For the next seven days, we do what exactly?
We keep a sleepless vigil, poised on some kind of silly, sad high alert, awaiting for word on whether the latest set of nose swabs has left Georgia with enough players to form a huddle? Or is it down to a semicircle?
Do we muse on the what-ifs posed by the very real possibility that atop everything COVID-19 has done, it may now select our next college football national champion? However could we plunge ahead into 2022 if, through some combination of disease and forfeits, we are left with Cincinnati as the reigning lord of the game? Who wants to live in a world gone that wrong?
At the same time, consider this possibility: The Bulldogs somehow dodge the most Robert Ludlum-like version of COVID yet – the Omicron variant – more successfully than the other three teams in the playoff pool. Alabama, Michigan and Cincinnati are laid low by the virus. They are so gutted they can’t compete. The College Football Playoff people already have said they are willing simply to declare a winner. Because when no one was looking, apparently Vladimir Putin took over the American bowl system.
Anyway, say the Bulldogs are awarded a championship just for being the healthiest team left standing, without playing another game. Or they beat teams so depleted by the virus that the opponents are pale imitations of themselves.
After waiting more than 40 years, living on the dust of 1980, how would Bulldogs people celebrate such a title? What kind of parade do you throw a moment like that – very humble, no bands, everyone just sort of humming the fight song? Should the trophy be made of tin? Does the virus get a ring? How much pride could there be in a protocol title?
Or, do we just do what we’ve been doing for nearly two years now, make another pivot, redefine normalcy once more, cross our fingers and hope for the best because no one has any better ideas? Yes, very much that.
It is so dispiriting to have this still hanging over what should be an uncomplicatedly glorious week of buildup for the Bulldogs and the rest of college football. Not even going to try to wrap it up in the it’s-only-sports disclaimer because that’s as worn out as the world’s patience.
It has been 13 months since Alabama’s Nick Saban missed the Iron Bowl with Auburn after testing positive. And nothing seems to change on the COVID timeline. Saban and Alabama are back in the playoff, of course, and they still are very much at the mercy of the virus.
If you’re a media member – and congratulations by the way for having more sense than that – coverage of the next week will be greatly diminished. Many of us will unpack the bags, stay at home and get what we can from the cursed Zoom interviews that are back in fashion out of COVID concerns. With no access comes no reason to go. The distance between us and those we cover keeps ever expanding.
OK, that grumble is done. Now, if you’re a fan, the next week is one in which trepidation is warping the anticipation. Bulldogs players have scattered hither and yon for the holiday, and barring any requirement that they open presents from within a plastic bubble, there are no guarantees in what shape they’ll return.
Already, backup Georgia quarterback JT Daniels and receiver George Pickens have been dropped into the COVID protocol. The quarterback kerfuffle between Stetson Bennett and Daniels was plenty heated without adding another variable. Can’t you already hear the tin-foil-hat conspiracists railing on about how all this has been invented just as a convenient way for Kirby Smart to stick with Bennett no matter what, and dull the backlash from the stands?
Every day between now and New Year’s Eve, when Georgia and Michigan are scheduled to play their semifinal, will be wracked with uncertainty over who might test positive next and whether whole teams may be eliminated by an outbreak. Not exactly the type of drama that drives sports entertainment.
Lesser bowls have shown the dark possibilities. The Hawaii Bowl was canceled, leaving a mainland with no choice but to deal with family on Christmas Eve. Texas A&M may have the 12th Man, but not enough healthy players to take part in the coming Gator Bowl. Rutgers, 5-7, was named a replacement for the Aggies by virtue of owning the highest academic progress rate among teams with losing records. COVID has so rearranged the furniture in sports as to now make scholarship actually count for something, however slight, in college football.
All that is but a weak prelude. The Orange and Cotton bowls of next week, however, just mean a whole lot more.
Georgia people sat through an entire regular season of blowouts – and the familiar pain of a loss to Alabama – just to get to this week. Then only to face a gnawing unknown brought on by a pandemic that just won’t quit, and to spend a week tiptoeing around the results of the next round of COVID tests rather than loudly celebrating the results of a playoff-worthy season.
Oh, and Merry Christmas.