Teams Take Vast Precautions to Try to Pull Off College Football Playoff Amid COVID Surge

As Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Cincinnati prepare to arrive for Friday's College Football Playoff semifinal games, the teams are taking every possible precaution to avoid a COVID outbreak, including constant reminders to players and staff on how to stay safe.

Contingency plans were announced last week for the playoff games, stating that a team with an outbreak this close to the playoff games would be likely to forfeit, advancing the other team directly to the January 10 national championship game.

Media availability for players and coaches is being conducted virtually, events for the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl that typically involve interaction with fans have been canceled, and charity efforts conducted by the teams playing in the games are also being conducted remotely out of caution.

"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."

Alabama and Cincinnati are set to play Friday night in the Cotton Bowl, with Michigan and Georgia scheduled to follow in the Orange Bowl.

College Football Playoff, Championship, COVID Precautions, Alabama
Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after the Southeastern Conference championship college football game between Georgia and Alabama on December 4, 2021, in Atlanta. Saban's Crimson Tide team is one of four teams set to play in the College Football Playoff semifinal games this week as they take precautions to avoid COVID outbreaks that could jeopardize the health of their players, as well as their playoff chances. John Bazemore/Associated Press

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.

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 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. Staff are constantly reminded about all the best practices that have become part of everyday life since March of 2020, such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

"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.

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.'"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

College Football Playoff, Championship, COVID Precautions
The College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy is seen prior to the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on January 9, 2017. For the second straight season, college football will attempt to complete its playoff as COVID cases rise around the country. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images