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Opinion: With omicron surging, Alabama's high rate of booster shots is a competitive advantage for the football playoff

·5 min read
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  • Nick Saban
    Nick Saban
    American football coach

As the latest COVID-19 wave runs rampant through the country and mocks the ability of sports to power through without significant disruption, leave it to Nick Saban to be one step ahead of the game.

With the College Football Playoff semifinals looming in 10 days, Saban revealed Monday night that more than 90 percent of Alabama’s football players have received their booster.

“They’ve really bought into doing everything they can to stay safe,” Saban said. “But there’s no guarantees.”

Forget the politics. Forget the impact on public health. Forget the statistical improbability of a young, healthy football player having a bad outcome if he contracts the coronavirus.

Just think about the competitive advantage for Alabama to have 90 percent of its roster fully vaccinated and boosted. Given the challenges that teams in every sport are having right now keeping their players on the field or the court, it’s a big one.

Did you really think the greatest, most detail-oriented coach in the history of college football was going to leave anything to chance? That’s not how Saban rolls.

For years, Saban has talked about eliminating as many so-called “external factors” as possible in setting up his teams for success. It turns out, there’s never been an external factor in his entire career as difficult to predict or control as a pandemic that remains uncontrolled and ever-evolving with a new variant that seems significantly more contagious than the strains we’ve dealt with before.

And it has attacked sports right in its weak spot, sweeping through locker rooms where vaccinated players are congregating, practicing, traveling and mostly living their normal lives believing that they’ve done all they can to stay away from the dreaded health and safety protocols.

Up until this point, college football is actually the only sport where we haven’t seen signs of significant disruption due to the omicron variant. But that’s almost certainly going to change now that bowl games are upon us, not to mention how many teams (including Alabama) will be releasing players to go home for Christmas where it will be difficult to maintain strict anti-COVID measures.

On Tuesday, in fact, Texas A&M fan site TexAgs.com reported that the Aggies’ football operations have been shut down since Saturday due to an outbreak. They’re almost certainly not going to be the only ones. After a season in which COVID-19 caused minimal disruption, it’s only logical that college football will get hit over these next couple weeks just like the NFL, NHL, NBA and college hoops.

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban leads the team onto the field before their game against the Georgia Bulldogs during the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban leads the team onto the field before their game against the Georgia Bulldogs during the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

And, yes, that means the threat of positive tests impacting playoff teams is very real — perhaps even as much as last year when it felt like every game was on the razor’s edge of happening or not.

This season has been much easier to navigate thanks to the generally high vaccination rates across college football, which means most players aren’t being tested regularly. If there is a positive case, schools don’t have to test entire teams or put entire position groups in contact tracing.

But college football hasn’t had to face the omicron variant yet, which seems to be hitting especially hard on the unvaccinated and those whose vaccination was more than six months ago.

Obviously, nothing is foolproof right now and information is constantly evolving. But the early data suggests that the best defense against omicron is having the booster shot. If that’s true, teams with a high percentage of boosted players are going to face fewer disruptions and ultimately have a competitive advantage during this winter surge.

It’s no surprise, then, that Alabama would lead the way in making sure as many players as possible got their boosters before the College Football Playoff.

“I’m always concerned when there’s an issue out there, and we want to do the best we can to help our players be concerned about the issue and respect it so they have the best opportunity to stay safe,” Saban said.

Translation? Saban has made very clear to his players what they’re risking if they don’t get the booster. It’s not about politics, it’s a commitment to the team and the goal of winning a national championship. In that sense, it’s no different than making sure someone doesn’t fail a class and get ruled ineligible. It’s just part of what it takes to give yourself the best chance of being on the field.

That Alabama took such great care to get nearly its entire roster boosted before this omicron surge is yet one more example of Saban being on top of literally everything in his program. No loose end is left unaddressed, no stone is left unturned. You might beat the Crimson Tide, but it won’t be because they got sloppy and loose with COVID at the most dangerous time of year for programs in the playoff.

“We let our players go home for the break last year and we educate the families, we give them a care package with everything they need to stay safe,” Saban said. “We have implemented all the protocols here since we’ve been back that we had last year in terms of wearing masks in meetings, washing hands, social distancing in meetings and we’re encouraging the players to do that when they leave here so we’re really putting the protocols in place we used a year ago, which was helpful to us.”

Everyone in sports will have to white-knuckle their way through the next few weeks until this wave burns out. Nobody knows how long it will last or how bad it will get, but it seems obvious that college football will be up next. As usual, Alabama is well positioned to withstand the challenge.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nick Saban, Alabama have competitive edge for College Football Playoff