College football can make anyone a prisoner of the moment. In a big, sprawling sport that dates to 1869, it is enticing to pick out history when we think we see it. Every few years, a team comes along that makes a compelling case as one of the best ever on offense, defense, or altogether. It isn’t even so ridiculous; today’s teams have to play more games (15) to win a national championship, a higher number than yesterday’s best teams would have conceived. The athletes get faster. The limelight gets brighter. No matter that Georgia’s 2021 title team played a different sport than Minnesota’s in 1936, but that certainly didn’t stop me from trying to build a case for the Dawgs’ defense as the best to ever play. This sport is the enemy of comparison not just because teams play such a small chunk of the rest of the country—facing roughly 11 of 130, at the top level—but because the game shifts so much over the long run. We try anyway.
It is a little more doable to assess change on its own terms. Specifically, college sports—with football at the leading edge—is going through more of it now than in any compressed period aside from World War II. The changes then were relatively short-term: Army built a juggernaut while young men funneled into the service, and Notre Dame built one as they funneled out. A few years after that, the NCAA set up an investigative arm and started a decades-long attempt to impose order and prevent athletes from making money. What’s been happening for the past few years is, essentially, the death of that system and the birth of a new one that is being fleshed out on the fly. Players now can and do get paid out in the open for their services, although not by their universities. They can transfer from school to school with almost complete freedom, which wouldn’t be new for anyone else working, but it is for college athletes. The NCAA is amid a long, slow restructuring that will probably see it hand a lot of power back to schools and conferences. It has all brought on a good bit of doom-saying about how college football is straying from itself and morphing into something that is hard to recognize.
The toothpaste is out of the tube on the sport’s traditional rules. But on the eve of a new season, maybe it’s worth emphasizing something else: College football remains largely itself. Everything that was true at the onset of a chaotic 2021 season remains true entering a probably-chaotic 2022, in particular all of this: “ESPN’s College GameDay will have raucous crowds behind its set, marching bands will play on, Alabama will make the College Football Playoff despite losing its whole roster to the NFL, Nebraska will be a disappointment, and the landscape will look a lot like it’s looked for a long time.” (Nebraska has even gotten a head start.) You may think that college football is changing for the better, albeit messily. You may think it’s changing for the worse. Either way, rumors of the sport’s wholesale transformation have been greatly exaggerated because they have focused on its bureaucratic elements without acknowledging the consistency of the athletic and cultural parts of the game. Those, as ever, remain intact.
Maybe start with this Thursday night. Or, more to the point, start in 2012, the year West Virginia University left the Big East, a well-liked and geographically sensible conference, for the far-away Big 12. The Mountaineers had to do it, and the Big East’s death as a football league two years later vindicated their decision. Their blood rival, the University of Pittsburgh, remained for a little longer until the Panthers left, too, for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Television money killed the old Big East and the Pitt-WVU series, too. The two schools, separated by about an hour and a half on Interstate 79, started playing in 1895. They stopped in 2011. The Backyard Brawl—a ritual and mutual exercise in tearing out your enemy’s heart—became a high-profile conference realignment casualty. Among many other rivalries.
Why, then, are the Mountaineers visiting the Panthers on Pittsburgh’s North Shore on Thursday? At core, it’s because the fans and boosters of these programs didn’t forget how much they hated each other just because WVU had gone to the Big 12 and Pitt to the ACC. There were years and years of talk radio segments about how the teams should get back together, years and years of athletic directors and presidents and coaches getting asked about it, years and years of it being obvious that a TV partner like ESPN would be happy to show a fresh game between two historic opponents. So the series is back for at least four seasons, and we’ll see what comes after that. TV can alter almost everything in college football, but it cannot erase institutional memory or fans’ desire to watch compelling football.
As it happens, the 105th playing of the Brawl maps neatly onto the new era that has prompted so much consternation. Both teams’ starting quarterbacks began their careers at the University of Southern California. (WVU’s QB made a pit stop at Georgia in between.) In another life, neither would’ve been able to transfer for playing time so easily, but here they are. Pitt’s best player is actually not Pitt’s best player anymore, because he plays for USC now (and performs some ambassadorial duties for United Airlines). One of the key players Pitt will lean on to replace him was just a freshman star at the University of Akron. All of the newbies will get a quick baptism in a rivalry with feelings. The GameDay show will be there, and none of those preceding roster moves will dampen anyone’s tailgate in the parking lot.
The nuts and bolts around this sport are subject to much more change in the years to come, most of it away from the field. Administrators need to figure out the future of the College Football Playoff. They need (or at least would prefer) to settle on a national policy around name, image, and likeness payments, because they spectacularly failed to set one up before or after state governments forced the NCAA to allow such payments starting in 2021. Maybe the suits will plan better for the day when some court or legislature requires them to pay athletes directly. More likely, they’ll do it at gunpoint and with their hair on fire, as is tradition in college sports governance.
A lot of things are not coming back. If what you liked about college football 20 years ago was how a player showed up as a rising freshman, stuck around for four years, and developed into a star at one school without considering leaving for the NFL Draft, then you will be disappointed with the new way. If you relied on a quaint vision of every player being on the field “for the love of the game” without cashing a check, then you are out of luck. If you relied on a cultish admiration for a head coach, I hope you have stopped.
But Saturdays will remain Saturdays. Ohio State and Notre Dame will play this week, and nothing about the changing rules of the sport will make Columbus any less electric. Notre Dame’s helmets will still be gold. The boosters at blue-blood schools will still be profiles in absurdity, nowhere more so than at Auburn University, where they look poised to finally wrap up a coup against both second-year head coach Bryan Harsin and the now-deposed athletic director who hired him over booster objections. The little ins and outs of the ecosystem have not gotten any less weird, whether you find them endearing or insane or both.
The biggest changes to college football have not come yet. Schools still aren’t paying players directly. (That’s coming.) The top conferences have not split off from the NCAA or moved to silo football in an explicitly for-profit model. (Something like that is coming.) USC and UCLA are not yet playing in the same conference as Rutgers. (That is officially coming.) All of it will feel extreme in the long history of the sport, but it will not touch the fundamental reason that most people gravitate toward this game.
To find that, you’ll only need to go back to Thursday, when two teams separated by TV money reunite in a sold-out stadium. Pitt and West Virginia will try to kill each other—the Backyard Brawl is a representative nickname—and when it is over, WVU will board buses and return to what is either a raucous Morgantown party or a mausoleum, depending on the result. College football will shapeshift plenty more in its next few decades, but it will always have a tendency to boomerang back to itself.