Surreal scene at Hard Rock Stadium grim reminder of difficult college football season
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Against the backdrop of the strangest championship game atmosphere in Football Bowl Subdivision history, Alabama put together an historic offensive performance and beat Ohio State 52-24 to claim the program's sixth national championship under coach Nick Saban.
Fitting the unique nature of this season, the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes wrapped up the 2020 season with limited attendance and social distancing. Typically a frenetic mash of tailgating, merchandise hawkers, rowdy pregame entertainment and long lines at every entrance point and concession stand, the vibe Monday night more closely resembled a random midseason game than the biggest stage in the sport.
Beginning at noon Monday, Hard Rock Stadium closed the recently created drive-thru entrance for the first stage of COVID-19 vaccinations to create ample space for the crowd expected to attend the College Football Playoff national championship between Alabama and Ohio State.
One of the Miami area's largest sites for COVID-19 testing throughout the pandemic, Hard Rock last Friday began offering 1,000 vaccination appointments per day to healthcare workers and seniors.
The arrival of the vaccine comes as Florida added more than 12,000 new cases of COVID-19 and 100 deaths, according to the state's daily report issued Sunday, bringing Florida's total to 1,477,010 cases and 22,912 deaths since the outbreak began.
This environment made Hard Rock an apt location to conclude a year defined by the steps taken by the Football Bowl Subdivision to plow through health and safety protocols, countless COVID-19 outbreaks and dozens of cancelled games to reach the finish line of the regular season.
“This entire college football season has been a balancing act and the championship game will be one, too,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told USA TODAY Sports.
There were about 14,900 fans in attendance, with attendees required to socially distance and wear masks. (Normal capacity at Hard Rock is just over 65,000.) In the hours before kickoff, dozens of stadium employees walked through the stands sanitizing seats and handrails.
"It was weird, because there's no one here," said Michael Cohan, an Alabama fan from Richmond, Virginia. "You've got nothing. There isn't anything going on."
To create space between fans, seating areas throughout the stadium were blocked off with coverings carrying the Hard Rock logo.
To free up the normal logjam of fans jostling to enter the stadium, Hard Rock staggered entry times by ticket.
"In terms of getting in, I loved it, though," said Phil Logan, an Alabama fan from Chesterfield, Virginia. "It was nothing. It took us three minutes to get in."
While attendees were not required to fill out a form attesting to being free of COVID-19, fans entering the stadium agreed to a "health promise," according to Hard Rock, stating they had not tested positive for the coronavirus nor been exposed to anyone who had within the past 14 days or experienced any of the common symptoms of the coronavirus within the previous 48 hours.
Media members were required to fill out a health disclosure and pass a temperature check before entering the stadium. The playoff issued 300 media credentials for the championship, 94 virtual-only, down from 619 issued credentials last season. As during the regular season, media members were not allowed any pregame field access.
Outside of Hard Rock, two-person pods were set up outside of a stage erected for pregame entertainment. Tailgating, which hasn't been allowed at Hard Rock all season, created a subdued atmosphere heading into the stadium with one obvious payoff: no lines to get in and no need to fight through crowds to get seated.
In another change instituted due to COVID-19, no bands were allowed to attend the game. Instead, the Alabama and Ohio State bands were shown on video boards playing school fight songs — the senior sousaphone player still dotted the I, only remotely. The national anthem was prerecorded rather than performed live.
"Look, the game is the game," said Tom Marty, an Ohio State fan from Massapequa, New York. "If I watched it on TV versus being here, there's a big difference."
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg