The Fog Clears

Appreciating college football for the answers it can't ever give.

You didn’t start following college football for the championship, because there wasn’t one.

There were bowls and polls, there were teams that walked off the field at the end of the season and called themselves the best, and there were times that most people agreed with them. There were champions, but they were crowned with the understanding that we couldn’t know everything. We were guessing. 

That messiness is, from a certain romantic point of view, the best part of college football. The inherent futility of trying to take 120-some-odd teams and conclusively determining the very best one in twelve or thirteen weeks is a feature, not a bug. Teams have other things to strive for. More wins than last year. A win over those jerks from the next town over or the next state over. A trip to somewhere warm and an all-you-can-eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory before a game that doesn’t really matter because you print the t-shirts before you even go. 

In the pre-digital age, it was a sprawl made for filling a newspaper sports page. A dozen different sets of standings, places I’d heard of but never been, places I’d never heard of but might like to go, names that might not even be places. (Where’s Purdue or Baylor or Temple anyways? Why does Arkansas play with a bunch of teams from Texas? Why’s that one French school not in a conference at all?) Every other sport was positively tidy in comparison. Evenly-split conferences and balanced divisions, orderly playoff systems that offered enough opportunity for anyone to qualify or fail to qualify on their own merits or lack of merits. College football was a tangle of competing priorities, incompatible visions and inscrutable generational squabbles with no interest in sitting down and coming to a sensible resolution. 

At the end of this season, someone will be mad that they were left out. Alabama lost to LSU this past weekend, and they stand a very good chance of missing the playoff field for the first time in its six-year existence. They also stand a very good chance of making it in, because that’s what happens when you turn your back on the monster and just assume they’re dead. A Power 5 team is going to win its conference and not make it into the playoff, or maybe two or three will. Someone’s going to have an easier path because of a game they lost, or a harder path because of a game they won. Someone’s going to have to play the same team two weeks in a row because even when college football tries to tidy itself up, it spills the mop bucket and starts a fire.

I’m not old enough or enough of a blowhard yet to truly argue that the College Football Playoff is a bad thing. It’s a step that had to come after the previous one, and it mostly works better than that one did, because four teams are easier to pick than two. Eventually, though, enough righteous and indignant number-five teams will raise hell and we’ll push that number to six or eight or sixteen or just start a playoff in September so we can finally get to the bottom of this problem, instead of accepting that we’re never going to get it right.

We can extend the season and erase the bowls and insist we see more in-season resume-building clashes of programs who have nothing to do with each other aside from success, and we can play those games in NFL stadiums because that’s what success looks like — a plane ride to Dallas instead of a tailgate on campus. We can play on Thursday night in the hopes we get seen by pollsters who matter more than our fans. We can abandon everything we fell in love with about the sport for the dream of getting it right. We can cry and bellow and tear apart the whole place looking for an answer that isn’t there or we can appreciate the season we’ve got before it’s over.

There are people today who are arguing against the professionalization of college athletics. Most of them are making their case against reforming the exploitative financial structure, and most of them benefit very handsomely from that structure. That’s not what I’m arguing. Let the people doing the work get paid or shut the hell up about it, Dabo. (For the record: the simplest and quickest system to make everyone happier is for everyone to just look the other way when someone shows up with a new car.) No, the professionalization we should be worried about is the ever-expanding desire to find a definitive answer in a sport whose essence is in the traditions, the folklore, and the joy that arise from its absolute refusal to give you a straight answer. 

Generations ago, people looked at the night sky and, lacking the tools and scholarship to understand exactly what was happening up there, told the best story they could with what they did know. Before every place was linked to every other and we could know seemingly anything at any time, there was a lot of fog in the spaces between. We built myths and folklore to fill what we couldn’t see. It wasn’t accurate, but it was probably a better story. When the fog cleared and all the empty spots on the map were filled in, we were left with a better understanding and a lot fewer things to dream about.

My alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, is in the midst of one of the best football seasons in its long history and stands virtually no chance at becoming the sport’s champion by season’s end. This isn’t a failure of the system, it’s a failure of imagination. If we were to create a system that ensured Cincinnati would have a chance to play for the title, we’d probably have to clear out a lot of other things in the process, and I’m not about to surrender an annual chance to gloat over those preppies up in Oxford in exchange for some remote shot at an unwieldy wedge of platinum. Would a championship be nice? Of course. Does that make me savor a victory that won’t lead to one any less? Not at all.

I didn’t fall in love with college football for the championship, I fell in love with it for the stories it had to tell me. Let’s appreciate the fog while it lasts.

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