‘Stay focused’: CFP games arrive with pandemic raging, again

NCAA Football

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh celebrates with defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) at the end of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Indianapolis. Michigan won 42-3. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — They are trying to have as many fun events as they can at the Orange Bowl for Georgia and Michigan, as always taking advantage of the tropical lifestyle that the Miami area has to offer. Dinner cruises. Beach days. Water toys.

It’s just like normal.

Or, more accurately, the new normal.

College Football Playoff week is here with a pair of semifinal games on Friday: Alabama vs. Cincinnati at the Cotton Bowl followed by Georgia vs. Michigan at the Orange Bowl. For the second consecutive season, college football is going to try to get across the finish line amid a raging pandemic, with numbers soaring all over the country and some other bowl games getting canceled after teams determined they simply aren’t healthy enough to play.

“The key is just to make sure that we put every protocol in place that focuses on their health and safety,” said Jack Seiler, the president and chairman of the Orange Bowl Committee. “We’ve been able to do that. We’re just focusing on the health and safety of the players and making sure we have an incredible game on Friday night.”

The people facilitating the games in both areas — the Orange Bowl in South Florida, the Cotton Bowl in North Texas — are doing all they can to ensure the four teams are healthy and able to play. Staffs are constantly reminded about all the best practices that have become part of everyday life since March 2020, such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

The calendars for all four teams have been pared down a bit. Media sessions are virtual, and events where in pre-pandemic times there might have been some fan interaction are basically nonexistent.

“We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves we’re here for a reason,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “This is purely a business trip. We’re afforded the luxury of being in Miami in such a great hotel and have all the hospitality around us, but it doesn’t matter if we’re playing this game in Ann Arbor, Athens or Miami, we’re here for a reason, and the College Football Playoffs is that reason.”

Gattis played in the Orange Bowl for Wake Forest 15 years ago. It was a big game, but not one that was sending the winner into the national championship game so he thinks players understand why they might have to curb the fun and frolic a bit this week.

And yes, it seems that understanding does exist.

“It’s getting really crazy out here,” Georgia safety Chris Smith said, when asked about virus numbers rising just about everywhere. “They’re just reiterating the fact that you need to be safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, stuff like that, to make sure we don’t have a breakout or anything like that.”

Bowl games tend to have some sort of element of community involvement, and the Cotton Bowl is no exception. Alabama and Cincinnati were both assigned a hospital to visit in an effort to boost spirits for patients.

This week, those visits are happening virtually. Just in case.

“I think that everybody’s ability to stay focused on the task and manage their business the right way and do everything that they can from a protocol standpoint to not put themselves at risk so that they can stay safe,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Teams are also acutely aware that an outbreak right now would all but doom their title chances. If a team has an outbreak and cannot play Friday in their semifinal game, its opponent — assuming that team has enough players available — gets a bye to the national title game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. A handful of games in the NBA, NHL and NFL have been postponed in recent weeks, but the CFP schedule doesn’t allow for that.

“You’ve worked so hard to provide yourself this opportunity,” Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said, discussing his message to players right now. “The last thing we need to do is compromise that by doing something out of character.”

And no plan is perfect. No anti-virus plan is completely unbeatable. All the Crimson Tide, Bearcats, Wolverines and Bulldogs can do is make smart decisions and hope for the best.

“We’ve never lost sight of the fact that health and safety is important, and bringing people back together is important,” Seiler said. “When the lights go on Friday night, on New Year’s Eve, tens of millions of people are going to go, ‘Wow, that college football game was done right.’”

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