“It’s Not Weird Anymore”–The Problem with College Football

Earlier this month, the pre-season top 25 polls (both Coaches and AP) were released for the college football season. Consequently, ESPN’s Mike Greenberg replied to the release of the polls on Twitter, saying, “It’s the same five teams every year. There is no sport with less parity. None.” The five teams he’s referring to are those that comprise the current top five: Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio State, respectively.

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I prefer college football over the NFL. When explaining this to people I know, I often cite that it’s most likely due to Ohio State’s year after year success being significantly greater than that of my Philadelphia Eagles. Young Daniel didn’t want to be a bandwagon but he also wanted to root for a winner, and the Ohio State football team that his parents indoctrinated him with were already the best of the best.

But you know what else made college football so awesome back in the 2000s? It was really, REALLY weird. Don’t believe me, well here’s a list of the BCS top 10 rankings on November 22nd, 2009, when teams were playing their last games of the regular season before the conference championships began.

  1. Florida 11-0
  2. Alabama 11-0
  3. Texas 11-0
  4. TCU 11-0
  5. Cincinnati 10-0
  6. Boise State 11-0
  7. Georgia Tech 10-1
  8. Oregon 9-2
  9. Pittsburgh 9-1
  10. Ohio State 10-2

It’s beautiful isn’t it. So many things that seem out of place. Three undefeated name-brand schools top the list, yet they are immediately followed by out of nowhere mid major colleges (at this time, TCU was a member of the Mountain West, not the Big 12, and Cincinnati was technically a part of a BCS conference in the Big East, but in all honesty, the difference between Big East football and mid major action was unrecognizable). The college football community coined these mid majors as “BCS Busters”, teams that were successful enough to earn an at large berth in a BCS Bowl (the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowl to be exact) despite not hailing from conferences whose champions would be automatically invited to the big time bowl games.

It’s already weird enough to think of a team that plays on a field painted blue in the middle of Idaho as the sixth best amateur team in America, but the four teams that follow the Broncos on the list create curiosity as well. Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh have never been laughing stocks, but they’re also one of the mascots of the, “We’re okay, we went 8-4,” season (and if they’re the mascots, then Iowa is a powerful, spiritual embodiment of 8-4). Oregon’s presence among the nation’s elite became familiar to fans over time, but we forget how strange it was that this up tempo, style over power team that lacked NFL talent had taken over Pacific Coast football (not to mention one of their two losses was a butt kicking administered by the Boise State Boys themselves). Ohio State is supposed to be in the top 10 just about every weeks that it exists, but look at the records next to each team and you’ll see a peculiar disparity in the total number of games each teams has played. Most have completed 11 contests, but for some odd reason, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh still had two more battles to endure. Meanwhile, Ohio State had just come off their seventh straight victory over arch rival Michigan to complete their regular season, despite the Big 10 having no conference championship game at the time, which left Ohio State to wait almost two entire moths before their post season fate would be revealed.

You may be wondering, why on earth are some teams still playing football each of the next two weeks even though not only Ohio State, but EVERY single team in the Big 10 had already finished their regular season. It really highlights how different things were as little as ten years ago. This was the pre-playoff, pre-rest your players movement, and pre-uniform tv schedule era. The Big 10 wasn’t concerned with spreading games out or providing crucial bye weeks, rather, they played their 12 game schedule in 12 straight weeks, no breaks.

Some might counter that all this supposed randomness was ultimately irrelevant as big bad Alabama went onto claim the National Championship over Texas. But that specific sentiment that the championship match alone provides significance to the context of the sport is why college football has become a far worse product.

Just glancing back over the history books and seeing Alabama’s list appear next to the ’09 championship slot glances over the external factors that made that season wacky, wild, and awesome. For starters:

  • That was Alabama’s first title under Nick Saban, and their 14-0 championship season was actually viewed as a surprise and an enjoyable return to prominence for a program that had been downright dreadful for almost the entire decade prior to Saban.
  • The 2009 SEC Championship was the second consecutive year in which Florida and Alabama met as the top two ranked teams in the country, only this time Alabama would avenge their loss from the previous year’s matchup. The Florida-Alabama hype was still fresh and everyone loved having the two juggernauts square off in what was a de facto playoff game.
  • The other championship participant, Texas, followed a peculiar path. Many thought they were robbed of a championship through a three-way, fifth-option tiebreaker the year prior (it’s as weird as it sounds and you can click on this link to try and understand it better), but they had cruised through ’09 behind beloved senior Quarterback Colt McCoy. Yet, everything nearly went up in flames in the Big 12 championship against a 9-3 Nebraska team. Both offenses were suffocated, and the Longhorns only prevailed 13-12 on a last second field goal set up by one of the strangest game clock errors we’ve ever seen.
  • Speaking of Nebraska, that team too had its share of weirdness. They were offensively futile and only survived because their defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, was the most unblockable force college football had ever seen. He finished 4th in the Heisman voting, and to this day, many talk show hosts claim that he should have won the trophy.
  • TCU and Boise State matched up in the Fiesta Bowl, both undefeated, both non-BCS schools. It was the first and only matchup of its kind in the BCS era. Boise State won 17-10 to cap off a 14-0 season, which was the highlight of a four year stretch in which they went 50-3 under the guidance of quarterback Kellen Moore.
  • Even if it seems insignificant now, the Ohio State victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl that year is still cherished by Buckeye fans. Ohio State had developed a reputation as chokers following consecutive national championship blowouts and embarrassing defeats at the hands of USC, so that upset of college football’s “revolutionary” team in Oregon gave Ohio State its swagger back.
  • The five BCS bowls featured all of the top ten ranked teams in the country. Not super weird until you consider the fact that it’s basically never worked out like that before.

That all sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? College football had the best of both worlds back then. They had a definitive championship game that generated hype and gave the sensation of a grand finale, yet their plethora of schedule oddities, small college cameos, and well marketed bowl games could create interest in any realm of fandom, no matter how trivial the teams may have actually been.

Now return to college football in 2019. Alabama and Clemson. Alabama and Clemson. Alabama …. and Clemson. College football is bland to most, completely irrelevant to some, and is suffering mainly from one overarching problem–it’s not weird anymore.

That’s what happens when you institute a playoff to try and normalize what had been the most unique sport across mainstream culture. The powers that be became frustrated. Frustrated that TV personalities and Twitter know-it-alls mocked their system of picking a champion. A system in which 98% of the teams finished their years by playing in supposedly “meaningless games”.

Those who formed the four team college football playoff made a mistake. They mistook those hot take artists that were plastered over social media as their target audience. I’m not saying that the hot takers don’t watch or know college football, but I’m almost sure that they don’t truly love college football. Sure, they watch the marquee matchups and stay up to the date on the top draft prospects, but they don’t care about things like Pac 12 after dark or Hawaii’s run and shoot offense. They don’t reminisce about when Baylor and TCU ran the Big 12. The NCAA wanted to win over the social media world, and the answer they concocted was a four team playoff, and focused all of their marketing campaigns around said playoff. No more hyping up integral games in the Big 10 West race or talking about the best two loss teams in the country. No, now everything is the playoff. So much that the personalities who caused college football to change are lobbying further for expansion to an eight team or even 16 team playoff.

They took the special connection they had for granted. They couldn’t settle for a small, devoted community of junkies, and instead lusted to ascend to the same cultural plain as professional football. It didn’t work. In fact, it further crippled the sport’s popularity. My middle school days were riddled with back and forth college football convos with my friends. Nowadays, the only time they ever want to mention the sport is to rub an Ohio State loss in my face (fortunately for me this is a rare occurrence).

The four team playoff allows for the truly elite teams to get in, yet simultaneously kills any Cinderella type runs. It gives the satisfaction that the champion is no fluke, that the team crowned number one was the most deserving team in the country. The system is proper.

This system is also boring.

Did we ever stop to appreciate the level of creativity that went into the original foundation of college football. Prior to 1998, there was no official method for determining the champion. You played your schedule, you went to a big time bowl game, and multiple media outlets would then each declare who they thought the national champion was. I can already picture you all rolling your eyes at this method. There were a few egregious errors (I’m looking at you 1984 BYU), but for the most part the champions were pretty easily agreed upon. When you have a method that does not particularly emphasize any one game or series of games, the effect you get is that every single game in the season matters. Fans view every game with intense dedication, knowing that any team could push for a title with the right combination of wins.

More importantly, you don’t have players sitting out bowl games. Why would they when a good performance in said game might just give their team the boost in the polls they need? Even in the BCS era, players rarely sat out bowl games, due to the fact that the championship or nothing mentality hadn’t penetrated the sanctum of college football.

Winning your conference championship used to mean something. People around the country revered you and recognized it as a crowning accomplishment. Ohio State just completed back to back Big 10 Championship campaigns, and all anyone wants to talk about is why they can’t crack the playoff picture. Playing in bowl games used to mean something. Teams felt compelled not only to prove themselves, but to validate their conference’s prestige. The stadiums used to be packed to the brink for things as seemingly insignificant as the Capital One Bowl (in addition, I miss bowl game names such as this one). During the playoff era, teams can barely fill the Sun Devil’s stadium for the Fiesta Bowl.

We should have known better. College sports will never have the same quality of the play as its professional counterpart. Therefore, the NCAA should rely on providing an unpredictable, unwieldy, and ultimately unique form of entertainment. College basketball does that by greatly expanding its championship field, allowing teams of lesser talent more opportunities to reek havoc.

College football can never expand the tournament to the likes of basketball. Football is simply too violent, and asking amateur athletes to play over 14 or 15 high level games a year borders on mistreatment. So how do you make things unpredictable? You eliminate the tournament format. It becomes a game of pick and choose, rank and debate, survive and advance.

You might argue that a return to something like the BCS format would not change the bottom line. Clemson and Alabama are far and away the best teams, and therefore would finish with the top rankings. But it only takes one upset to one of the giants, and one random undefeated season by another conference champion to change that.

Maybe the original creators of college football had a reason for their seemingly nonsensical post-season consisting of exhibitions for bragging rights. Maybe division one college football shouldn’t be centered around the quest for determining the top team of 130, even more so considering that there are at best 20 teams with any plausible chance of doing so. Maybe college football is supposed to be centered around traditions, rivalries, and the pride one feels in the success of their school on the gridiron. Maybe having talk shows spend time previewing mid level bowl games would be more fun than constantly ranting about why players should get paid, why every top player needs to declare after three years of eligibility, and why it is borderline incompetent for any potential draft pick to even think of playing in a non-playoff bowl game.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t have all the answers. When I began writing this piece it was first title, “College Football is Broken, So How do We Fix It?” before realizing how difficult that question really was. I’m completely against playoff expansion, as that would only further normalize the sport, place too much of a physical toll on amateur athletes, and would be the final nail in the coffin of beloved bowl games. While I do miss the BCS system and even the no standardized championship format, those methods weren’t perfect and would be immediately hated by modern sports society. I wandered into an idea of adopting Premier League style relegation, splitting the 130 teams up into three or four divisions. Maybe fans would have more interest in bowl games if it determined whether their team remained in the first division or was demoted to second class. As fun as it may sound, this method falls flat due to the chaotic scheduling that would ensue, as well as the potential loss of cherished year to year rivalries.

The one thing I am sure of is that college football can still be awesome. One day, things will be weird and wonderful again. I’ve loved this sport for too long to give up on it, and I have to believe that there are others out there like me who are staying strong. Hopefully our collective belief is enough to one day help the sport be loved by those fanatics who have spurned collegiate football.

Even if I bashed the modern version of the sport, there are still few things that bring me more joy on this earth then spending 9 consecutive hours on a Saturday inhaling all things college football. If you’re reading this but have never paid much attention to football that isn’t in the NFL, I highly suggest you give it a try. For things to get better we need more people to buy in. We need more people to like the weirdness of college football.