Sports

In College Football, Everything Is Great and No One Is Happy

Georgia fans in the stands.
Georgia Bulldogs fans during the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators on Saturday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2018, Ohio State’s football team went 13–1. Its only loss came in a fluke night game on the road against Purdue, which played out of its mind in front of a young fan suffering from cancer. The Buckeyes recovered by scoring 62 points in an upset demolition of their biggest rival, then won the Big Ten, then won the Rose Bowl.

Ramzy Nasrallah, a Columbus native and Ohio State fan who co-founded the blog Eleven Warriors, recently told me that this sequence of events was “disappointing”—a “lackluster, lost season” in which the team’s coaches “screwed themselves.” The tweet he has pinned to the top of his account is from October 2018 and describes that month’s version of the Buckeyes as “the stupidest team I’ve ever seen in my life.”

To understand why he felt this way is to understand that the United States’ most proudly regional sport has become nationalized by ESPN and the College Football Playoff. As a consequence, this is at once the best time ever to be a fan of college football as a sport and the worst time ever to be a fan of almost every major college football team.

Consider how college football games were watched and discussed just 25 or so years ago. The SEC, Big Ten, Big Eight, Southwest Conference, Pac-10, Big East, and ACC all featured nationally elite teams. The biggest matchups were shown on ABC and CBS, but many others were broadcast regionally—which meant that a program’s games were handled, over the course of a season, by just a handful of announcing teams. The most important media outlet covering each program was the local daily newspaper; if your favorite team won a big game, you might get to read a literary write-up in Sports Illustrated. The season took shape based on the outcomes of a series of rivalry games, which helped settle conference championships, which in turn determined the combatants in bowl games. A two-loss season, or even a three- or-four-loss one, might be remembered fondly, if one of the wins was important enough.

In 2019, there are only five major conferences, but there are enough broadcast outlets to ensure that no announcing team ever familiarizes itself with any individual program. In the first six weeks of the 2018 season, Northwestern appeared on ESPN, ESPNU, the Big Ten Network, Fox, Fox Sports 1, and ABC. It’s perhaps no coincidence that when the Wildcats scored a touchdown against Ohio State in last season’s Big Ten championship game, Fox play-by-play man Gus Johnson shouted, “Touchdown, Wisconsin!”

The sport’s most important media outlet is ESPN, whose dominance in the TV, talking head, and online journalism realms has expanded as local papers have withered and died. The network has mostly unchecked power to set college football’s narratives via its studio shows and in-house opinionists. What ESPN naturally considers the defining achievement of a season, now, is earning one of the four spots in the ESPN-broadcasted playoff. One of the top stories on ESPN’s college football page when I was writing this story was about how Georgia and Oregon’s big weekend wins raised the possibility of getting “a second chance” at a “first playoff impression.” ESPN, more than anyone or anything else, is the entity creating those impressions, as major sports media becomes increasingly dominated by takes—provocative, declarative statements of opinion whose effectiveness and virality derive from their capacity to enrage. (Underneath this, and perhaps as a reaction to it, sports are now a thriving space for technically obsessive blogging and absurdist social media commentary, two modes which particularly lend themselves to college football, which is defined by formal experimentation and over-the-top characters. This is almost entirely good, but as we will see in a second, it can have its downsides, too.)

The College Football Playoff, in turn, has become a self-reinforcing NCAA Champions League. As Auburn fan and football writer Jerry Hinnen pointed out to me, four teams—Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State—have taken 14 of the 20 spots in the playoff since its birth in 2015 and have gone 11–1 or better in 15 of their last 16 combined regular seasons. With national discussion revolving around the playoff, and the same teams always making the playoff, those teams have increasingly consolidated the nation’s football talent. (Oklahoma isn’t quite on the Bama/Clemson/OSU level when it comes to high school recruiting, but its last two quarterbacks have been transfers who won the Heisman, and the Sooners are currently led by Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, who might also win the Heisman.) In the ’90s, when seasons sometimes ended with the AP and coaches’ polls listing different teams as No. 1, 13 programs could credibly say they won a “national championship.” In the playoff era, only three have done so.

So, in 2019, college football fans can watch games from across the country; supplement their viewing with technical insight and commentary that can be accessed at any time; and consume all this knowing that, at the end of the season, the best and most deserving contenders will compete for a championship. Also, winning a conference title is both harder than it used to be and less important; the mainstream announcers and writers covering your favorite team know less about it and are judging it on a standard in which a single loss is a disaster; Alabama and Clemson are the only ones with a real shot at the national championship anyway; and when your team does lose, you can ruin your week by reading dozens of articles and Twitter arguments about why and how it did so, then be reminded of your newfound irrelevance by TV production teams whose concerns begin and end with the national race. As Banner Society’s Ryan Nanni told me, “It’s strange, but somehow expanding the playoff slightly has made everyone more worked up. … Everyone just sort of accepted that you could have a solid season and not make the [two-team] BCS title game. We all hated it, but now there’s juuuust enough access that if you’re not one of those four and you theoretically could have been, you fucked up.” And that’s not the only way you can fuck up. Nanni points out that teams that make the playoff only to get blown out—like 2015 Michigan State and 2018 Notre Dame—are remembered only so they can be ridiculed, despite having had great regular seasons.

Fans of teams that, by many traditional measures, are doing just fine now feel compelled to tear their hair out with rage when their coaches merely win most of their games. At Georgia, Kirby Smart has the program on better footing than it’s been in decades, but after a three-point loss to South Carolina at home—its first defeat of the year—the team was booed in the first quarter of its next game.* Says Deadspin founder and Athens, Georgia, resident Will Leitch: “Smart could go 11–1 every year for the next five years, and if he doesn’t win a national championship during those five years, he will almost certainly be fired.” Jim Harbaugh has won 10 games in three of his four seasons at Michigan (his two predecessors averaged fewer than seven) and has a good chance of doing it again this year; by scoring margin, Michigan has been the sixth-best major-conference team in the country since Harbaugh arrived. He is usually described during the team’s broadcasts as one of the most notoriously disappointing people in human history. (I’m a Michigan fan and will admit that when the team’s deficit against Wisconsin in September hit four touchdowns, I called for him to be put in jail.) As recently as 2017, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn—who had previously taken the Tigers to the national championship game—led his team to first place in the SEC West, the most competitive division in college football, while beating both Georgia and Alabama. And yet, Hinnen identifies “Auburn Twitter tearing itself apart yet again over whether Malzahn should be fired or not” as one of the most salient elements of his fan experience. “The repetitive same-arguments-rehashed-40-million-times aspect is one of the biggest bummers of being a CFB fan in 2019,” he says.

To some extent, fans of Michigan and Auburn are angry because they’ve fallen behind their traditional rivals in the sport’s pecking order. But that pecking order, now, is a national one. The country’s top recruits imbibe TV narratives and internet chatter and favor the teams playing for big playoff stakes over those going through the motions in now-second-tier bowls. That’s how teams in Ohio, Alabama, and South Carolina lock down the best prospects in Texas and California. And playoff angst can strike even if your team has been there before. Ohio State missed out last year because of that one loss to Purdue, and defenestrating Michigan yet again wasn’t enough consolation. As Ramzy Nasrallah puts it, “Regional kingdoms are a relic of the past, replaced by fiefdoms which only serve the national interest.”

This Saturday, LSU plays at Alabama, which has ruled the fiefdom of the SEC with an iron fist: five straight wins over LSU, five straight playoff appearances. This is LSU’s best team in years, as they’ve thrown out their traditional ball-control power-rushing attack in the hope that a more explosive offense, led by Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow, will help them finally topple their unbeatable rival. (Up north, Michigan has done something similar, with more mixed results.) The Tigers have been in the madness-inducing also-ran tier for the entire playoff era, scuffling along with Michigan, Auburn, Notre Dame, and the rest. It’s not just the hopes of their fan base’s alligator farmers and shirtless upper-deck Skynyrd enthusiasts that they’ll be carrying into Tuscaloosa, but rather the hopes of an entire nation of also-ran rooters: the University of Texas alums and USC bandwagon-hoppers and even perhaps Golden Gophers who are wondering if they will ever get their moment under the playoff lights. Godspeed, you gumbo-addled, deep ball–chucking swamp freaks, godspeed.

Correction, Nov. 7, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Georgia lost to South Carolina on the road. It was a home game.