Had this COVID-19 pandemic never existed, the Tennessee Volunteers would be preparing this week for a football showdown of national intrigue at Oklahoma.
Which also means the Vols would be coming off their opening game against Charlotte and a memorable experience for 49ers second-year coach Will Healy regardless of the outcome. The Charlotte-Tennessee game was scratched on July 30, when the Southeastern Conference announced it would be playing a 10-game schedule consisting solely of league opposition.
"I was pretty fired up about that one," Healy, the former Boyd-Buchanan quarterback and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga receivers coach, said this week. "To make it worse, all my family was calling me this past Saturday saying it was as beautiful of a day Chattanooga had seen in 10 years and how it would have been the perfect day to be in Neyland Stadium. It would have been interesting, to be honest with you, with the results that they had over the past few days and whether they would have been able to play the game even if it was still scheduled.
"Maybe it was a blessing in disguise for everybody, but that would have been a great game for us. Getting our program on a stage like that is huge, because we're still trying to become relevant and build our brand."
Tennessee was scheduled to scrimmage this past Saturday, but coach Jeremy Pruitt reduced it to a practice due to 44 players sitting out, with the overwhelming majority of the absences due to coronavirus concerns. Pruitt still has time to assemble a healthier roster for the Sept. 26 trip to South Carolina, but this is game week for Healy.
The 49ers open Saturday at Appalachian State — barring an unforeseen spike in COVID-19 cases that already has postponed three Big 12 matchups set for this weekend — in a noon contest that will be televised by ESPN2.
"We're testing three times a week, so you're just kind of crossing your fingers," Healy said. "It's gone very well to this point, but it could literally change any day. Once it gets into the building it's hard to contain, but our guys have done a great job. We've had very few team meetings, and when we've had them, we've had them outside at a pavilion with six feet of spacing.
"We're tripling the size of our meeting space, so we've got guys meeting in hallways and weight rooms. We only have 50% capacity in the locker room. It's been nuts. My team meeting is everybody taking a knee after practice."
There have been publicized COVID-19 spikes throughout the student populations of multiple SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference universities, but it's a different story at Charlotte. The Conference USA school began fall semester classes this week online, and there are no in-person classes until Oct. 1.
"We've been in as much of a bubble as you can be," Healy said.
Healy's first season at Charlotte was similar to Pruitt's second year in Knoxville, as both programs started out 2-5 before winning their final five regular-season games in 2019. Tennessee made it six straight wins with a comeback triumph over Indiana in the Gator Bowl, but the 49ers didn't have that same postseason success, falling to Buffalo in the Bahamas Bowl.
Charlotte is placing its hopes for another bowl trip on redshirt junior quarterback Chris Reynolds, who led C-USA last season in passing efficiency, but Saturday's challenging opener — the 49ers are 17-point underdogs in the 84th game in program history — will be followed by next week's stout task of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
The 49ers will play an adjusted 11-game schedule after an adjusted preseason, and Healy has no idea when the adjustments will end.
"It's been hard to get some of the culture pieces and a really tight-knit group that I would like during this camp, but our guys have handled it well," he said. "I don't see any light in the tunnel as far as moving guys back and having 135 guys in a team meeting room. We are constantly keeping guys apart, and I don't know when that is going to end. Being on ESPN2 this weekend, we've talked as a staff about how you just can't pull your mask down.
"You hope some of this basic sanitation and hygiene stays the same whenever this all ends, but it's just hard for me to live life six feet apart from everybody."