This is the time of year – most years, anyway – where teams start thinking about bowl eligibility. If they’ve got that part licked, they begin the quest to improve their postseason destination, seeking to earn the warmest and most exotic locales.
Virginia Tech (4-4) and Virginia (3-4) are squarely among the usual field in that regard.
The difference in 2020? They have no clue what lies at the end of this week, much less this season.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like, to be honest with you,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said of the postseason picture. “I don’t know how everybody’s going to feel. I do know that football games are precious and opportunities are precious.”
They’re feeling more precious by the day, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike both inside and outside the sport. By Wednesday morning, the ACC already had canceled this week’s Wake Forest-Duke game and rescheduled five other games involving Miami, Wake, Louisville, North Carolina and Boston College.
Restrictions are tightening in the commonwealth and elsewhere in anticipation of more cases as the holidays approach. Given that, perhaps being able to complete the regular season safely should be cause for celebration.
“That has been, and started as, the primary focus and the very intent and what I promised the parents we would do,” UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I would do everything I could do. And we are, and we have. To this point, if a game isn’t to be played, it’s not because of us. Our numbers are very low. Our protocols are really strong, and our team is safe.”
Mendenhall’s Cavaliers are trending toward bowl eligibility in a climate where the postseason opportunities are already dwindling. Five of the 39 scheduled bowls outside of the College Football Playoff already have been canceled because of the pandemic. The most prominent so far is the Holiday Bowl, which was slated to pit an ACC team against a Pac-12 opponent this year in San Diego.
The Quick Lane Bowl featuring a Big Ten-ACC pairing in Detroit also has been nixed.
But even if non-CFP bowls are held, will anybody want to play in them? It’s one thing to go through COVID-19 protocols to play regular-season games, but tacking on a few more weeks of such rigor to play in (mostly) fan-free showcases might be tough for players to accept.
Tough, but not impossible.
“I would love to play in a bowl,” Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield said. “We have 27 straight, make it 28 this year. I’ve been dealing with protocols for the past three or four months. They’re normal now.”
Beyond the desire to play, bowl organizers will have to weigh the cost of crowd restrictions. It stands to reason that many of the usual pomp and circumstance that surrounds these games – the field trips to local attractions, the silly game shows, the bowling events – will be deep-sixed even if the games go on.
Whether teams decide to go under these circumstances will be “program-specific,” Mendenhall said.
“The teams that have fought so hard and want to keep playing and view that as a chance to be together and celebrate one more chance together, absolutely,” he said. “There might be others that view whatever game they might have a chance to play in is not what they hope for. And there might be administrators around the country that, on this given year, don’t know how the finances make any sense.”
For now, the only thing that makes sense is to cope with the challenges of the day.
“It has been a daily mental and emotional grind for everyone, particularly the players,” Fuente said. “I guess when we get a little closer to the end of that, we’ll have a little better feel. I don’t really know what everybody’s planning on doing, to be honest with you. I haven’t even read anything.
“So I’m assuming some of them are on. I have heard that a couple of them are off. We’ll go down that road when we get to it.”
Without pausing, Fuente corrected himself.
“If we get to it,” he said.
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