As I sat down to write this column around noon on Thursday, a little fact box kept changing numbers in the bottom right-hand corner of ESPN's website. It told me there was just one day, three hours, 49 minutes and 31 seconds to wait until Alabama and Notre Dame would square off at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium in the opening game of the College Football Playoff. Clemson and Ohio State would meet in the second playoff game at the Sugar Bowl approximately four hours later on Friday night.
Yes, it's great news that the national semifinals will take place, barring some last-minute COVID-19 protocol nightmare.
But the best news is that by the time those four teams take the field, 2020 will be behind us. Good riddance is not nearly strong enough a term to celebrate its passing. In fact, the words most of us would use to wave it goodbye could not be printed in a family newspaper.
Much like our New Year's Days from long ago, the current college football season's two biggest games to date will take place on the first day of a new year. Here's hoping it's the first day in a run of 365 that will look or feel nothing like the 366 days — yes, 2020 was a leap year, making it extra long — that came before them.
Does that mean the coronavirus pandemic is leaving Alabama-Notre Dame and Clemson-Ohio State alone? Not exactly.
No one knows who will ultimately take the field for Ohio State, which has been dogged by COVID-19 for much of the season, especially over the past month. It had as many as 22 players out for the Big Ten title game win over Northwestern, and while star receiver Chris Olave and linebacker Baron Browning are reportedly back for the semifinal against Clemson, at least a few of those 22 are likely to be limited in playing time or remain out altogether.
As for the Tigers, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott won't be at the Sugar Bowl due to being in COVID-19 protocol, and two Clemson players were reportedly left home for the same reason.
Then there's the news that Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the former Georgia Bulldog, is still nursing a thumb injury that led to a poor performance against Northwestern.
Beyond that is what effect all of this — the COVID-19 stops and starts, the great uncertainty regarding whether the Buckeyes should have even been allowed to reach the playoff given their limited schedule of a mere six total games because of the pandemic's effects, the bitterness in Buckeye Nation over last year's questionable officiating against Clemson — will have on this semifinal rematch.
And just to make this an even bigger soap opera, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has gone on record saying he voted the Buckeyes 11th in the coaches' poll because of their limited schedule, believing it unfair to such teams as Texas A&M, whose only loss among nine Southeastern Conference games played was to a top-ranked Alabama squad that had not yet lost lightning-fast receiver and kick returner Jaylen Waddle to injury.
"Look, they're talented enough to beat us," Swinney said a few days ago. "They're good enough to win the national championship. I just don't think they deserve to be there over some of these other teams."
The problem for Clemson is that when the Buckeyes have been anywhere close to full strength, they've been pretty dang good. Even having three games canceled due to the coronavirus and having a limited roster for at least two more, their average margin of victory against a Big 10-only schedule was 21.5 points with an average score of 42.5-21.
Of course, a lot of those points were rung up with a fully healthy Fields.
As for the other semifinal, which will be played under the Rose Bowl name despite being in Arlington, Texas, it's not just that Alabama arguably has the best offense in the country and a defense that's been pretty stout far more outings than not. It's that Notre Dame would appear to be over its head once again come the biggest of stages.
Yes, the Fighting Irish actually knocked off visiting Clemson in double overtime during the regular season. But that was with Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence out due to COVID-19. In the rematch in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, with Lawrence back on the field, Clemson prevailed 34-10.
There's also this: This is Notre Dame's seventh appearance in a playoff or New Year's Six bowl since 1998. The Irish are 0-6 so far in that sequence, having been outscored by a total of 144 points — with none of the games closer than two touchdowns. As former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn told ESPN, "It's hard to get past that."
In a normal season, it would be hard for either No. 4 Notre Dame or No. 3 Ohio State to reach this year's CFP title game on Jan. 11 in suburban Miami.
And even with 2020 having been the oddest, toughest, most depressing year of most of our lives, it's hard to see Notre Dame getting by Bama. But Ohio State over Clemson? While unlikely, could there be a more fitting conclusion to the 2020 college football season than for a team with six wins heading into the playoff to beat Clemson and Alabama on its way to winning it all?
Come to think of it, it almost makes too much sense not to happen.