Fitting this season – like every other the past eight months – should be shrouded in doubt right up to its championship moment. Just look at the key players in this one. They are case studies in very different ways our sports institutions have chosen to slog through a viral crisis.
Alabama comes from the SEC, a conference that was grimly determined to play out its reconfigured 10-game schedule. Unless, of course, you’re playing Vandy, then why bother?
It was the conference leading the way to play on through this mess while others vacillated. Like the Big Ten, under whose umbrella Ohio State stands. First it was, don’t play. Then it was, play a reduced schedule with no room for the inevitable COVID issues. To find a narrative as conflicted and confusing as this, you usually need to consult a teenager’s diary.
Some don’t believe Ohio State even belongs here, having played only five games in its irregular season and needing special dispensation to get into its conference championship game. It’s been as lightly tested as a Russian vaccine.
Meanwhile the SEC steamed ever onward, determined to prove just how much more important football is to it. And if that meant Alabama playing Auburn without its head coach, so be it. Some on the eastern side of the state claimed that both teams played that day without a head coach and took remedies soon afterward.
Anyway, we made it, arriving at one final rest stop on this bumpy road of the College Football Pandemic Tour. A last chance to pull over and ask, “Has it been worth it?”
To the surprise of none, Alabama coach Nick Saban was unequivocal on football’s greater purpose over the course of a festering boil of a year.
“Well, I think it’s been good for everyone that we’ve been able to play football, whether it’s NFL football or college football,” he said during Thursday’s media Zoom call.
“I think a lot of people have put a lot of time and effort throughout the country, throughout the NCAA, throughout every conference to try to create an atmosphere and environment which gave the players an opportunity to compete, the fans something to root for and look forward to, and I think that’s a real positive thing.”
Ohio State’s Ryan Day weighed all the stresses put on his players while dealing with both football and COVID – and there were many – and found value in the struggle.
“I think the hardest part was probably going through the holidays, not being around their families,” Day said. “And then the constant change. Lack of routine. Change of course here and there. The uncertainty.
“It’s something that has been difficult. I’ll say this, though: I think going through this time has made our guys stronger mentally. They’ve been able to sustain through a lot of tough times and adversity, so that’s been one of the silver linings here.”
College football didn’t carry on in the name of altruism, of course. Money considerations painted every decision. But the players – exploited on so many other levels – had their say, too. When the Big Ten announced in August it was postponing its season, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields led an online petition drive for the conference to reconsider. Oddly enough, players want to play.
From the vantage point of trail’s end it is possible to look back on a choppy, crazy-quilt college season and still be gratified that they played it.
One more game to watch – virus permitting – and why would I not watch?
Just one week in, and the promise of 2021 being much better than 2020 already is fading fast. A little mindless distraction remains good therapy.