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Column: If college football can make it to the championship game, it'll be dumb luck

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY
COVID-19 has disrupted the 2020 college football season from the start, so no one should be surprised it's a factor again ahead of national championship game between Ohio State and Alabama.

You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you? 

After a disjointed, unpredictable slog of a college football season, did you really expect to sail into Monday night’s national championship game without walking the same tightrope of COVID-19 tests and contact tracing that teams have been walking for four months? 

Game still on:Ohio State's Gene Smith says College Football Playoff still on amid COVID speculation

Every day of this season has been a series of hold-your-breath moments, with teams unsure from one day to the next whether they’d play that week. Why would Alabama vs. Ohio State for the College Football Playoff title be any different? 

To be clear, as of Tuesday evening, the likelihood is that the championship game will be played on schedule Monday in Miami. That was true when murmurs of COVID-19 issues at Ohio State started to bubble in the college football gossipsphere at the beginning of the week, and it was true by the time it went public via an AL.com report that there had been discussions about pushing back the game. 

Subsequent statements from Ohio State and the playoff executives make it clear that the Buckeyes intend to play Monday, with caveats that things can turn on a dime in this COVID-19 world. 

“This is COVID, man,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told The Dispatch on Tuesday. “Who knows what tomorrow is gonna bring.” 

Anecdotally, the feeling around the sport was that the stakes were too high and the logistics too difficult to delay the game — unless the Buckeyes were so short-handed that playing it truly endangered the health and safety of their team. 

But doesn’t the fact we’re even having this discussion less than week out from a championship game demonstrate again what a high-wire act this sport has had to perform? 

More:Concerns over further COVID-19 spread led Ohio State to cancel football game at Illinois

Let’s not sugarcoat it: If the game goes off as scheduled Monday, it will not be owed to some great blueprint or foresight on the part of college football officials. Mostly, it will be risk tolerance and dumb luck. 

In conversation after conversation this week with administrators, there’s a sense of amazement that the sport has gotten this far given the levels of COVID-19 in the country, the contact-tracing protocols that often made it difficult just to have a representative roster available and the general lack of leadership in the sport that allowed conferences to do their own thing. 

Even within the College Football Playoff, we have a situation in which the two teams playing for the championship are subject to different testing mandates and different rules for what happens when a player tests positive. 

That’s because playoff allowed teams to stick with the same protocols from their conferences they had operated under all season. 

Forget about who’s got it right or wrong. The very idea that players are being tested differently the week leading up to a national championship game is unfair, absurd and completely reflective of the fact that nobody is in charge of this sport. 

All season long, schools have been sniping at each other behind the scenes — and sometimes publicly, in the case of Clemson and Florida State — about gaming the system or using COVID-19 and contact tracing as an excuse to duck games.  

Even Nick Saban’s daughter, Kristen, threw out a theory on Twitter that Ohio State wants to buy time for quarterback Justin Fields to recover from an unspecified torso/rib injury suffered in the semifinals. She later apologized. 

More:Nick Saban's daughter tweets, deletes, apologizes for criticism of Ohio State COVID-19 issues

The best solution to get through the playoff unscathed by COVID-19 was to plan for a bubble with all four teams in one city, play the games back to back and generally keep players and coaches confined to hotels and practice areas. 

We’ve seen that kind of setup work in the Major League Baseball playoffs, for instance, and as we’ve seen throughout the college football season teams believe travel from city to city has been a primary cause of outbreaks. 

More:College Football Playoff coronavirus protocols vary for Ohio State, other three teams

It’s unclear how bad the COVID-19 issues are at Ohio State or whether it’s easily manageable. But it should be no surprise that having teams go from campus to New Orleans/Dallas, back to campus, and then to South Florida over a two-week period was going to bring an element of risk. 

Maybe everything will be good to go Monday and college football will finally be able to exhale. But even with just one game to go, there’s still plenty of reason to be nervous until it’s time for kickoff.