I watched the death of college football.
The sport that Jim Thorpe brought to life. A life that has spanned 3 centuries and saw the great rivalries of Army versus Navy, Notre Dame and the 4 horseman of the apocalypse, the Granddaddy of them all the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Heisman. The sport that brought us Peyton Manning, Doak Walker and O.J. Simpson died as the year 2021 was born.
New Years Day is a Sports National Holiday. It is the day sports and non-sports fans alike tune in to college football because it’s what they have been doing for generations. People who couldn’t name a member of the PAC-12 and BIG 10 tune into the Rose Bowl every year and celebrate the new year.
Some of us know every member of the PAC 12 and BIG 10 as well as their records and how they got to the Granddaddy of them all. Some of us have been complaining about the way college football runs their postseason for a generation. Those of us that pay attention saw it coming and grieve at college footballs death.
January 1, 2021 the Rose Bowl in Pasadena moved to Arlington, Texas. But instead of the traditional PAC 12/BIG 10 battle it was a National Championship semi-final between 10-1 Notre Dame and 11-0 Alabama. Much talk had been made about whether Notre Dame deserved to be there. They didn’t. Take out the Rose Parade, the California weather, the history and all your left with was a lopsided game that even I tuned out of. Alabama looked like men among boys in 31-14 stomping.
Maybe someone who doesn’t follow football could be surprised by this lopsided victory. But it wasn’t a surpise. The other semi-final game was.
Somehow a 6-win team made a semi-final game. 6-0 Ohio State played a shortened schedule and won the Big 10 and was able to play in the Sugar Bowl, the second semi-final game. They went up against the Clemson Tigers and the most impressive player in college football, Clemson’s quarterback Trevor Lawrence. They pounded them winning by 28 points. Everybody has bad games and every team comes out flat. Unfortunately, that happened to the Tigers on January 1st. But having a bad game won’t kill an entire sport. Putting a 6-win team in a the National Championships when an undefeated didn’t even make the game will though.
The most exciting game of the bowl season was played on New Years Eve. In the Sugar Bowl, another historically rich bowl, saw the matchup of the Georgia Bulldogs at 7-2 take on the Cincinnati Bearcats from the American Athletic Conference who were undefeated. Cincinnati was snubbed, like every non-power 5 conference has been in the last 30 years, from the semi-final games. They couldn’t have looked worse than Notre Dame. But Notre Dame gets invited and Cincinnati, Boise State, TCU and BYU don’t. Cincinnati looked like they belonged on the field with the SEC Georgia Bulldogs. The game was exciting the entire time and came down to the last play.
A sport that rewards teams with good games based solely on name recognition and conference bias isn’t going to make it. America wants to cheer on the little guy. They want suspense. They want an underdog. They at least want rewards for teams that succeed. But college football has been failing their audience for years- decades.
When the college football season starts every year there are a dozen teams that have a chance of making the National Championship game. That’s not because the sport is that lopsided but that the decision makers don’t care about win-loss record as much as a teams conference. But even winning your conference doesn’t mean that much. The conference champion of the PAC 12 or the AAC aren’t guaranteed a spot in. If the Mountain West Champion goes undefeated they still won’t play for a chance into the National Championships. In contrast, Alabama doesn’t even have to win their conference to be invited to the big games. They just have to be Alabama.
College football has been sick for a long time. Their inability to make the post season a meritocracy has severely damaged its product.
But that’s not what killed it. What killed it was all the players that now refuse to play in these Bowl Games as they prepare for the NFL.
It used to be that not playing in a Bowl Game with your team was traitorous, putting individual future earnings ahead of team. But for a decade the talking heads and head coaches have been making excuses for selfishness. These players have the opportunity to make millions, why risk getting hurt for meaningless games, they argue.
And here is where the sickness of college football is to blame. The players and talking heads are right, the bowl games have become meaningless. They have stripped the Bowls of their legitimacy and reduced them to post-season exhibitions. 2020 highlighted this when the PAC 12 all declared they wouldn’t play any bowl games this year. That wasn’t the case when USC was still in the running to make the National Championship game. However, when they lost the PAC 12 Championship and it was certain no PAC 12 team would play for the Title, they abandoned ship. Because they know all the other games are meaningless. Why should the players treat it any differently. And they don’t.
Over the last decade more and more of the best players have been opting out of the Bowl Games. But at least they played in the big ones. The historic ones. The Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, these were royalty in college football. But the sickness has eaten away at even these.
The grand Sugar Bowl saw top Georgia players sit out. And this is when I knew the game was dead. If history and tradition and pride won’t get players to play in the post-season games, the sport is at an end.
Every excuse made of why college football is a mess is “money”. But with players opting out of the bowl games that make all the money and COVID showing the flimsy financial situation of college athletics, this could be a dramatic and quick death. Or it could linger, with people pretending its still alive and well. But you can’t have games like what we saw this year. You can’t continually snub teams who deserve a shot. You can’t allow the best players to sit out and expect fans to turn in.
The fans are tuning out, when the viewership dwindles so will the money.
So I will sit and wait and grieve. Over college football and family traditions.