By Pat Forde
The latest host city's weather should not deter anyone from continuing to have the College Football Playoff played on a national rotation of sites.
INDIANAPOLIS — Vince Dooley is 89 years old. He’s coming off a bout with COVID-19 that kept him from attending the Orange Bowl. But the program patriarch of Georgia football, the winningest coach in school history, wouldn’t miss this chance to see his Bulldogs play for the national title.
“I’m looking forward to it, but I’ll have to get some long underwear,” Dooley said last week before making the trip to Indy. “It’s going to be colder than hell up there.”
Cold. Windy. Icy. Periods of intermittent sunshine piercing the permagloom. This is drastically different from decades of marquee college football postseason games being played in the balmier climes of Florida, California, Arizona, Louisiana and Texas.
If an envious Midwest could have game-planned the weather to fit its attitude toward this Southeastern Conference invasion by Georgia and Alabama, this is it.
Welcome to Indy, SEC. We hope you’re miserable.
“Our guys are not used to it,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said upon arrival Friday. “Fortunately, we won’t be playing in it, so I told them to get used to it from the plane to the bus.”
It has been tough sledding for many of the visitors from warmer climates. Sensible winter outerwear seems to be in short supply. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was grabbing for a railing outside famed steakhouse St. Elmo on Saturday night to avoid falling after freezing rain glazed the city in ice. Police and ambulance sirens wailed for several hours, responding to wrecks all over downtown as cars went skidding into one another and off roads.
“Why would anyone want to live here?” One shell-shocked Georgia fan said to another Saturday after staggering into the JW Marriott downtown from the cold.
The pitch from Indianapolis event organizers has been for visitors to “lean into” the cold weather. Wear layers and embrace it. Partake in the many outdoor activities that were planned (and subsequently canceled Saturday by the ice storm). A city with a great downtown for walking around was ready to show Southerners a good time; all they had to do was suck it up and bundle up.
“There are a ton of people coming to our city who have never been here before,” says J. Mark Howell, chair of the CFP host committee in Indianapolis. “The goal is to have them wanting to come back. The game lasts 3 1/2 hours, but the weekend lasts four days. We want them to take home memories beyond the game.”
In Athens and Tuscaloosa, where the average January high is 53, they’ll talk about the coldest football road trip they’ve ever taken.
This was Mother Nature balancing the scales on the two biggest football games to be played in Indy. The 2012 Super Bowl was blessed with unusually warm temperatures all week. A decade later, the College Football Playoff championship game will be played on a day when the high temperature is expected to be 25 degrees, with a low of 9. The average high the preceding four days has been 29.
You can almost feel the Big Ten schadenfreude in the air. New league motto: If you can’t beat ’em, freeze ’em.
Midwest weather doesn’t obscure Dixie dominance, though. Georgia and Alabama bring the South’s greatest export to the belly of the Big Ten. Lucas Oil Stadium, where the oldest and richest conference plays its annual championship game, will be a Southern revival Monday.
“Big Ten people are football people,” Howell says. “The Big Ten had such a phenomenal season and did well in the bowls. There were several legitimate contenders, so I think they’re disappointed that in the year when the Midwest is hosting, they didn’t have a Big Ten team here. I’ll use the word sadness or disappointment that it’s in our backyard and we’d love to have a local team here, but I think the two best teams in the country are playing here Monday night.”
That’s beyond dispute. Georgia beat Big Ten champion Michigan, 34—11, in the Orange Bowl to get here, and the internet was populated thereafter with game clips of Bulldogs physically punishing Wolverines. Alabama was simply much better than Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl, cruising to a 27—6 victory. Georgia now has won 11 straight games against nonconference opponents. Alabama has won 12. That includes wins by each against Notre Dame, Michigan and Cincinnati; a Crimson Tide bludgeoning of Ohio State for the national title last season; an authoritative Bulldogs win vs. Baylor in the Sugar Bowl; and a season-opening victory over Clemson.
Although the SEC might be shivering, it is not apologizing for being here. Quite the opposite. They are strutting into the heartland.
At mile marker 100 northbound on Interstate 65, a billboard announces the takeover: “Welcome to Beautiful Indianapoli-SEC. We love it here.” Sankey liked that enough to tweet it, as the commissioner has been a high-profile presence around downtown over the weekend.
This is the latest stop in college football’s Southern Road Show. Clemson and Alabama met for the title in Glendale, Ariz., in 2016, with Tigers coach Dabo Swinney remarking he had seen his first tumbleweed. Then they played again in Santa Clara, Calif., three years later. (No word on whether Swinney saw his first Tesla there.)
Fact is, the South—and the SEC in particular—are not going to stop dominating the sport anytime soon. The Playoff simply gives them a chance to expand their reach into new areas. When the SEC Network and Paul Finebaum’s owlish visage are filling multiple screens in the sports bar at the JW Marriott in downtown Indy, that’s a statement on who is here. But as the game’s power base remains stubbornly regional, the championship should not. The College Football Playoff sites should be on a national rotation, regardless of weather.
If the goal is to include everyone under one big tent in a sport that stretches from coast to coast, well, pack your mittens and hold the Playoff everywhere. Minneapolis would be a great championship site, as well. Detroit could do the job. So could St. Louis.
They could even consider an outdoor championship in a cold-weather site. (Soldier Field, anyone?) One of the biggest appeals of an expanded Playoff would be the potential for first-round games on campuses, which would potentially bring all kinds of weather into play. Why not schedule a title game for elements that are different from the Rose Bowl or Hard Rock Stadium or an indoor venue?
Even if it ends up being Georgia-Alabama Part 50, a game played with sideline heaters and frozen breath would be an interesting new twist to the Southern Road Show.
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