Opinion: COVID concerns will keep College Football Playoff teams on edge all the way to kickoff

·6 min read

From sand castles on South Beach to unmasked players gathered around a jet ski, the Georgia football Twitter account Tuesday was filled with images that would have seemed completely normal for an Orange Bowl in almost any other year.

But during this postseason, with COVID-19 surging once again and forcing the cancellation of five bowl games thus far, it looked a bit too much like tempting fate.

“It's really close to the game, and we've got to be careful,” Georgia offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer said. “Being careful is the most important thing, being healthy is the most important thing. We need all hands on deck.”

With the College Football Playoff semifinals set for Friday, there’s suddenly nothing more relevant to the outcome of both games than dodging the highly contagious omicron variant that has wreaked havoc with every sport over the past couple weeks.

While it seems unlikely that a forfeit would be on the table for any of the Playoff teams given the relatively loose testing protocols, it’s also implausible that the games will be completely unaffected by COVID-19 given how prevalent it is in the country right now.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has said more than 90 percent of his players have received their booster.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has said more than 90 percent of his players have received their booster.

In fact, one of the major lines of questioning for Michigan on Wednesday was whether all-Big Ten safety Daxton Hill was even in Miami or still back in Ann Arbor dealing with the coronavirus.

“We’ll let Coach Harbaugh answer that question," Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara said, which was a nifty piece of diversion since Harbaugh wasn’t scheduled to speak to the media until Thursday.

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Regardless of what Harbaugh says, we won’t know for sure whether semifinal teams are missing any players until shortly before kickoff since college football’s requirements for disclosing roster information are practically nonexistent. Which means the threat of positive COVID tests affecting the national championship looms over all four teams like an anvil this week — which has nothing to do with the amount of testing, contact tracing, politics or anything else that fans want to blame.

At the end of the day, it’s the virus. And college football is just going to have to hold on tight until a national champion is crowned on Jan. 10.

“We know what’s at stake, and we know what’s out there in the world, the virus and stuff,” Alabama tight end Cameron Latu said Wednesday as his team prepared to play Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl. “So we know how to handle it. And we made rules within our team to stay away from the virus. So we got that under control.”

Or so they hope.

Unlike 2020, when teams had games postponed or canceled because regular testing and contact tracing wiped out entire position groups, the 2021 season was relatively smooth thanks to friendlier protocols and high vaccination rates. Players were only tested for COVID-19 if they were unvaccinated or showed symptoms, and as a result, California was the only team to have a game postponed due to an outbreak.

But omicron has been a different challenge. Testing of unvaccinated players — again, a protocol that has been going on all season long — is revealing more positives. In some cases, that’s leading to wider testing of close contacts. But contrary to some of the narrative out there, much of the testing is being triggered by symptomatic, vaccinated players who are experiencing breakthrough infections.

The result has been an endless loop of finger-pointing.

The typical voices on the political right who have screamed every day since March 2020 that COVID-19 is no big deal blame too much testing. Those who have been inconvenienced by the cancellation of a bowl game are creating conspiracies out of thin air to suggest their opponent didn’t want to play the game in the first place. And every picture of an unmasked player or coach in public becomes fodder if there’s an outbreak — just ask UCLA, whose pictures from a visit to SeaWorld and the USS Makin Island assault ship days before they had to pull out of the Holiday Bowl added to the rage of NC State fans.

In reality, most of this is nobody’s fault. Everyone adjusted to a new normal after the vaccines became widespread in 2021, and it’s hard to return to pre-vaccine behavior. But omicron has changed the game, at least for a little while. Just look at the disruption it’s caused for NBA, the NFL, the NHL and college basketball over the past few weeks, all of which had been getting on just fine until the current wave.

It just happens to come at a very inconvenient time for college football, where a lot of these bowl teams were running at limited capacity anyway thanks to opt-outs, transfers and coaches changing jobs. Throw some COVID-19 positives into the mix, and these situations can devolve quickly. UCLA says it was good to go for the Holiday Bowl on Monday. By Tuesday, it was headed back home just hours before kickoff.

Now, normal interactions like merely going out in public suddenly look risky when it could cost you the ability to play in a semifinal game. And that’s a tough thing to balance when part of the whole experience of the playoff is enjoying the city and events surrounding the game.

“When (the head of Georgia’s athletic training staff) saw things starting to spike, we increased our sensitivity to that,” coach Kirby Smart said. “We increased a lot of things around our building and our awareness of our players and understanding what's going on. We’ve offered guys opportunities to get booster shots, and some of our guys have, some of them haven't, but they've really adhered to the policies we've asked them to and been able to steer clear for the most part. We had a little bout the last couple weeks that we lost some guys, and we've gotten most of those guys back, and really that's the biggest thing is being at full strength when you have to be, and that's what we're aiming towards.”

To hear Alabama tell it, they’ve done nothing in Dallas except go to practice and hang around the hotel, which is probably the smart move. Last week, coach Nick Saban said more than 90 percent of players had received a booster shot, which only increases the odds of having everyone available on game day.

“I don’t feel like we’re missing out on anything,” defensive tackle DJ Dale said. “We came here to play a football game and to win a football game. So everything else, it really doesn't matter to me. I assume that’s how the whole team feels. We came here on a mission and just to get it done, and then I have to get back to Tuscaloosa. So that's all I really care about.”

It’s deeply unfortunate that college football is back in this place. In some ways, it’s even worse than last year because omicron happened so quickly and unexpectedly, and as usual, the adjustments to the virus are a half-step slower than the disruption it causes.

After a regular season without any significant COVID-19 issues, hopefully its impact on the Playoff is minimal. But until kickoff Friday, all four of these teams are going to remain on edge.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football Playoff: COVID concerns on rise after bowls canceled