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.