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The season is the playoff

Memo to meddlesome 'NFL guys': College football does not need fixing

Posted: Monday November 22, 2004 11:45AM; Updated: Monday November 22, 2004 5:01PM
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Kejuan Jones
The nation's eyes were on Kejuan Jones and the second-ranked Sooners Saturday as they beat Baylor 35-0.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"The suspense is terrible ... I hope it lasts."
 -- Willie Wonka, purveyor of chocolate, philosopher

Last week my friend and SI cellblock next-door neighbor, Josh Elliott, blogged about the impending controversy that will envelop college football should Auburn, Oklahoma and Southern Cal finish undefeated. Elliott wrote that the situation makes him "*$&%^#(#!@*! irate" but that he had a solution to fix "Division I-A's impending postseason crisis."

Okay, John, breathe. Deep breaths. This happens every year. Either someone who covers the NFL (such as Josh) or someone who declares "I'm not a college guy, I'm an NFL guy, but ..." provides a suggestion as to how to "fix" college football. The latter is usually some sports radio screamer who attended (notice, I didn't write "graduated") college at SUNY-Who-gives-a-rat's-ass and whose idea of heaven is the parking lot at Giants Stadium.

You know what I notice? You never see any of us college football guys giving our two cents on how to "fix" the NFL. You know why? Because we don't care. What continues to mystify me is how so many people, i.e., NFL guys, can exude such passion for a sport, my sport, if it is, as they say, "broken." I wonder why they never realize that the nature of college football is the very reason why so much breath and ink is wasted on issues such as the "impending postseason crisis."

So, once more: I've said it; Trev Alberts has said it; Rece Davis has said it: The season is the playoff. And this is why college football is the most passionately followed sport in the U.S. Because every game matters. Because a play that you make in September (see: Auburn's conversion of a fourth-and-12 versus LSU) or an effort you make in November (see: Texas recovering from a 35-7 first-half deficit against Oklahoma State) not only has season-long ramifications for your program. It affects everyone else as well.

And guess what, NFL guys? That's exactly like life. Paul Hewson answered an ad on his school's bulletin board about a few fellow students who were forming a band. Now he's Bono. What if he'd stayed home that day and watched cartoons?

My tele-ubiquitous friend suggested that we have an eight-team playoff. Alright, let's examine the ramifications of that idea. First, and most egregious, a playoff of any sort will automatically dilute the importance of any regular-season game. The true college football fan does not live for any (Your Sponsor Here) bowl game or worse yet, (Your Sponsor Here) conference championship game. The true college football fan lives for Cal at Southern Cal, Oklahoma at Texas A&M, or even this past Saturday's Florida at Florida State matchup. The three above contests were so much more exciting than anything the NFL has put onscreen this season.

Second, once you say eight teams can be included in a playoff, you instantly have a No. 9 team whose fans are, to borrow a phrase, "*$&%^#(#!@*! irate" that they're not seeded No. 8. Oh, OK, well what if we just expand the tourney to 12 teams? Oh, but ESPN2 and Fox Sports Net also want in? Okay, 16 teams. Hey, what about a No. 16-vs.-No. 17 game, to be sponsored by Guinness? Brilliant!

You see where I'm headed here?

March Madness is perfect for college basketball. But why imprint it upon college football, a sport whose denizens (such as myself) are already hopelessly in love with it? Let me spell it out in cinematic terms. College hoops is a romantic comedy: there are a series of dates (first-round games, regional finals, etc.) but in the end we always get resolution. And that's fine. When Harry Met Sally, or better yet, Say Anything ("get ready for greatness, Lloyd"), are great flicks.

College football, on the other hand, is a road picture. An epic adventure in which the journey itself is more important than the ending. Allow me to explain college football via three of my favorite road pictures:

1. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Mr. Wonka made the world's best chocolate bars, but it was amazing, wasn't it, how many second-guessers he found once he allowed guests into his factory? College football is a Wonka Bar, and Wonka, in my estimation, its guiding spirit:

"A little nonsense now and then," he says, "is relished by the wisest men." (What would I do, by the way, without IMDB?) Everyone agrees that Wonka Bars are "satisfying and delicious," but when confronted with anything less than certainty and instant gratification, the Veruca Salts of the world stomp and whinny. "I want it now, daddy!" Veruca famously complains.

Then there are those of us who respect Wonka enough to trust in him. We are the Charlie Buckets of college football. "We," to quote Wonka, "are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams."

2. Lonesome Dove. Great book. Great mini-series. Robert Duvall, as Augustus McCrae, gives the best performance of his career (he even told 60 Minutes this in a profile once). And yes, I've seen The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini and Tender Mercies. And, regrettably, Falling Down.

Anyway, Lonesome Dove is the story of two old friends, retired Texas Rangers, who decide to head up a cattle drive from their dusty border town along the Rio Grande up to Montana. Along the way lives are lost and destinies changed at the drop of a sodbuster. And one cowhand's action -- or indecision -- reverberates across the lives of many. But, as Augustus tells one young herder, "Yesterday's gone, we can't get it back."

You gotta think Cal coach Jeff Tedford has said something along those lines to his 9-1 Golden Bears, who came within nine yards of possibly appearing in the Orange Bowl in January.

3. The Wizard of Oz. I was flipping between Florida-Florida State and BYU-Utah on Saturday night when I came across The Wizard. And it occurred to me that Auburn, Oklahoma and Southern Cal might as well be the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. All are on a long and often times precarious pilgrimage to get what they want: a national championship (OK, so the metaphor crumbles a little here; they don't all want different things).

Still, remember what happens once they finally return to "the Great and Powerful Oz" with the Wicked Witch's halter top, or whatever it is? The Wizard apprises them of the fact that, in performing their dangerous deed, they already exhibited the qualities (intelligence, heart and courage) which they sought. Which is to say that, no matter who plays in the Orange Bowl and no matter who is excluded, a glass trophy is less a shrine to a champion's mettle than a 12-0 (or 13-0) season. Besides, Florida State had its glass trophy (from its 1999 championship) stolen this summer.

College football is not perfect. Certainly not off the field. But it derives its magic from the fact that, unlike the NFL, we never know when the season begins how the chips are going to fall (more Wonka: "Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous").

And so on Saturday you had Oklahoma in Waco, Texas, to face Baylor with a local kickoff time of 11 a.m. And you had two schools from Utah playing in primetime on national television. And both games had ramifications that would impact everyone vying for a BCS bowl. Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that the nation's eyes would be fixed, for one day at least, on Waco and Salt Lake City?

And, sure, nobody knows how this will all shake out. Perhaps Auburn or Oklahoma will lose in their respective conference title games. Perhaps Southern Cal will stumble against Notre Dame or UCLA. Maybe no one will and we'll have chaos. But, if the choice is chaos or the stultifying sterility that is the NFL, give me chaos.

To quote my man Willie (just one more time), "You should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about."

Eight in the box

1. ESPN's Mike Tirico, noting that it is likely that Utah will become the first non-BCS conference school to be invited to a bowl game, described it as "a moment, the historical perspective of which cannot be overstated." Mike, I think you just did.

2. Don't you love it when an analyst takes the words right out of your mouth? ESPN's Mike Gottfried did that late in the Gators-Seminoles contest. With Florida facing fourth-and-inches at its own 26 with 2:35 left and holding onto a 20-13 lead, the camera panned over to Gators head coach Ron Zook. "Well," said Gottfried, "it's not like they can fire him again."

Zook went for it. The Gators got the first down, and won.

3. My favorite newsbabe? CNN Headline News anchor Linda Stouffer. Her real name, by the way, is Cinnamon Stouffer (no kidding), but when CNN hired her they told her that her given name would be too much of a distraction (Linda is her middle name). This from a network that employs Wolf Blitzer.

4. Rehireronzook.com? Anybody? Why wouldn't this be a good idea for the Gators?

5. You have to love closed captioning for its attention to phonetic detail. During a recent telecast of a Texas game, deaf Longhorn fans were able to learn that standout linebacker Derrick Johnson is a finalist for the "Butt Kiss Award."

6. Baylor's starting offensive left tackle is 6-foot-5, 354-pound senior Quintin Outland. He is not a finalist for the Outland Trophy, which is a shame.

7. The Nov. 14 episode of Arrested Development was funnier than anything HBO has aired in the past year. Whatever the opposite of "Jump the Shark" is, and I'm going with "Crashed into the fried chicken stand" (Happy Days fans, you know what I'm talking about), that's what happened here. This episode was the sight of a promising show hitting its stride.

8. Lou Holtz, you deserved better. Thanks for the memories, coach.