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Shannon Ryan: A complicated college football season — filled with exasperation and exhilaration — is over. Was it all worth it?
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Shannon Ryan: A complicated college football season — filled with exasperation and exhilaration — is over. Was it all worth it?

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Najee Harris of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates following the College Football Playoff National Championship game win over the Ohio State Buckeyes at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Najee Harris (22) of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates following the College Football Playoff National Championship game win over the Ohio State Buckeyes at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)

The most pressing questions heading into the 2020 college football season was whether the season would start at all and, if it did, would it be able to finish.

On Monday night, No. 1 Alabama ended the season the way it started — with astonishing dominance as it asserted itself the team of the century with a 52-24 victory against No. 3 Ohio State.

It was a dose of certainty to conclude an unprecedented season that never offered any conclusive proof that it should be taking place at all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alabama (13-0) was truly masterful, providing a multitude of reasons to celebrate in the floating crimson and white confetti falling on the field in Miami.

Coach Nick Saban won his seventh national championship to surpass Bear Bryant. Alabama has won six of the last 12 national championships, cementing themselves as one of the most impressive sports dynasties. Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith set a championship game record in the first half with three touchdown catches, finishing with 215 yards off 12 catches before leaving with an injured right hand.

As Alabama was crowned following a performance bordering on perfection, it was easy to forget a pandemic is raging from coast to coast.

Mixed with money and pride, perhaps that was the point of the college football season all along.

But if we’re going to celebrate the College Football Playoff championship game, we can’t forget what’s been left in the wake of the 2020 season.

More than 100 games were canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. Hundreds of players, coaches and staff members were infected with a virus that has unknown long-term effects.

Contact tracing beyond the football world is limited and under resourced, leaving questions about how infected players could potentially spread the virus outside their locker rooms or how sports inspired unsafe get-togethers for viewing parties.

Epidemiologists must have cringed watching videos of fans flooding the Tuscaloosa streets to celebrate Alabama’s victory. I’d imagine most who lost a loved one to COVID-19 were furious or hurt by that scene.

The United States has averaged about 247,200 COVID-19 cases a day over the last week, which was an all-time high, and more than 376,000 Americans have died so far.

Yet college football continued to muddy the public health messaging on Monday night — a consistency throughout the season. No, not by playing but by the oversimplified lazy cliches by analysts.

Words and phrases like “adversity,” “against all odds,” “disruptions” and “managed the COVID virus with discipline” were casually thrown around.

Getting tested daily isn’t a “sacrifice,” as ESPN analysts suggested throughout the game, as players have done throughout the season. It’s a privilege that many Americans deserve and are denied, including nursing home patients, teachers and essential workers.

Analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who contracted COVID-19 last month, suggested players sacrificed the normalcy of “going to restaurants” and socializing for their seasons, forgetting this is what everyone on a college campus is supposed to be doing whether they’re students who play football or not.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who also contracted COVID-19 in November, was lionized for living in his guesthouse during the season to isolate away from his family. (How many nurses would appreciate a guesthouse right now?)

Ohio State’s season started with many of their football parents leading “we want to play” chants during marches to demand a season after the Big Ten initially voted to delay as a precaution against infecting players and spreading the uncontained virus.

They later got their wish as conference presidents and universities bent to the pressure.

Big Ten games kicked off after many other conferences began their seasons — and the conference’s plan to get Ohio State in the championship game worked.

The Buckeyes (7-1) didn’t get their way against Alabama, as quarterback Justin Fields looked more human than ever (17 of 33 for 194 yards and a touchdown) and the Buckeyes simply couldn’t keep up after an entertaining first half. They trailed only 21-17 with less than 6 minutes left before halftime. But Alabama turned on its burners, outscoring Ohio State 31-3 the rest of the way.

Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones seemed tethered to his receivers, completing 36 of 45 passes for 464 yard and five touchdowns.

Nobody could watch that brilliance and not be entertained.

Let’s be honest: The complicated season was filled with inspirational and infuriating moments.

We saw players defy human expectations, the very reason we tune into sports, like when Alabama running back Najee Harris hurdled over a Notre Dame defender in the College Football Playoff semifinal victory.

Other moments this season filled us with pride no matter our rooting allegiances.

Little girls soaked in Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller in shoulder pads as she became the first woman at a Power Five program to compete, handling a kickoff against Missouri on Nov. 28 and then making two extra points against Tennessee on Dec. 12.

Players at several universities used their platforms to amplify Black Lives Matter messages for racial equality and some held their coaches accountable for racially insensitive language and behavior.

There were unforgettable games. Who among us wasn’t on our feet on Dec. 5, when Coastal Carolina stuffed a BYU receiver at its 1-yard line to secure a 22-17 victory?

But there was ugliness and ignorance too.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly selfishly and myopically bemoaned the idea of families being absent at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., despite local hospitals under duress and over capacity due to the pandemic.

The game eventually moved to Dallas, where 16,000 fans were permitted to attend.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney downplayed the severity of the virus by accusing Florida State of using COVID-19 as an excuse — not a responsibility — to cancel a game. LSU coach Ed Orgeron expressed satisfaction as he suggested his team was achieving herd immunity as many players contracted the virus before the season.

Who will ever forget President Donald Trump disgracefully — and incorrectly — claiming he was responsible for saving college football?

We facepalmed as we watched almost every coach fail to model responsible behavior by improperly removing masks on the sidelines, often to scream inches away from referees’ faces.

How many fans listened and watched and — subconsciously or willfully — let the influence of coaches lessen how seriously they took the severity of COVID-19?

The college season indeed started and reached its finish line. Is that worthy of applause? Perhaps.

What happened in between was the complicated part.

For many players, understandably, simply competing this season was a victory.

Was it worth it? They’ll say yes now — and maybe continue to say so years from now. Or maybe they’ll think back and wonder about their reasoning and reassess given what we learn about the repercussions.

The college football season left us with one clear champion and many lingering questions.

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