ARLINGTON, Texas — Top-ranked Alabama arrived Sunday in North Texas without offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien or offensive line coach Doug Marrone, but coach Nick Saban expected both assistants to make it for the playoff semifinal game at the Cotton Bowl.
The Crimson Tide said last Wednesday that O’Brien and Marrone had tested positive for the coronavirus and were isolating with mild symptoms.
Saban said Sunday there were no known COVID-19 issues among players and that the affected coaches were doing well back in Tuscaloosa. O’Brien and Marrone will participate in meetings and practice via Zoom until they can join the team before Friday’s game against fourth-ranked Cincinnati.
“They will do all their work and coaching virtually with players, very similarly to the way I did it when I tested positive before the Auburn game a year ago,” Saban said. “They’ll be here for the game. ... No one is, you know, really that bad sick that they can’t function and do things that they need to do with our players.”
The Bearcats (13-0), the first non-Power Five team to make the College Football Playoff, arrived later Sunday. They are 13 ½-point underdogs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, against the defending national champion that has won six titles under Saban.
“If you want to have a shot at the title, you’ve got to beat the champs, and this is what we have. We have a shot to beat the champs,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “The best team doesn’t always win the game. It’s just a reality, the teams that play the best win the football game.”
Cincinnati's football team got to Texas on the same day that the American Athletic Conference announced that the Bearcats’ league opener in men’s basketball, scheduled Tuesday in Houston, had been canceled due to COVID issues for the Cougars. The game was declared a no-contest and Cincinnati given a forfeit win.
CFP officials last week announced contingency plans for the football semifinals and national championship with COVID-19 cases spiking across the country due to the omicron variant. If a team is unavailable, the game would be forfeited with the available team advancing to the championship.
“We know we’ve got to be smart about what it is that we’re doing,” Fickell said. “But we’re not going to dwell upon those things because sometimes I think those things hold us up more than anything. They take our energy, they get us into a different frame of mind.”
Fickell said he has a mature group that understands what it is trying to accomplish, and is willing to make the sacrifices in what may not be a typical bowl trip filled with outside activities.
“We’ll be smart about who we’re around. We’ll be smart about where we’re going," he said. "But we’re going to be us and continue to do what we’ve done all year. And we found a way for it to work for us.”
Saban said Alabama’s entire team is vaccinated and that more than 90% of the players also have had booster shots. The coach said players are wearing masks and social distancing in meetings.
“We have encouraged them to use the same practices that we had to use a year ago, whether it’s wearing a mask in meetings, wearing a mask when you’re not in the building, social distancing when we’re in meetings,” Saban said. “So, if there were some new protocols that would help us be safer, we would certainly implement them. But I think we tried to implement all that we know that has worked in the past.”
This is the second year in a row that the Crimson Tide are set for a playoff semifinal game at AT&T Stadium. The Rose Bowl was moved from California to the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys last New Year’s Day because of the pandemic, and Alabama beat Notre Dame 31-14.