Jim Harbaugh, Gene Smith address 100,000-fan question at Michigan, Ohio State

Sporting News

Michigan and Ohio State are still scheduled to play at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 28 in college football's biggest rivalry.

While there are positive signs about the return of live sports in the United States, how that game will look a little more than six months from now remains to be seen with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith presented two different scenarios concerning fans in the stands. Remember, Ohio State and Michigan have two of the five stadiums in the FBS that seat more than 100,000 people.

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Harbaugh appeared on ESPN's "Get Up" on Wednesday morning and suggested that playing games without fans would be the preferred course if there is not a vaccine for the novel coronavirus by the fall.

"You could definitely test both teams and the officials, but can you test 100,000 fans coming into a stadium?" Harbaugh asked, via the Detroit News. "Probably not. Heck yeah, I would be comfortable coaching a game without any fans. If the choice was to play in front of fans or not play, I would choose play in front of no fans."

Harbaugh said most of Michigan's players feel the same way. Those views do not contradict Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said last week that there will not be full stadiums until a vaccine is found.

"We need a vaccine, and we need mass quantities available to be able to test and acknowledge we have some immunity built up," Whitmer said, via the Detroit Free Press. "We're not there yet. Until that happens, I think all the organizers of these leagues understand how important it is that we act responsibly here."

As of Wednesday, Michigan had 52,350 total COVID-19 cases and 5,017 deaths. Ohio had 29,436 total cases and 1,781 deaths. On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lifted the state's "Safe at Home" order while urging residents to follow social distancing guidelines.

That also changed viewpoints for the likelihood of college football in the fall. Smith had previously said he did not envision fans being in the stands, but that tone shifted in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. He said that conversation continues with the Big Ten and other athletic directors across the country.

"We are fortunate with 100,000 seats in the stadium," Smith said. "Could we implement the current CDC guidelines, state guidelines and physical distancing, mass requirements and all those type of things in an outdoor environment and have significantly less fans than we're used to do? I think it's possible.

"I just feel like we have the talent and skill and space capacity to provide an opportunity to have access to our particular stadium," he said. "I think we can get there."

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Smith did not offer specifics about how tickets would be allocated, but he had an approximate number.

"We have played a little bit with the social distancing concept," Smith said. “That would take us south of 30,000 fans in the stands, probably closer to 20 to 22 (thousand)."

Smith later suggested on Twitter that attendance could also be higher:

All of this assumes college football takes place in the fall, and the restrictions on those two states are an interesting gauge for the rest of the country. Would the players be OK with playing football without fans? Harbaugh answered that question, too.

"Darn near every guy I’ve talked to on our team, that’s the way they feel about it," he said.

Whether there are 100,000 fans in attendance or not, it’s safe to assume that both fan bases are hoping the game is played as long as conditions allow for it.

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