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College Football Island: Could the NCAA make it happen?

As the futures of many sports remain foggier than ever, only a March Madness-style tournament in paradise can save college football.

National Sports Authority Bahamas

I hate how excited I am for college football to come back.

The second half of July is traditionally when fans start getting excited about the prospects of their team’s upcoming season. Even with the country and much of the world in a turbulent state, college football remains within a month of finally returning.

Typical fans are frothing with anticipation given the enormous hiatus of traditional American sports. For others, such as those of Big Ten and PAC-12 teams, the ongoing pandemic has already compromised the early season. Further cancellations could come from anywhere at any time.

It’s hard to remain hopeful that we will get to watch the efforts of so many student athletes play out this fall, and yet I find myself counting down the days to the first kick as I do every time this year.

This limbo that the college football world finds itself in only becomes more of a concerning uncertainty as the season draws closer and major conferences continue to find themselves not on the same page. With different states and areas of the country needing to address the pandemic in various ways, the likelihood that FBS schools are able to come up with a unified strategy to play games from September through the end of 2020 remains low.

Even when games do come back in a month or two, fan experience will be limited to potentially non-existent if cases of COVID-19 surge across the country again in the near or distant future. Right now, I am absolutely dreading the thought of an Ohio State-Michigan game with no fans in attendance.

So much of what defines this sport are the annual inter-conference meetings and rivalries, and the fans that generate game-day atmosphere are critical to that experience. How much pride can players take from a season where people are expressly forbidden from witnessing their glory in person? Who’s really going to feel good about Ohio State winning the Big Ten this year if none of the students or alumni are able to support the team directly for three months? Would a win this season over Michigan in an absent Ohio Stadium really provide the same level of gratification for Buckeye fans as it does when Columbus fills up the ‘Shoe?

Chuck Crow, The Plain Dealer

Above all else, the most important objective of every college football season should be to crown a rightful champion, and that rings true now perhaps more than ever. The College Football Playoff has thankfully done so since its inception, and with bowl season starting five months from now, the NCAA would have plenty of time to implement a plan that upholds safety and fairness for all involved in a postseason of any kind.

Which leads me to the main point of this piece, a wild proposal to finish off a phenomenally wild start to this decade. Cancel the upcoming college football season, schedule a 65-team single-elimination tournament to start in December, and play every single game on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas.

To put it another way...

College Football Island:

There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot of concerns to address if something of this scale is going to pan out successfully. First, lets go over rankings and choosing which schools get to play in this.

The Coaches Poll won’t release for another month assuming the season remains intact, which means slotting teams for a hypothetical tournament will rely heavily on estimation. I used ESPN’s latest Way-Too-Early Top 25 (unfortunately from February) to build out the top teams in each bracket. From there, I looked at all the teams that finished with winning records last season to fill out remaining spots, with the exception of Navy and Air Force. The military academies and mid-major independents can go play on their own football island.

These selections are not perfect, but they do reward schools across college football with recent success as opposed to favoring middling Power 5 members. Miami (FL) fans are likely enraged that Miami (OH) will be heading to the Bahamas instead of the nearby Hurricanes, but that’s the price to pay for getting shut out against Louisiana Tech to end last season. In a year when time is of the essence, college football only has room for winners.

The lone exception comes with a play-in game that begins the tournament. To determine the 64 seed that will face the #1 overall team in the first round, the two best Power 5 teams with losing records from the previous season will face off on December 5th.

In this case, Florida State will take on TCU from Thomas Robinson Stadium in the Bahamian capital of Nassau. Had I stuck to the structure of only allowing teams with winning records, the play-in game would have been Charlotte vs. Arkansas State. With respective apologies to the Niners and Red Wolves, FSU/TCU figures to be a much more exciting game for welcoming back the sport.

The following week, the First Round will commence on Dec. 9 with the eight games in the Orange Bracket. The next day, the Fiesta Bracket will play its slate of games, and this will continue into the weekend with the remaining two brackets. The entire Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre that houses Thomas Robinson Stadium includes two fields suitable for American football games, allowing four games each day on each field. The map below provides a view of the entire QESC, with the two stadiums in question designated by the numbers five and six:

National Sports Authority Bahamas

The second round of College Football Island begins Dec. 16 and follows the same order of bracket play as the first round to allow each team an equal rest of one week. The Sweet Sixteen occurs a week later, but takes Christmas off to respect the NBA the holiday, which results in the Cotton and Peach Brackets playing their remaining games on December 26th. This means for the first time in American history, people will look forward to the day after Christmas.

The Elite Eight begins on New Year’s Day, lasts through the following evening, and represents the four bowls not scheduled for rotation in this year’s College Football Playoff. This allows some of the oldest traditional bowl games in college football to continue their streak of taking place annually, even if the sites will not be the same. Additionally, each bracket’s name represents the bowl attached to its Elite Eight contest.

The Final Four takes place on Jan. 9 and consists of the Sugar and Rose Bowls, playing out exactly as the College Football Playoff would in a conventional season. A week from the following Monday, the National Championship game commences on Jan. 18.

That represents the basic framework for this tournament, and it sounds dreamy in theory. However, some key issues still require addressing if an event of this magnitude is to take place while the world continues to deal with the realities of COVID-19.

Doesn’t Thomas Robinson Stadium have a reputation for chaos when hosting American football games? How will the Bahamas accommodate an influx of nearly 7,000 football players in addition to coaches and miscellaneous school staff? And didn’t the Bahamas just ban travelers from the United States due to COVID-19 concerns?

A Quick History Lesson on the Bahamas Bowl

The Bahamas Bowl has always been something of an obscure game between Conference USA and MAC opponents since its inception in 2014. However, it wasn’t until about two and a half years ago that the event became a legend among dedicated college football fans.

Thanks to a hilarious thread on the College Football subreddit, the 2017 Bahamas Bowl lives on forever in the annals of the Internet. The Ohio Bobcats took on the UAB Blazers at Thomas Robinson Stadium back then, but none of the important parts of this bowl game happened on the football field. Instead, fans noted a lax security presence that allowed a series of extracurricular shenanigans to take place while the game went on.

For example, only half of the twenty entrances to the stadium had active patrol on watch, which not only meant almost anybody could wander into the stadium, but nearly anyone that wanted to could bring in alcohol. Fans responded by walking out onto the circular track while the game was going on, drinking heavily, and high-fiving the security staff.


By the way, the security staff in question was the Royal Bahamas Defense Force. The country’s military personnel were allowing fans to chug beer on the track, hi-five players during the game, and enter Ohio’s locker room. Yet, with the exception of four-year-olds practicing archery outside of the stadium as part of the game-day festivities, the lax security did not result in an uptick of violence or mayhem.

But the infrastructure of the stadium itself had its own problems as well. The venue only had one working scoreboard at the time, and the game clock it displayed for the contest was actually just the ESPN feed. This meant fans and officials alike had issues viewing the stadium clock in the bottom right corner of the screen for the length of the game.

Additionally, fans reported one of the funnier sports-related stadium soundboard mishaps in recent memory. The person in charge of the music apparently played Sandstorm by Darude three times in a row at varying volumes to start the game before finally giving up and abandoning music for the event entirely. Since that fateful day in December 2017, Popeyes ditched their sponsorship of the bowl, and Elk Grove Village, IL assumed their place before declining to renew for the upcoming season.

Given where I’ve proposed College Football Island to take place, I felt the need to bring up this colorful and obscure tale from recent college football memory. However, I do believe the NCAA would be able to resolve most of Thomas Robinson Stadium’s issues with little effort or resources.

The fact that these games will go on without anyone in attendance other than staff and security personnel will thankfully mitigate most of the issues surrounding fan behavior. As for locals, there will surely be interest among the Bahamian populace as there has been at every Bahamas Bowl. Even so, with a national directive in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, one has to imagine the RBDF will do a much better job of turning people away three years following their turnstile performance in 2017.

As for infrastructure issues, there’s nothing too extreme that the NCAA and its resources wouldn’t be able to account for. Functioning field clocks for officials are an easy solution for faulty scoreboards, and a stadium sound system isn’t totally necessary unless referees feel the need to announce penalties to the press box and viewing audience at home.

But something that needs outfitting more than Thomas Robinson Stadium would be the nearby practice field that hosts a second game in tandem with the main venue. While the track & field stadium did host the inaugural Bahamas Bowl as well as the HBCUX Classic in 2014, it has not hosted an American football event since. Event organizers would need to ensure all the resources are in place to host, play, and broadcast games on a field with far less sophistication than its Thomas Robinson Stadium counterpart.

Alright, so the Bahamas can play this thing out, but New Providence has a population just short of a quarter million people. This leaves not much room for 65 FBS player rosters along with coaches and staffs on an island with roughly the same square miles of land as Toledo. How does the Bahamas host these teams?

The answer is it doesn’t.

How College Football Island Works Around COVID-19

Putting roughly 7,000 football players on the same island in the Atlantic Ocean likely isn’t going to pan out well for anyone involved, especially when there’s a pandemic afoot. But if all the players aren’t able to reside in Nassau at the same time, how will the tournament deliver 32 college football games in the four days of the First Round?

If only there were another massive landmass reasonably close by with the hospitality support to handle massive influxes of people during cold months of the year. But where in the world can one find such a pl—

Oh, Florida.

The flight from the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area to Lynden Pindling International Airport in the Bahamas lasts roughly 45 minutes. From there, it’s a less than 15 minute drive to Thomas Robinson Stadium. With enough logistical personnel and parameters in place, teams could conceivably fly to the Bahamas in the morning for their games, with some returning to their hotels in the United States before sundown.

This sounds like a great deal of unnecessary effort to uphold the idea of playing a college football tournament on an island, but in the context of keeping all involved safe from the ongoing pandemic, it makes more sense.

A plan should be in place to have all student-athletes of schools invited to College Football Island done with semester coursework prior to Thanksgiving, or at least grant them the ability to take finals digitally. The following week, teams can start making their way to their respectful hotels along the southeast coast of Florida prior to the inaugural game on Dec. 5.

Teams stay in their bubbles until their respective game-days, travel to New Providence in the morning, play their football, and come home later in the evening. Winners reside in their bubbles for another week while eliminated teams get to return home for winter break immediately. The southeast coast bubble system remains intact until the Elite Eight, when the Bahamas can create new unique bubbles for each team at their local resorts/hotels.

Installing a bubble of roughly 10,000 people along the coastline of a state that’s had as controversial an experience dealing with COVID-19 as any probably sounds ludicrous to many. But there are a few ongoing factors to consider that make this a much more plausible strategy than one would initially believe it to be.

For one, there would not be a singular college football bubble consisting of thousands of people. There are roughly 58,000 hotel rooms in the Miami area alone, which gives teams more than enough vacancy to set up their own bubbles on a school-by-school basis that consist of roughly 150 people each. That’s a far easier total to manage and puts significantly less pressure on those in charge with preserving the health of participants.

Furthermore, a 150-person bubble wouldn’t even match half the total of the most impressive sports-related one in the state of Florida this year. Earlier this week, the NBA announced it tested 346 players alone for COVID-19 with zero confirmed cases after finding two such positives in their previous round of testing. If the NBA can preserve the health of its players as it seeks to finish its season at the Disney campus in Orlando, that would provide a significant vote of confidence towards the Floridian elements of the previously laid out strategy for executing College Football Island.

As for the Bahamas’ recent banning of U.S. travelers, it’s highly unlikely this hold lasts to the point that it would jeopardize College Football Island in December. Even as commercial flights to the country prepare for suspension, private travelers from the U.S. remain allowed to enter. In addition, the Bahamas will still allow commercial travel from Canada, the U.K. and E.U. countries. There is absolutely no way that a country reliant on tourism to fund 60% of its economy and employ half of its population is going to shut out America forever.

Finally, given the impact the pandemic has had on global travel, it’s hard to imagine the Bahamas would turn down the eyeballs and promotion that come with hosting an event of such unprecedented scope in American sports. The most significant sporting event Thomas Robinson Stadium has hosted was the IAAF World Relays in 2017, so this would be a significant step-up with respect to establishing a prominent sports complex in a country dearly dedicated to attracting visitors.

There are certainly other factors that need ironing out for College Football Island to take place, but hopefully the above information provides a glimpse into how such an event could become a reality should the motivation exist to do so. Of course, some optimism remains that the college football season will take place in the fall on American soil, and with many professional sports set to return in the coming days and weeks, that hopefully will be the case.

But as nearly everyone on the planet navigates the insane unpredictability and tempestuousness of 2020, it’s best to start considering alternatives now if retaining college football is a must. Assuming the infrastructure, resources, and health statuses are all in place, would you really say “no” to ending this hell of a year with a viewing of what would be the most highly anticipated event in the history of college sports?