ATLANTA — Before college football kicked off its strangest season since World War II, it was hard to settle on reasonable expectations for the sport during the COVID-19 era. Not even SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was sure what to think in September.
“Being in Atlanta on Dec. 19 naming a conference champion, I would define that as a success,” Sankey said then.
In that case, the mission was accomplished Saturday night when No. 11 Florida played No. 1 Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The season was bumpy. It was flawed. It was, at times, unfair and uncomfortable.
“It has been,” Sankey said Thursday, “a difficult journey.”
But it was a journey that continued with championship weekend and will keep going today with the noon announcement of the College Football Playoff field.
It’s a remarkable achievement.
College football was always going to be the hardest sport to pull off amidst a raging pandemic. It’s a national sport made up of diverse programs in disparate conferences with no central leadership. Playing or living in a bubble, like the NBA or NHL did, was never an option for rosters of unpaid amateurs.
Outbreaks and absences and postponements were inevitable. And they continued through the final full weekend.
Oregon won the Pac-12 championship Friday night despite not winning its division. Washington earned that honor, but the Huskies couldn’t play in the title game because they were without an offensive line. Which is kind of a problem.
It’s still better than what happened in the Sun Belt, where No. 9 Coastal Carolina’s coronavirus issues wiped off its championship matchup against No. 17 Louisiana Lafayette — the most anticipated game in conference history.
Florida State had to bail on Saturday’s rescheduled regular-season finale at Wake Forest because it didn’t have enough linemen. The Seminoles’ 3-6 season is their shortest since 1951.
But that’s still nine more games than seemed possible during the dark days of the summer. If Sankey had known in September the SEC would scratch only two of its 71 scheduled games, he likely would have viewed that as a success, too.
Cancellations weren’t the easy-to-foresee problem with this season. Grumblings surrounding the playoff were inevitable, too, especially as different conferences adopted different scheduling philosophies.
Does 6-0 Ohio State deserve a spot in the semifinals after beating Northwestern 22-10 Saturday in the Big Ten championship? Or does 8-1 Texas A&M have a better case because Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies played three more games? And because of how rough Notre Dame looked in the ACC championship against Clemson, we can engage in one of the sport’s silliest traditions: debating whether the Irish are overrated. Just like ol’ times.
As we assess a season that’s nearing its end, the biggest unknown is the health of the players, coaches and staffers. We know football played a factor in outbreaks; UF had to shut down in October after the coronavirus spread through the program following a road trip to Texas A&M.
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But we don’t know how many people associated with the sport have been hospitalized or experienced severe symptoms. We don’t even know how many players have been infected at many places, including FSU.
If you can set aside those important uncertainties — and any personal discomfort it may cause — the season met realistic expectations. There were upsets and blowouts, close calls and slip-ups, trash talk and drama. There was even a thrown shoe.
And at the end of it all, Sankey was going to be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday night to present an SEC championship trophy to a team that was probably headed to the College Football Playoff.
That sounds like a success in any year.
Especially this one.