The 2020 season: A frustrating, exhausting exercise in tenacity

Well, they did it.

The powers that run college football – TV I guess? — were able to finish the regular season and Sunday trotted out a four-team playoff field and a bowl lineup that will continue to provide games into January.

Sure, the season was an irregular, barely recognizable mess, but it was A season. TV windows were filled, debates were had about the College Football Playoff and the college football media apparatus was largely able to pump out content unabated.

Ohio tight ends Alex Burton (82), Ryan Luehrman (88) and Adam Luehrman (44) celebrate after a touchdown in the Bobcats’ win over Bowling Green on Nov. 28, 2020. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Abigail Dean

And the players? The ones who wanted a season, who wanted a chance to compete? By and large they got that chance, and many – judging by the number of self-imposed team opt outs for bowl season – got their fill and then some.

In some places, think of the CFB citadels in places like Tuscaloosa and Columbus, the year and the postseason almost felt the same. And there were great stories in other places too that, in a normal year, could have been celebrated more. An undefeated season for programs like San Jose State, or Coastal Carolina, would have been talked about and honored during the typical multi-week window between the end of the regular season and bowl season.

This year? Those seasons will be done, and likely on the way to forgotten, within a week.

But what of the 2020 season in Athens, Ohio, where the Bobcats did their best to cram a season into a six-week window amid rising COVID-19 rates and all the unknowns that came with it? What will those in charge at Ohio take from the past three months?

It begins with exhaustion and frustration, yet still includes a sense of accomplishment.

“I think it had a wearing affect on everybody,” said Ohio head coach Frank Solich. “As you’re marching through all that, it seems like there are decisions on a daily basis that you’re making that you don’t normally have to make.”

Who can play? Who will we play? When can we play? How can we practice? Those kinds of questions dogged every day of the season for Ohio, and every football program tasked with trying to play in 2020. With a whole new set of guidelines and protocols in place due to the pandemic, every day brought a new set of challenges and obstacles.

“We sit down here and laugh,” explained Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin. “I come in thinking I have a pretty good handle on what’s going to happen today; I have no clue. That happened every day.

“You can’t lock your knees that’s for sure. “

As a program, Ohio embraced the recommended guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing beginning in April. The Bobcats adhered to the best recommended practices, and endured three different season ‘starts’ in order to have games at all.

Then the season began, and Ohio (2-1) still lost three games – half the abbreviated year – due to COVID-19 issues. Twice, the Bobcats were the ones who caused a cancellation, and the third time – the season finale at Kent State – it was the opponent.

Solich, speaking on signing day, remained adamant that Ohio roster issues were serious enough to warrant the cancellations. But the said positive test results were the least impactful of the reasons for those periodic lineup shortages.

Ohio University has refused, since the pandemic began, to release sport specific positivity rates in regards to COVID-19 testing.

“If you look at the problems we had, the No. 1 problem was contact tracing,” Solich said. “That eliminated the most guys. Then it came down to injuries, then the third thing and the least amount was guys actually having COVID.”

Contact tracing left specific position groups decimated when a positive test result cropped up. It was unavoidable, barring the unlikely scenario in which no one involved in the program ever tested positive or came in contact with someone who had.

“It was hard. We got hit probably harder than Tim and the offense did at times,” said Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins.

“There was a little frustration in terms of contact tracing. We had at least one kid that had been contact traced three times. He missed 45 days and never had COVID,” Collins added. “It was just, really for kids, it was hard. They go into isolation and quarantine.”

“I get it, we’re all trying to stay healthy. It was just hard for those guys and those guys who actually had COVID, it was tough,” he continued. “You just don’t know the ramifications of that now, or later.”

Unlike other rules governing the sport, like scholarship limits or recruiting guidelines, contact tracing protocols varied program-to-program, state-to-state and conference-to-conference. The rules Ohio operated under in that department weren’t necessarily the same ones used at Ball State, or Boise State, or Marshall, or Notre Dame.

FBS college football isn’t a necessarily fair endeavor. Contact tracing drove that point home once again, said Albin.

“I can promise you, you can quote me on it, it’s not the same with contact tracing gentlemen. It is not,” Albin said. “I can’t get anybody to go on record for it. Everybody on this staff has got coaches in different leagues.

“And it’s not the same at any of them. That was a huge, huge, difference. That’s fact. Those are my two cents.”

Solich didn’t excuse or bemoan the protocols in place at OU, but acknowledged it wasn’t the same everywhere.

“That part of it is always tough, when everybody is not on the same page not only in your conference but around the country,” he said.

Ohio has a slew of issues to sort through before the 2021 spring season begins in late February. The Bobcats need to sort out how many scholarships they’ll have to work with, and is still awaiting an answer from the university regarding a roster limit.

Solich and his staff also have to figure out how many of the ‘super’ seniors will elect to return. There’s off-season regimens to set up, a spring season to get ready for and more recruiting to do before February’s signing period.

With all that in mind, and with the frustration and exhaustion left in the wake of a 2020 season that had to feel unfulfilling, was playing at all this fall worth it?

Not surprisingly, the answer was an enthusiastic yes.

“I’m a firm believer in 3 (games) is better than 0. That’s a fact. Our guys are going to be better from it, not only as a player but as a person, because they went through a lot of things,” Albin said.

Solich said the rewarding part of 2020 was seeing the program come together to try take on the challenge.

“Everybody that came through this I think worked at coming through it together. These guys had to stay together, they had to think alike, they had to prepare the same regardless if they were coming off a game that couldn’t be played and didn’t know if the next game would be played. The preparation had to be the same,” he said.

“I got nothing but great respect for our football team and what they’ve been all about in playing this shortened season,” Solich added. “But it did wear on everybody.”

Albin was clear, he’d rather have a season than not have one. Even one that turned out the way 2020 did.

“I am glad our guys spoke up and got together as a league and said ‘hey, we want to play.’ I told them before the first game and I told them in our exit interviews, I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Albin said.

“I love football. We love football. Those guys showed it every day.”

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