Omicron impels the College Football Playoff to adjust

Something had to happen. At 2:01 p.m. Wednesday, that something arrived. The College Football Playoff, which runs the sport’s semis and the four biggest non-tournament bowls, announced its national champion could be decided by forfeit. New protocols have been put in place. These affect schools, teams, bowls, cities. Not that everything in life revolves around the media, but they also affect us.

Earlier in the day, Texas A&M pulled out of the Gator Bowl. That’s not a New Year’s Six game, but it’s big enough to cause ripples. Does somebody in, say, the Outback get bumped up to play Wake Forest in Jacksonville? Would the Outback tear up its contract with, say, Arkansas and then scrounge for a new opponent to face Penn State? Does the Gator Bowl invite 5-7 Florida State, which has time on its hands?

Over the past week, I’ve taken to counting the number of COVID-related headlines on ESPN.com. Some days there are four. Other days – Wednesday was such a day – there were six. The NHL has stopped playing. The NFL moved three games. The Hawks had a game with Cleveland postponed because of positive tests among Cavaliers. Trae Young tested positive. Quarterback Jared Goff, whose Lions are scheduled to face the Falcons on Sunday, tested positive. George Pickens and JT Daniels, big names among Georgia Bulldogs, tested positive. Bill O’Brien and Doug Marrone, Alabama assistant coaches, tested positive.

The early consensus on Omicron is that it’s not as severe as Delta but more contagious. Early evidence suggests it’s nigh-impossible to ward off this strain of COVID-19 even if you’ve been vaccinated and boosted, which makes it nigh-impossible for teams to function as teams. Texas A&M reported it was down to 38 scholarship players. There seems no chance Omicron won’t hit other teams and campuses hard.

We know from recent events that sports will do almost anything to keep from scrubbing a season. The NBA created a bubble that other sports sought to emulate. With the arrival of vaccines, those bubbles began to pop. On the eve of the 2021 postseason, MLB declared there would be no more Zoom interviews. Even if we weren’t back to normal, MLB chose to pretend we were.

The NFL and NBA also did away with Zoom sessions this fall. But wait! With the advent of Omicron, both the Falcons and Hawks held virtual interviews this week. Different colleges and conferences handled the matter in different ways. The ACC stopped virtual pressers for the 2021 football season. The SEC stuck with them up until its championship game, when there was a mix of in-person and Zoom. This came seven days after Georgia played Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ postgame briefing was in-person. The Bulldogs were still Zoomers.

That was pre-Omicron. Yet again, our world is changing with every day. The CFP has decreed that, for its games, their will be no in-person media days at stadiums, no in-person interviews anywhere. Teams have the option of arriving on site two days ahead of the semifinals and the New Year’s Six bowls, as opposed to five days. Oh, and those semis? If, say, neither Alabama nor Cincinnati is fit to play in the Cotton Bowl, the winner of Georgia-Michigan would be the national champ. This assumes Georgia and Michigan are healthy enough to show up on New Year’s Eve.

There’s no telling how these next few weeks will go. If the media can’t be allowed to get close to players and coaches, should players and coaches be forced to work before a crowd of 70,000? With transmission rampant, should non-professionals be forced to board airplanes and stay in hotels? If the CFP isn’t confident it can crown an actual champ, should it bag the postseason entirely?

To that last bit, we already know the answer. No money-making enterprise will be canceled unless/until risk overwhelms reward. If the risks weren’t too great in the days before a vaccine, would an apparently lesser version of COVID be reason enough to quit?

It’s possible all the New Year’s games will come off as planned. Experience, though, teaches us not to underrate COVID. On the evening of March 11, 2020, I watched Georgia beat Mississippi in Nashville on the opening night of the SEC tournament. Fourteen hours later, every sport in these United States had halted. It would be 15 months and two rounds of Moderna before I saw another game in person.

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