INDIANAPOLIS – Coach Nick Saban walked off Alabama’s team plane Friday night to a cold, harsh reality.
When he returns to the airport for the final time this season, the Crimson Tide will either be celebrating another national championship or heading home disappointed.
Saban's top-ranked team received a warm welcome in frigid Indianapolis, arriving shortly after dusk Friday with streaks of orange and red and a bright crescent moon coloring the sky. Players scurried from the plane to buses with temperatures in the teens as drummers played tunes for Alabama before doing the same when Georgia arrived about 90 minutes later.
Even for a playoff regular like Alabama, this was a different routine.
“It's been pretty cold in Tuscaloosa the last day or two but not this cold," Saban said. “I told them to be ready for the cold. Our guys are not used to it. Fortunately, we won't be playing in it, so I told them to get used to it from the plane to the bus."
Monday night marks the first time the College Football Playoff championship game will be played in a northern city and though the Lucas Oil Stadium dome will be closed, this was not the greeting organizers hoped for.
Thursday night's wind chills dipped into negative digits and were still hovering there Friday morning. The highs Saturday and Sunday are expected to be near 40 degrees before lows are forecast to hit single digits again Monday night.
The good news is Indy's maze of indoor walkways mean players and fans won't need to be outside much if at all — just like the teams that competed in last spring's NCAA men's basketball tournament.
And in a region best-known for embracing basketball, racing and the Big Ten, the buzz heating up around town is all about the Alabama-Georgia rematch. One electronic billboard even renamed the city as Indianapoli-SEC.
“We're really pleased to have the opportunity to be in the CFP and it's a great place have it, a great venue," Saban said, noting some of his players hope to return to Indy in late February for the NFL's annual scouting combine.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was not scheduled to speak with reporters after the Bulldogs arrived Friday. School officials cited concerns over the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. He did briefly, anyway.
“We’ve had great health, no issues with flu or COVID," he said in announcing everyone made the trip. “The guys have practiced well.”
So far, though, there's no indication the virus will force revisions to Monday's plan.
A crowd of roughly 68,000 is expected to attend the game in the same venue where the NFL's Indianapolis Colts have been playing in front of full or near-capacity crowds since August. Organizers are not requiring fans to wear masks though they do strongly encourage using them.
It's not a new phenomenon for Indy, either. An estimated 135,000 fans attended last May's Indianapolis 500 and Lucas Oil Stadium hosted a sellout crowd for December's Big Ten title game between Michigan and Iowa.
No changes have been announced to the indoor or outdoor events open to fans, either.
“I think we’re going to provide a different level of fun and football than they may see in other cities," said Susan Baughman, president of the local organizing committee. “They'll feel like they’re taking over the city.”