Over the past four weekends, only once has Georgia played when it thought it would. The Bulldogs were supposed to face Kentucky on Oct. 24. That game was pushed back a week because of SEC schedule-juggling. The Florida game in Jacksonville came off as scheduled, though not as hoped. This week’s Missouri game was postponed at 10:52 EST Wednesday. The makeup date could be as late as Dec. 19, providing Georgia isn’t playing for the SEC title that day. Or the game might never be played. With four postponements in a week, the SEC has fallen into a logistical tangle.
None of the Power Five conferences started on time. The Big Ten and Pac-12 said they were out, but the sight of the ACC, SEC and Big 12 playing in September shamed the two holdouts into reconsidering. But now we ask: With all the cancellations/postponements, might the Big Ten and Pac-12 have gotten it wrong after actually getting it right?
On Wednesday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he’d been telling those who’d ask: “Let me get through the games of Thanksgiving, and I’ll feel comfortable.” Then Sankey said: “Obviously, that’s changed. I have to acknowledge (being) troubled by what’s happened this week with our postponements.”
The pandemic worsens by the day. A week ago, U.S. daily cases broke the 100,000 mark for the first time. On Thursday, new cases soared above 150,000. This dwarfs anything we saw back in March/April, when the nation essentially shut down. We also saw in the spring that a shutdown carried a heavy cost, economic and otherwise, of its own. Nobody is eager to close all schools and churches again. But if the virus continues to rage, and the vaccine remains only a possibility, what’s the alternative?
The folks who run college football had a lot of time to think about what, come the fall, they should do. Unlike the NBA and NHL and college basketball, football wasn’t in-season when the virus hit. (Baseball was in spring training.) College administrators were having three Zoom calls a week to discuss strategy and protocols. They spent so much time figuring out a way they might play – and we’ve seen it work, though not all the time – that the philosophical component got tamped down. They stopped asking, “Do we NEED to play?”
Financially, they did. We’ve already seen the cost of not having football played before packed stadiums. Power Five schools have had to drop other sports, and that came only after the NCAA tournament was canceled. Football is on the 2020-21 fiscal year. The economic state of collegiate sports will get only worse.
And the greatest fear – that players would get really sick – hasn’t come to pass. Players have tested positive, yes, but it’s believed none has required hospitalization. Coaches have tested positive, done their time in quarantine and resumed coaching. Still, with COVID spiking as never before, we should look beyond football programs.
Most schools have allowed a certain number of fans at games, most of which are played outdoors. We’re approaching Thanksgiving, which means more people will be traveling and clustering than at any time since this began. At such a moment, is it in the interest of public health to stage anything that will bring more than a handful of people to a single place?
Among those who oversee the college game, some optimism remains. (Sankey: “I’m shaken but not deterred.”) As strange as it sounds, college football might benefit if colleges themselves opt not to reconvene after Thanksgiving. Then football players could essentially bubble up on campus for three weeks, which athletic departments would love. The date to remember is Dec. 20, when the CFP picks its field of four.
As for the playoff: There will be controversy. There’ll be fewer “data points” for the committee to consider. There’ll have been no significant out-of-conference games. Would a 9-1 non-SEC champ, which Texas A&M could be, trump an 11-1 non-ACC champ, which could describe Notre Dame? Would either/both be preferred over an 8-0 Ohio State? What of a 7-0 Oregon?
Those are the discussions college football bigwigs hope they’re having as Christmas draws night. Those same folks also know the road to Dec. 20 might not be navigable. It’s a minor miracle the sport has gotten this far. For it to go the distance, a major miracle will be required.