College football expert A. C. Boyle analyzes the league after Clemson avoided an upset against NCU, crushing fans’ hopes of something unpredictable happening for once.
On Saturday, Sept. 28, an unranked 26.5 point underdog team almost upset the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers, the best team in college football and the defending national champions. Almost.
The unranked North Carolina Tar Heels played with resilience the whole game, and had a chance to win by going for two at the very end of the fourth quarter. They didn’t get the two point conversion, and they lost, 21-20. A chance to create one of the greatest college football moments of all time slipped right through fate’s fingers.
I was watching this game with interest right up until the very end, certain that I could be watching something truly special — an upset that could be the highlight of the year. But when the game was finally over, I found myself confronted with some vague and decrepit feeling eating away at my very soul, and I had to go outside and walk around to shake that feeling off. At the end of it, these sobering words were etched in my brain: college football is dead.
Parity is something that concerns anybody who follows sports closely. Many leagues struggle with it, being dominated by dynasties that seem as unbeatable as Superman in a world with no Kryptonite, until a new one comes along to replace them — not a change for the better, just a case of being “under new management.” For years I have had to watch as my favorite pro sports league, the NBA, has plummeted into a mockery of itself as free agents collude with each other to win rings. College Football is no exception to this. In fact, it might be the sports league in America, college or pro, with the worst parity of all. While I’m willing to come to the defense of the NFL’s parity, I will spare no mercy when talking about the so-called “parity” of college football in 2019; this once proud American institution has become a joke, and I refuse to defend bad jokes.
How the hell is this even possible? How come teams in this sport don’t ever get a chance to pull off miracle upsets, or shock the world, like we see frequently in college basketball and March Madness? How come college football has become so stale outside of the perennially exciting rivalry matches and occasional duel between two great teams? How come the rich have been getting richer, and the poor have been getting poorer?
Well, it’s not any hidden secret. It has to do with the way recruitment works.
College football is just that: a collegiate form of athletics. Because the players don’t get paid, and because they are students, there are going to be a treasure trove of differences in style of play and skill level — but most importantly, there are going to be differences in how the sport itself is managed.
In professional football, everything is about money. The NFL can’t make money unless they drill up excitement, and the best (and only) way to do this is through making things more competitive. In recent years the Patriots have dominated everything, making six straight AFC Championship game appearances. That might be one reason why the league’s ratings and attendance are down. But in College football, things are even worse.
The NFL balances things out by having all 32 teams operate on the same level. Each team participates in the draft. The weaker teams get a chance to boost themselves up. The stronger teams can trade picks if they choose — or stay content with their current core. Each team is roughly the same size, ignoring big market vs. small market disparity. College football, however, doesn’t operate the same way.
College football has no draft, it has the recruitment of talented prospects to different programs. Ameteur athletes have the best chance of making it big as a pro through signing with a lofty football program. Successful programs stay successful by recruiting new prospects, and they do this through their legacy. If you know the sport then you know the pedigree programs by heart: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State and so on. For them, they are on top of the world, and everything comes easy to them. They take the best prospects, leaving the local talents and bread crumbs to the rest, and with this golden array of talent they win big time bowl games, enhancing their reputation, leading to new prospects being interested in said programs and greasing the recruitment machine for their team. Rinse and repeat.
This is creating an immense disparity amongst the power five conference teams in college football, and it’s gotten so bad that one wonders why unsuccessful college programs even try to improve their image, instead of spending the money elsewhere (you know, on their students, perhaps?). But that’s not all. This disparity is making college football simply unfun to watch.
I don’t think I have seen this once-proud sport in such a bad state in my entire life, and I’ve been watching college football for a long time. It’s gotten to the point where there is a disparity within a disparity; even lofty teams like LSU and Georgia are too far below Alabama and Clemson’s skill level. In fact, Alabama and Clemson have widened the gap so far that their successive prospects mean that they’ll be a virtual football oligarchy for ages to come. They’ve split the last four national championships between themselves, are the No. 1 and No. 2 in the rankings right now and are virtual locks to win their conferences and make the four team playoff, meaning one of them will probably win the whole thing again this year. In fact, why don’t we cancel the goddamn season right now and name both these teams joint masters of the known universe? Why don’t we cancel the sport itself and erect bronze statues of Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney instead?
And it isn’t just a skewed recruitment dynamic that damages college football’s parity. There is also the matter of unfair bowl game selections, like when UCF got left out of the college football playoff despite being undefeated in both 2017 and 2018. Or when Oklahoma State got left out of a National championship game against LSU in 2011 in favor of Alabama, even though Alabama had already lost to LSU in their regular season game. I’m sure the cash generated from the TV ratings for a flashier game influences the decision making for these games, and this is a good time to point out that college football isn’t politics. It’s not even religion, though it’s close sometimes. It’s a sport. And sports are supposed to be two things: fair and fun. Sports are not supposed to leave me feeling like the dice are loaded.
You know what? I miss 2007. That was the marquee year for college football. You couldn’t have asked for a more eventful season; the year started with a bunch of nobody kids from Appalachian St. upsetting No. 5 ranked Michigan 34-32 in front of 100,000 stunned and embarrassed home fans. Then unranked Colorado upset No. 3 Oklahoma. Then unranked 41-point underdog Stanford beat No. 2 USC on a game winning 4th quarter drive. And then unranked Arkansas beat No. 1 LSU in triple overtime. And then unranked Illinois beat No. 1 Ohio State. And then unranked Pitt beat No. 2 West Virginia. And then Kansas upset Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, finishing with a 12-1 record. You heard me right there folks: Kansas, one of the worst college football programs of the last decade, had the best record of any team in 2007. It was opposite year, an exception that should have frankly been the rule. More importantly, it was outstanding to watch.
2007 was my first year watching college football, and today, I look back and I wonder what happened. I wonder how the hierarchy had been overthrown, only for a new one to come around and pound all the little teams into submission, and I wonder why no new teams can even get the momentum rolling to build a lofty program from scrap (Bill Snyder from K-State comes to mind, but that was a long time ago.)
When I wonder where things went wrong, it’s easy to look at Alabama and their emperor, Nick Saban, who quickly marched onto the scene in 2009 to win his First National Championship of many, as the beginning of the end. It was as if he went around proclaiming the new order as he conquered: college football is dead. I am college football.
I sincerely hope we have a different national champion this year, a team that hasn’t won it all in a long time, or ever before. If any team can do it, it’s Jalen Hurts’ Oklahoma squad, the team closest to the big two of ‘Bama and Clemson in talent. Furthermore, Jalen Hurts was a former quarterback for Nick Saban, too. Who better to unseat the Alabama dynasty than a defector who knows the talents — and weaknesses — of his mentor? I for sure hope Jalen can pull it off, or that someone else can, so that I may once again have faith in this once illustrious sport. To quote Leslie Nielsen: “Good luck Jalen, we’re all counting on you.”