believe.” There’s room to have been wrong about the extended van.

For the part of Commercial Appeal, they stood by the description of a party bus:

Whether it was a bus, or an extended van, the point is that a lot of people got together in an enclosed vehicle, which led to a major outbreak of COVID-19 within the Memphis program, proving just how fragile the entire college football season is. A couple of players making a decision to put themselves in a compromising situation can lead to spreading it to their teammates, and taking out a month of the season.

Finally, on September 18th, Memphis was able to restart practicing, giving them about two weeks to get ready for their next game.

The Tigers will be back in action this Saturday, as they enter the most difficult stretch they’ll have all season. It starts with SMU, whose offense is explosive, scoring 48.6 points per game through a 3-0 start. Then UCF comes to town, who they haven’t beaten in 13 straight attempts, and has been the class of the conference in the past few seasons. After that is Temple, who has been dealing with their own COVID-19 issues, but did beat Memphis last season. Finally, they have to travel to Cincinnati, predicted by many to win the conference and even push for the College Football Playoff this season.

That’s a gauntlet, and Memphis not only needs to be healthy, they can’t afford to be rusty if they expect to make another run at the AAC Championship this season.