Sports Nut

Fight! Fight! Choke! Choke!

College football and the culture of failure.

Florida State football players
The agony of mediocrity

There are many reasons why I hate college football. The 4-hour games drone on longer than Steve Lyons during the American League playoffs. The ever-expanding season threatens to creep into early July. Boise, Idaho, hosts a bowl game. And it’s played on blue artificial turf. Then there’s the NCAA’s absurd overtime gimmick: Each team gets the ball at their opponent’s 25-yard-line, the moral equivalent of asking NBA hoopsters to start OT possessions at half court.

All that’s true, but the main reason college football blows is, well, it’s just not very well played. More than any other major sport, professional or amateur, college football games are decided by the physical incompetence and downright chokery of their players.

On Saturday, millions wasted a perfectly good fall afternoon watching Miami and Florida State struggle for football-factory supremacy. In the end, the game wasn’t decided by a brilliant run or catch, but by Seminole kicker Xavier Beitia hooking a 43-yard field goal in perfect conditions. No one was surprised, particularly since Florida State’s earlier loss to Louisville was predicated on quarterback Chris Rix’s dying quail interception in overtime. After Saturday’s Oklahoma-Texas game in Dallas, few were talking about the Sooners’ defensive prowess. Instead, sports radio was packed with Longhorn fans bemoaning that Heisman-hyped Chris Simms has never ever thrown a touchdown pass against a Top-10 team. He threw three interceptions against OU, only to be outdone by Sooner quarterback Nate Hybl, who threw four.

Things were hopping at the other end of the food chain, too. Temple, a team so woeful that if it was a horse it would be shot and its remains deemed unsafe for dogs or glue-eating kids, scored a 17-16 victory over Syracuse when the Orangemen’s kicker missed an extra point in the final minutes. The conversion, a mere formality in the NFL, has plagued America’s top amateurs all year. Last week, USC lost to Washington State after missing an extra point, and two weeks ago, Texas A&M fell to Texas Tech after their kicker botched two extra points, one in regulation and one in overtime. Both losing teams were ranked in the Top 25.

The University of Michigan squeaked by a Penn State team Saturday that missed an extra point, too. In fact, the Champions of the West have benefited the most from this year’s college football high comedy. In their opener, the winning kick—yes, one that was actually made, but only after the Wolverines’ marksmen had blown three earlier attempts—was set up when the Washington Huskies were penalized for having 12 men on the field. What makes this amusing is that the dirty dozen appeared on the field after a Husky timeout. The next week, Michigan traveled to South Bend where they scored a TD against a Notre Dame defense featuring 10 men on the field. The crack Irish staff didn’t notice the deficiency until moments before Michigan snapped the ball for the subsequent two-point conversion. They had to take a timeout to determine whether they wanted a cornerback on the play.

The ineptitude isn’t new. Hell, Florida State has been missing field goals against Miami for 11 years. Who can forget modern classics like Arkansas’ Clint Stoerner needing only to run out the clock to upset top-rated Tennessee in 1998? Alas, Stoerner stumbled coming out of the snap, tried to use the ball as a cane, and fumbled. Pre-Simms, there’s Vinnie Testaverde in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl throwing five interceptions against Penn State. And speaking of the Nittany Lions, has anyone ever seen them run a 4-minute offense, much less the 2-minute version? Is spiking the ball and getting out of bounds an unteachable skill? The increasingly poor execution is baffling as college football coaching staffs are now like small bureaucracies with a 7-1 teacher-student ratio that would be the envy of Princeton.

Yes, there are brain cramps and bouts of inadvertent slapstick in other sports. But they are relatively rare. That’s why Merkle’s Boner is called a boner. Chris Webber’s no-timeout timeout in the Final Four would quickly be forgotten in the wash of college football. In pro football, Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood is remembered as the ultimate chokester for missing one 47-yarder in the Super Bowl. Yet if Xavier Beitia makes his 43-yarder everyone wets their pants, and Xavier is on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In college football, fans wallow in a culture of failure. Unless you root for Miami, you sadly wait for disaster to strike your team in a manner not seen outside of Fenway Park. Let’s go back to Saturday in Boone, N.C. With seven seconds to go, Furman, ranked  No. 5 in Division 1-AA, scores to go ahead of  No. 4 Appalachian State, 16-15. Furman decides to go for two to give them a three-point cushion. (How Appalachian State was going to get in position to kick a field goal in seven seconds is a question Paladins coach Bobby Lamb will be answering for the rest of his life.) Furman fans knew what was going to happen next. QB Billy Napier throws an interception on the conversion try. It is returned over 90 yards, and Furman loses the game 17-16. As often happens in college football, the Paladins found the only way they could spit the bit and did it with bells on. Mountaineers fans tear down the goal posts, exit the stadium, and throw them in a nearby duck pond.

And no one is surprised.