A dustup at the country club
College football, I love you, but you're bringing me down
The punch lands as I’d hoped, not full-strength but enough to get your attention, two inches above the needlepoint SEC belt that costs $185. Knuckle met muscle nearest the conference logo, I believe, but that was just chance. Vanderbilt, all the way at the end of the alphabet, would’ve been fine.
Don’t worry. Mr. College Football is fine. His tasseled loafers remained on his feet, though, of course, I could’ve knocked them off if I’d really tried. I wanted to swing that hard all week, but I didn’t because I still somehow consider him a friend. Also, I wasn’t willing to cause that big of a scene. Just a small one.
Most of the country club members didn’t even know it happened.
And it didn’t happen. I’ve reached my mid-40s and all of the punches I’ve thrown have been imaginary. Unless something goes very wrong, that’s all there is in future, too. Mr. CFB is a straw man, his face an indistinguishable AI smear. It doesn’t matter what network or conference he’s affiliated with, but the belt is important. Nobody who’s up to any good would have a belt that represents an entire conference. Is there even a belt big enough to stretch from Boston College to Cal?
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This is about the Playoff, yes, but also about the end of the illusion that anyone involved in shaping the sport cares about it broadly. They all care about their schools, their conferences and their TV windows a lot. But college football as a whole? It doesn’t rate as the best concern or even the most deserving. It is simply a resource to be protected and, as power and money continue to consolidate, manipulated when it’s safe.
You might ask, “what took you so long, this has been happening forever?” Mr. CFB did once he caught his breath. It’s a fair question.
I am often bored by “it’s all about the money” arguments. The advent of NIL seemed long overdue and didn’t bother me at all. The transfer portal is exhausting, but let the players go where they’re happy. There aren’t too many bowl games. I think large groups of people will behave the way large groups of people always have, making progress something of a long shot. Despite that, I’m usually below the median on the nostalgia scale.
Those are most of my factory settings, and I also happen to love college football, so I was uniquely susceptible to ignoring what was plain to see. But Mr. CFB only needs to know I love the sport anyway. That’s how all this happens.
Uneasy about the Pac-12 being destroyed in basically a day? If you’re a Big Ten or Big 12 fan, you’ll get over it. Your team’s position got stronger. That’s the play.
Feel bad for Florida State? Plenty did, and many took up the cause. But that will quiet down. And could you imagine what it would’ve been like if the mighty SEC had been left out, fans from 14 schools banging the drums of internet war for the next nine months? Seminole fans would’ve been the only ones capable of surviving such an offseason.
None of this is the Committee’s fault, and the details of the decision don’t interest me much at this point. We can talk about clauses and processes, strength of schedule and head-to-head, but none of it matters because of this simple fact—this is how it’s supposed to work. When there are no rules to play by, the powerful get to make the rules up as needed.
That’s why this instance of college football being completely unlovable made me want to punch imaginary strangers. There was no reasoning to be done, and that’s by design.
Here’s the easiest way to understand that: As we move to a 12-team Playoff next year, why isn’t every conference champion given an auto bid?
Maybe the answer seems obvious, but it’s important. You need to say it, whatever it is, out loud right now.
My answer: Because half the sport is viewed as lesser-than, and the people who follow the sport closest are so consumed with their own team that they don’t notice.
I think a lot of football fans might actually agree with how the sport is divided. There has never been, for example, any clamoring for the MAC to have a seat at the big table.
It’s hard to justify, but accepted. I’ve never been able to make it make sense.
Big games are great, sure, but what do I care if Michigan plays the winner of Miami (Ohio) and Troy in its first playoff game instead of Alabama? What do I care if Boise State is in and Oregon is out because there are only two wild-card slots available for the top-ranked non-conference champs? There would be clarity and structure. You want in? Win your conference. Hard to do, but easy to understand. It works in almost every other sport.
But college football is not every other sport. It’s way more sinister than the rest. It took the past week for me to finally admit it.
I was in the process of telling Mr. CFB all this, planning a calm but cold delivery of sinister when our phones buzzed at the same time. We pulled them out to see the ESPN notification informing us “The transfer portal is 🔥!”1
It set me off again. My voice rose as I started to say, “Why is one of the primary architects of this twisted view of the sport talking to me like a tween?” But Mr. CFB was already walking away, back to his table with his sometimes friends who serve their own interests all the time. A bowl of lobster bisque waited.
“You need a new belt,” I said. “It’s missing Oklahoma and Texas.”
Then I checked to see if Oklahoma and Texas still had their quarterbacks.
Many details in this story are imagined, but this is painfully real.