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AP file photo by Brynn Anderson / SEC commissioner Greg Sankey preached patience when it came to decisions about whether to play football and other fall sports during this school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process, the league wound up leading the way on the management side of a college football season set to end Monday night in suburban Miami with a national title game between SEC champion Alabama and Big Ten winner Ohio State.

At the close of one of its teasers for the upcoming College Football Playoff final between the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (12-0) and third-seeded Ohio State (7-0), ESPN uses the following quote from Buckeyes coach Ryan Day: "We have an amazing story that's yet to be written. It could be one of the more amazing stories in the history of college football."

As long as the coronavirus doesn't cancel it at the last moment, the very fact this national championship game will kick off a little past 8 p.m. Monday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, is a pretty amazing story unto itself.

And no two football leagues may better represent this push me, pull you, should we or shouldn't we, darned if we do, darned if we don't, hopefully one-of-a-kind season than Ohio State's Big 10 and Alabama's Southeastern Conference.

It could certainly be argued that if not for wise and patient SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, we probably wouldn't have had any kind of college season this fall and winter. Especially after the Big Ten, for those with short memories of a very long and painful 2020, decided to cancel all of its fall sports, including football, on Aug. 11.

Said Big 10 commish Kevin Warren at that time: "The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward. As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall. Although that knowledge made this a painstaking decision, it did not make it difficult."

On the other side was Sankey, pleading and preaching patience.

"We have time," he said time and again.

And time proved to be on his side. The SEC went with a 10-game, conference-only schedule that began Sept. 26. Built in were open dates that could presumably be used for games originally postponed due to COVID-19 complications. Within the narrow world of sports management, it proved to be genius.

No, it wasn't perfect. Attendance was rightly limited to no more than 20% of stadium capacity in most cases. There were games in which one team barely had enough healthy players to take the field. In the end, only Alabama emerged unscathed, but then the Tide had always appeared to be the best team going in.

Just as important — lest the SEC title game have served as the unofficial national championship contest and league title game together — the SEC leadership's determination to play by isolating its athletes as much as possible from the rest of the student body on each campus eventually turned around the Big Ten and Pac-12, which had both originally canceled their seasons.

In the end, every major conference got on board. Lifelong football independent Notre Dame — Team Peacock in some corners for its television ties to NBC — even did the unthinkable and played as a full member of the Atlantic Coast Conference for one season only, which is also surely why it was chosen for the four-team playoff thanks to a regular-season overtime win against a coronavirus-challenged Clemson.

And for all those who remain bitter that Ohio State was even allowed to reach the playoff given its paltry regular-season schedule due to several COVID-19 cancellations — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney foremost among them — imagine the anger, however private, if the Buckeyes, hailing from a conference that originally didn't even want to play this season, win it all.

Talk about irony most unkind.

So who will win on Monday night? I wrote before the semifinal games that in this most surreal of seasons, it only made sense that the Buckeyes should cart home the hardware (after rubbing it down with hand sanitizer, of course).

The Buckeyes and the Tide are, top to bottom, the two most talented programs in the sport. Good as Bama quarterback Mac Jones is, Ohio State's Justin Fields might be better. Good as Tide running back Najee Harris is, Ohio State counterpart Trey Sermon has had a better postseason.

Still, if long-injured wideout and kick returner Jaylen Waddle is back at something close to full speed for Alabama — which is somewhere between the speed of light and a cheetah — revision might be in order.

Or as ESPN analyst Desmond Howard said of Waddle's rumored availability: "He's unbelievable. Even if he's just out there warming up (before the game), if they put a camera on Ohio State's defensive coordinator, you'll see sweat coming down his head because that's a problem."

If both Bama and the Buckeyes make it to Monday night with their rosters close to full and their stars all cleared to play, the only problem will be for the winners to make sure they celebrate responsibly, masks on and as socially distanced from their fans as possible.

But whichever team wins, the most amazing story of the 2020 college football season is simply that they were able to play the CFP title game at all. On that point alone, the SEC's Sankey deserves a socially distanced, mask-worn standing ovation from the entire sport.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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