The first socially distanced Iron Bowl will include Nick Saban's absence from Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Saban was informed Wednesday morning that he had received a positive PCR test for the coronavirus and immediately went into isolation at his home. The 69-year-old Alabama football coach had a positive COVID-19 test three days before last month's showdown with Georgia but then had three ensuing negative tests, which enabled him to coach from the sideline as the Crimson Tide pulled away for a 41-24 victory.
University of Alabama medical officials revealed Saban is experiencing mild symptoms this time and that this result will not be categorized as a false positive like before.
"The Auburn game is obviously a most important game, and we hate it that this situation occurred," Saban said Wednesday during his appearance on the Southeastern Conference's weekly teleconference, "but as I've said many times before, you've got to be able to deal with disruptions this year. Our players have been pretty mature about doing that, and we just want to carry on the best we can."
Roughly 20 college football head coaches have tested positive for COVID-19 since this most unusual of seasons started, including Dan Mullen of Florida and Sam Pittman of Arkansas within the SEC.
Saban admitted to having a runny nose but said he was not displaying any cardinal signs of the virus, such as a fever, muscle aches or a loss of taste or smell. As was the case with his October false positive, he expressed bewilderment when asked how he might have contracted it.
"I have no idea. I'm around nobody," Saban said. "I go home, and I go to the office. There are some people in and out of our house on occasion, but I have no idea how this happened."
Wednesday's surprising news broke just hours after Alabama earned the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings by virtue of its 7-0 record in which every victory is by at least 15 points.
The Iron Bowl is a rivalry second to none nationally, with the two programs having split the past 40 meetings and having combined to win four consecutive national championships from 2009-12. While Saban has yet to lose to Arkansas or Tennessee during his 14 years in Tuscaloosa, he has experienced both highs and lows against Auburn with an 8-5 record that includes a 4-3 mark against current Tigers coach Gus Malzahn.
"It's going to be a really weird deal playing an Iron Bowl without Nick being there, and it's just another sign of a very unusual season," Malzahn said Wednesday. "As a coach every day, you've got to prepare for different things, whether it's your guys coming down with the virus — it's just been a really weird year in a lot of different ways. The Iron Bowl is a special, special deal, and coaching against Nick is a special deal.
"For him not to be there is going to be really weird, but this is a lot bigger than football, and I hope that he makes a speedy recovery and doesn't have any severe symptoms."
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, a former head coach at Washington and Southern California, is overseeing preparations the rest of the week and will assume more responsibilities once Saturday's CBS-televised game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Under Sarkisian this year, the Tide have averaged a staggering 548.6 yards and 49.4 points per game.
Saban will not be allowed to have any communication from his house to the Alabama sideline or coaching booth during the contest.
"Sark has been a head coach for many years and very successful at it," Saban said. "He will continue to call the plays, and we won't really change anything other than the fact that some of the administrative game-day decisions he'll have to be involved with."
When asked how he thinks Saban will handle Saturday's experience, Tennessee coach and former Saban assistant Jeremy Pruitt said, "I think obviously that he'll be frustrated, but like with all of us, there have been a lot of first times in these last nine months."