The “caretakers” of college football made the most serious mistake, and it killed their sport.
They assumed the game was serious.
No, what made college football great was the sheer chaos of it all. It was balkanized and provincial — a game filled with shady characters, open secrets, and preposterous contradictions.
College football is dead. Its murder came long before Friday, when the Atlantic Coast Conference added Stanford and Cal — two schools that couldn’t be any further away from the Atlantic Coast. But the move perfectly encapsulates how this once great sport had everything that once made it great stripped away.
The new college football is national and corporate — a billion-dollar industry dominated by the same cadre of schools that have made their business creating NFL players.
The top schools all compete for the same top players. The conferences fight for the same (now dwindling) TV dollars.
Everything serves those two purposes. There’s not much room for anything else, much less “college” or “fun”.
And if you’re not one of those big schools at the top — like Stanford and Cal — you’re merely a supporting character in their show.
There was a time when both Bay Area schools were something more than industry afterthoughts. Cal was considered a legitimate preseason national title contender in the mid-aughts. For nine straight years between 2011 and 2019, Stanford started the season ranked in the AP Top-25, three times as a top-10 team.
Both schools could play their seasons to the best of their ability and be proud of their accomplishments. There was something in it for college football’s middle class.
But that middle class has been squeezed to irrelevance in recent years. The money at the top end is too big, and that money has phased the chaos out of the game, all in the name of progress and more money.
Now, the sport is left without mystery and the clandestine nature that made college football so flawed — and so great.
But as much as confusion and anger stemmed from that chaos, love emanated from that same source.
The flaws were the discerning feature of college football. It’s what made a lesser game more attractive than the NFL to so many for so long — including myself.
This is all entertainment, after all, and no sport created more controversy than college football.
Pair that with real rivalries, and you have the lifeblood of a sport that has been self-sufficient (via $100 handshakes and tailgating fees) for decades.
Sadly, that blood has been drained out.
The national champion used to be determined by a poll — and there was more than one poll. My goodness, the fodder.
Then, a mysterious computer created title-game matchups, and the complaints went up another level. BCS backlash makes our current AI fear-mongering look like amateur hour.
Those were unserious — downright dumb — ways to determine college football’s best team.
This new four-team (soon to be 12-team) playoff is sterile. The whole damn game is sterile.
No, college football is merely the NFL’s minor league — an ESPN production. And if you’re not one of the 12 top programs, you’re merely a schedule filler.
That’s why Stanford and Cal are being brought to the ACC.
The Pac-12 — relegated to irrelevancy over the last decade by incompetent leadership — was scrapped for parts over the past year. The Big Ten stole the best stuff, then the Big 12 got in on the action, too. The ACC, threatened with a fate similar to the league they were raiding, snuck in late and left with something.
It’s hedge-fund thinking — a sermon in the church of fetishization of optimization — for a sport that once felt counterculture.
The college football we once loved is never coming back. It will continue to ironically march towards a more perfect union — one that doesn’t include any schools like Cal or Stanford making serious waves.
Fiscally, the move to the ACC was necessary. And yes, we still have The Big Game. But will Cal or Stanford be better off in a league that is based 3,000 miles away, and will try to pass off Louisville and Florida State as rivals?
Oh well, at least we still have contradictions.