The College Football Playoff has held firm that no matter what develops over the next six weeks or so, its semifinals will take place on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, California, and New Orleans, just as they would in a normal year. The winners of those games will then play in Miami 10 days later for the national championship.
But as COVID-19 cases rise exponentially around the country, a winter surge that is presenting even greater challenges to the college football season than we’ve seen at any point, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the CFP is taking a massive risk here.
It’s time to start talking about a bubble.
“There hasn’t been any discussion of a single-site bubble,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock texted on Monday night.
Why the heck not?
The College Football Playoff title game is scheduled to be played Jan. 11 in Miami. (Photo: Stephen Lew, USA TODAY Sports)
At this point, the best-case scenario for the Playoff seems to be that once teams are picked on Dec. 20, they will essentially try to bubble up as much as they can on campus until Dec. 30 when they’ll fly to the bowl sites, do a walk-through on New Year’s Eve and then play on Jan. 1. The routine would be similar prior to the championship game on Jan. 11.
In other words, the CFP has boiled the bowl week down to the basics for teams to make it close to a regular road game. No big public media days, no banquet dinners, no tours of Disneyland. That’s a good step.
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But is there anything about what’s happened over the past few weeks in college football that gives you confidence they’ll be able to pull this off without a last-minute COVID-19 problem cropping up during the 10-day periods where teams will be on campus, then traveling back and forth to different areas of the country?
Just look around at the carnage in the past several days:
►Alabama-LSU is in jeopardy because of the case numbers and contact tracing at LSU, while Auburn-Mississippi State has been postponed.
►Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, who gave a victory speech mask-less in a crowded locker room Saturday night after a win over Tennessee, is in isolation after testing positive
►Texas A&M had to pause team activities Monday due to a small number of positive tests while the entire team gets re-tested.
►The Big 10 and Pac 12, despite having a daily antigen testing program, have had issues in the first few weeks with teams such as Wisconsin missing multiple games and Utah having to miss its opener due to widespread COVID-19 issues on the team. It’s unclear whether the Utes will be able to play this week against UCLA.
►Air Force and Wyoming is canceled and won’t be made up due to an uptick in cases at the Academy, the second straight week the Falcons haven’t been able to play.
And there’s going to be more, practically every week from here on out. We know that. College football is only mirroring the trends around the country, where numbers of new cases are topping 100,000 per day and will likely stay there for awhile.
So why isn’t the CFP moving to aggressively ensure that the crown jewel of its season won’t be derailed by an issue popping up at the last minute or a Playoff team suddenly falling below the thresholds to play on its last round of tests before getting on the plane?
Other than contractual issues with the Rose and Sugar Bowls, ESPN and the significant costs of putting together a bubble, it’s truly mystifying.
The way to do this is fairly obvious, following baseball’s model for the playoffs. Immediately after conference championship games, all Playoff contenders should be tested. Once the selections are made and the COVID-19 test results are in, have all four teams fly to Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, wherever. Any city where you can keep teams close to the stadium and limit the amount of time moving from place to place.
Test them again upon entry, quarantine for a few days, and establish your bubble that will keep players and coaches in either their hotel or the practice site for the next week. Play both games back-to-back on Jan. 1, then send the two losers home and keep the winners there until it’s time to play the title game.
Nothing is foolproof, but all the evidence from other sports suggests there’s a much better chance of pulling that off rather than having four teams survive 10-day periods on campus, traveling cross-country, going back to campus, then traveling again after another 10-day interregnum.
To successfully do what the CFP is trying to do relies on teams building that kind of bubble on campus during winter break — certainly easier to do without regular students around, but also prone to variables in four different places — and then transferring it to New Orleans or Los Angeles.
At this point, the goal of the Playoff should be to do whatever it can to ensure the games get played and avoid any scenario where there’s an outbreak on one of the semifinal teams that would lead to a forfeit. Given everything college football has gone through to launch a season, it simply can’t happen.
With the way things are trending now, though, it’s hard to be optimistic that those games will happen without at least one team having a problem. Without a bubble, there are too many variables in play. If college football officials truly haven't been planning for one now, they would be wise to start.
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