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The First to Cancel the Season, MAC Football Returns the Right Way

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JON RIDINGER
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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The MAC returns for a six-game season beginning tonight. Kent State hosts Eastern Michigan, while Akron hosts Western Michigan. Games will be played without fans.

After being the first in Division I to cancel the football season back in August because of the pandemic, the Mid-American Conference returns Wednesday night. Schools including Kent State and Akron decided to play a shortened season after most other conferences were getting back on the field.

WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto found out what went into this decision and how the MAC is keeping players and staff safe.

Going through the data
Pluto spoke with MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, who said there were too many unknowns surrounding COVID-19 when they scrapped the season in August. They decided it was best to let powerhouse conferences like the SEC and the Big Ten take the lead.

"[The MAC] just spent a lot of time gathering data and researching. I give them high marks on this one and [how] they handled it," Pluto said.

One of the factors that led to the decision to bring back the season was what showed up in the data. Steinbrecher said the coronavirus isn't being transferred as much during contact sports as it is in other gatherings.

"You're finding out a lot of the kids that are testing positive are [doing] social activities in the dorms as opposed to football players," Pluto said.

Testing and TV contracts
The biggest breakthrough for the MAC was the advancements in COVID-19 testing. Rapid tests allow teams to conduct testing frequently. Pluto says the roughly 175 players and staff on each team are being tested four times a week.

"[The MAC] just spent a lot of time gathering data and researching. I give them high marks on this one and [how] they handled it,"
Terry Pluto

All of that testing is expensive, especially for a mid-major conference that doesn't have the big budgets of Ohio State and Alabama. "The first test is about $50. Then if you test positive, there's a second test they give you that's like $90 per test," Pluto said. Pluto says according to Steinbrecher, the MAC is covering the cost.

Pluto says another factor that went into the decision to play is the MAC's TV contract with ESPN. "The old contract they had paid each school about $900,000 for its rights to football games. My guess is this is going to be a little less."

Structure for student-athletes
Pluto says the conference also felt it was important for the players to get back on the field.

"When players are in season under the watchful eye of the coaches, and with the tutors and everything, they do better in a structured environment. They do better academically. They do better socially, and this is helping them emotionally. I buy it," Pluto said.

What to expect from Kent and Akron
Pluto says he'll be closely following Kent State and Akron.

"Kent State. They were 3-6 at one point last season. They opened with one of those brutal schedules and got crushed," Pluto said.

Kent State rallied to finish 7-6 and went on to beat Utah State in the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl for the school's first-ever bowl win. The Golden Flashes faced future NFL quarterback Jordan Love in that bowl game. The Green Bay Packers traded up in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft to select Love as a potential successor to Aaron Rodgers.

"[Kent State has a young head coach who is now 34-years-old in Sean Lewis. They have a really nice quarterback named Dustin Crum," he said.

Pluto also is watching the Akron Zips, who went winless in 2019 but believes second-year head coach Tom Arth can build a winner. "Tom has been very successful everywhere he's been until Akron. If anyone can make it work at Akron, I think it's Tom, but boy he has a long way to go," Pluto said.

And Pluto believes both teams having the chance to play this season will work to their favor.

"When you're 0-12, you want to get your kids on the field. You don't want them to wait a whole year," he said.

Kent State hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since the mid 70's, and Pluto says these six games are a chance for Sean Lewis to build some momentum.