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Almost four weeks ago, in an apparent fit of optimism, the NCAA approved the creation of a 42nd bowl game so that every eligible football team with an even record or better would have a postseason game.

Never mind that the calendar already overflowed with the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl, the Cheez-It Bowl, the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl and the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, among dozens of others. The late birth of the one-time Frisco Football Classic — not to be confused with the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl, played in the same stadium near Dallas — set up the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks to play North Texas.

It was fortunate the game was scheduled and contested when it was: By the time the RedHawks won, 27-14, two days before Christmas, the bowl season had fallen into chaos.

That day, Texas A&M withdrew from the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, temporarily leaving Wake Forest without an opponent. Miami — the one in Florida — was warning that its participation in the Sun Bowl was in doubt because of the virus. And the College Football Playoff said its four teams risked forfeiting if they were not ready to play on time.

The situation has only worsened since, as more outbreaks have led to more withdrawals and more reshuffling. On Tuesday, hours before the scheduled kickoff in San Diego, UCLA announced that it would not be able to play North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl. The game was the fifth bowl contest to be canceled entirely.

“We are deeply disappointed for our young men in the football program that worked extremely hard for this opportunity,” Martin Jarmond, the athletic director at UCLA, said in a statement. “My heart goes out to them. The health and safety of our players will always be our North Star.”

All told, games have been canceled or reimagined from Honolulu to Boston, and it is anyone’s guess how many more will be affected by the time a national champion is crowned on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis — if, in fact, one is crowned.

“It’s just déjà vu all over again of what we had last year,” Greg McGarity, the Gator Bowl’s CEO, said in an interview Tuesday. “The weird thing was, when the bowls were announced on Dec. 5, COVID wasn’t even a factor.

“Everybody thought that we were over the hump, as far as that goes,” he continued, “and then omicron hit, and here we are again.”

Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy drops back to pass against the Clemson Tigers at Camping World Stadium on Wednesday. | NATHAN RAY SEEBECK / USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy drops back to pass against the Clemson Tigers at Camping World Stadium on Wednesday. | NATHAN RAY SEEBECK / USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

So schools and bowls have turned to an array of stopgaps to try to preserve, or at least patch up, the postseason. Teams have rushed to fill suddenly open slots, and the NCAA has said bowls can be postponed to as late as Jan. 10 to help schools “that might need additional time to prepare for competition.”

For now, the playoff games remain on track. But Friday’s playoff showdowns, scheduled to pit No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Cincinnati in Texas and No. 2 Michigan against No. 3 Georgia in Florida, could be derailed between now and New Year’s Eve.

Playoff officials have told the teams that the semifinal games will not be rescheduled, so any team that cannot play Friday may be forced to forfeit. The championship game can be pushed to as late as Jan. 14.

“As we prepare for the playoff, it’s wise and necessary to put into place additional precautions to protect those who will play and coach the games,” Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director, said last week. “These policies will better protect our students and staffs while providing clarity in the event worst-case scenarios result.”

But no amount of safeguarding was enough to save the final game of the season for Memphis, which was about to do a final stadium walk-through the day before the Hawaii Bowl when it learned the matchup had been canceled because its opponent, Hawaii, did not have enough healthy players.

“But we are bowl champions, and that’s one thing I told them,” Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield told the news media. “It’s most important that we go home with this trophy and rightfully so.”

At least the Tigers and their fans were stuck in Honolulu, which might have softened the blow. Virginia hadn’t yet traveled to Boston for the Fenway Bowl against Southern Methodist when coronavirus testing on Christmas morning revealed a number of positives and the game was scratched.

While the relative bloat of the bowl season is in the eye of the beholder — after all, the number of games continues to increase because fans keep watching — it has, especially this year, benefited those bowls higher up the food chain.

The Sun Bowl looked all but dead after Miami pulled out. But after Boise State withdrew from the Arizona Bowl, the Broncos’ erstwhile opponent in that game, Central Michigan, was promoted into the Sun Bowl to face Washington State.

Rutgers, which at 5-7 hadn’t even qualified for a bowl, was invited to the Gator Bowl after Texas A&M withdrew. It was the conclusion, McGarity said, of a frenzied process that featured teams like Illinois and Utah State reaching out to see whether they might get to play.

On Tuesday, Rutgers landed in Jacksonville to prepare for Friday’s game.

“They’re here now, and it looks like if they can stay healthy for a couple of days, then we’ve got a game,” McGarity said. “It’s not the game everyone thought it was going to be, but it’s better than going dark.”

More than a dozen games remain on the schedule, including the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, when Ohio State, which reached last season’s title matchup, is scheduled to meet Utah; and Wednesday’s Cheez-It Bowl, which is supposed to feature Iowa State playing a Clemson team enduring a rare playoff absence.

Many of the remaining games, executives believe, will proceed as planned.

Then again, they acknowledge, they also thought they would need 42 bowl games.

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