What the Weirdest Game of This College Football Season Can Tell Us About COVID-19

Coastal Carolina University beat BYU on a last-second play Saturday. Four days earlier, neither team expected to be playing the other.


In what will probably end up as the most memorable game of this bizarre, pandemic-affected college football season, the Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers improved to 10-0 on Saturday with a last-second victory over the Brigham Young University (BYU) Cougars.

The game is as significant for what happened on the field as for the circumstances that led to it happening at all. Last Monday, neither team was expecting to play the other. Then COVID-19 intervened, and both schools offered a lesson in the value of flexibility amid the chaos of this year.

Coastal Carolina was supposed to play the Liberty University Flames on Saturday, but several Liberty players were quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 midway through last week. On Thursday, Liberty school officials announced they would not allow their team to travel for the scheduled game.

No one would mistake Liberty for the University of Alabama, of course, but the loss of that game against Liberty was a potential blow to Coastal Carolina's Cinderella story of a season. In just their fourth season playing in the highest classification level for college football, the Chanticleers were ranked 18th nationally and maintained a slim outside shot at earning a bid to one of college football's most prestigious bowl games. A chance to beat another overachieving small school—Liberty had a 9-1 record and was also nationally ranked earlier this season—would have boosted the Chanticleers' profile further.

Just hours after the game with Liberty was canceled, Coastal Carolina announced that they would host BYU instead. The Cougars, sporting an undefeated 9-0 record and ranked 13th in the country, did not have a scheduled opponent on Saturday and were willing to make the last-minute flight to South Carolina for the chance to boost their own outsider bid to qualify for one of the top bowl games—or even to take part in the College Football Playoff.

Just like that, what was perhaps the most unexpected meeting ever between undefeated college football teams was set. In a sport where matchups are often set years in advance—the next meeting in the storied rivalry between Notre Dame and Michigan, for example, is scheduled for 2033—games don't materialize out of thin air two days before kickoff.

But this year has upended a lot of expectations, in sports and in the more important parts of life. The flexibility and resolve shown by the athletic departments and the football teams at BYU and Coastal Carolina are laudable. Playing sports in the middle of a pandemic is not without risks—risks that start with the health of student-athletes, most obviously, but that also include the potential for cascading cancellations of games. Still, those risks can be mitigated and, as Coastal Carolina and BYU proved on Saturday, there is value in making sure that the games continue. As I wrote in the November issue of Reason, sports offer a massive real-world experiment in how to safely navigate a pandemic without simply shutting everything down.

That's even more true in college sports than in professional athletics, as college players have a limited, five-year period of eligibility. There were plenty of reasons for Coastal Carolina's athletic department to simply cancel Saturday's game when their scheduled opponent couldn't play—instead, they did the hard thing and got their players a chance to play anyway, against a nationally ranked opponent and with a national TV audience.

Imagine if the people running some of America's school districts showed a quarter as much resolve or interest in what's best for their kids.

The game didn't disappoint. Trailing by five points in the final minute, the Cougars marched to within 18 yards of the Chanticleers' end zone with enough time for one more snap. Receiver Dax Milne caught a pass near the goal line on the game's final play, but he was tackled by three Chanticleer players as time expired. An impromptu game is now Coastal Carolina's best win in a dream season.

Even college football's calcified culture has been busted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As in other aspects of pandemic life, the important thing is taking necessary precautions and making the best of a bad situation—and recognizing that some disruptions can actually be for the best.

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  2. Lotta words about a game nobody will remember a month from now.

    1. The CFP committee will remember it for 27 years, and never let a non-Power 5 team into the playoff until the field is 16 teams as it should be, with automatic berths for conference champions.

      1. Preach it, brother.

      2. I would prefer an 8-team playoff with 5 spots going to the winner of each ‘Power 5’ conference, and 3 at-large bids. No more than 2 teams from any one conference, and no more than 1 conference with 2 bids.

        1. I’d be good with this, as long as you had some kind of AQ bid for at least one G5 team. Like, “the top ranked G5 conference champion recieves an AQ bid.” Also, I don’t think you should limit the at-large bids based on conference affiliation.

          1. I just don’t want to see 5 conference champs plus 3 additional SEC schools. Or two Big 10 and 3 SEC making it (conference champs included).

            But I’m OK with your ‘At least 1’ G5 team. If Notre Dame gets in, do they take the G5 spot or one of the other remaining two?

            1. Nope, nothing special for ND. Independents can either join a conference or try to land an at-large bid.

              I hear ya about SEC and Big10; I can’t stand the media bias. However, as much as I hate to admit it, they often have some of the best teams in the country. If a team clearly has a superior resume, then they shouldn’t get bypassed for a bid because of an arbitrary limitation.

              As long as everyone has a chance at earning their way into it on the field (Conference Champions) is the main thing, can’t bias that.

              1. I think we can come to terms.

                And I understand your reluctance on limiting teams from the same conference – I attended the Big 12 Championship game that birthed the so-called ‘K-State Rule’.

                1. Ah, my heart…

                  Sirr Parker’s knee was down before he crossed the plane of the goal line!

        2. I feel like 8 is the correct number as well.

          I do not see a #12 team running the table in college football. It’s not basketball.

      3. I think you just let President Nixon decide who the National Champ is so he can, one day, again job the Nittany Lions of a national title.

      1. Not quite plagiarism, more like an homage.

  3. Not sure where the Communist Chinese Virus fits in there.
    This was a story about crazy politicians and administrators playing yahtzee with the education and careers of a bunch of kids 99.99% safe.
    (see article about “us” preferring negative news)

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    2. On the upside the “career” football player will most likely be paid alot less or be out of work if the nfl numbers continue to plummet

  4. Which puts the lie to the assertion that schedules have to be set 15 years in advance, and Ohio State and Alabama can never play anyone good out of conference.

    1. Come on, now. In the last 15 years, OSU swung and missed with their Cal and Virginia Tech home and homes and I don’t know what last year’s schedule was about, but they’ve generally scheduled solid (I think one of their non-conference games has to be an Ohio school).

      2018- #15 TCU in Texas
      ‘17- #5 Oklahoma
      ‘16- #14 Oklahoma
      ‘10- #12 Miami
      ‘09- #3 USC
      ‘08- #1 USC
      ‘06- #2 Texas
      ‘05- #2 Texas.

  5. Good post, Boehm. It was a good game, too. Wanted to see BYU roll because they’d have a better chance of causing havoc with the College Football Playoff Committee’s top 4. Pulling for Cincinnati to sneak in there now.

    Expand the playoffs and grant AQ status to conference champions!

  6. If you’re down a touchdown you have to throw the ball in the end zone, a slant across the middle like that where the receiver can be tacked short is a poor play call.

  7. The big story here is that just when you think nobody could have a team name gayer than the “chanticleers”, Liberty University comes up with the Flames.

    1. Chanticleer was King of the Barnyard.

      1. Come to think of it, my university changed its team name from “The Pioneers” to “The Pride”.

        1. Heidelberg College in my hometown of Tiffin, Ohio is named the “student princes”. For a time, they switched to “the berg” but realized that was even stupider and went back to student princes.

  8. I guess his badminton game got preempted.

  9. “Imagine if the people running some of America’s school districts showed a quarter as much resolve or interest in what’s best for their kids.”

    I tried, and my head filled up with visions of the universe imploding.

  10. I guess the message is, when the universe gives you lemons, hope the universe gives you a pitcher and some water and some sugar as well because you can’t make lemonade out of just lemons. Or something. But that’s a pretty goddamn ambitious stretch trying to find something good to say about the ‘rona.

  11. Good post, Boehm. It was a good game, too. Wanted to see BYU roll because they’d have a better chance of causing havoc with the College Football Playoff Committee’s top 4. Pulling for Cincinnati to sneak in there now. India Vs Australia 3rd T20 Live Streaming

    Expand the playoffs and grant AQ status to conference champions!

    1. The weirdest part is that one team’s mascot is something called a “Chanticleer.”

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