Sunday, October 31, 2010

Football is the only good October surprise

I could have written so much here in the last few months about the upcoming elections. Instead, I did almost nothing of the sort, and I'm OK with that.

In part, my absence from this site has been because I've been too busy. But mostly it's been because I get deeply sad every time I consider the looming midterm victories for the tea party movement and the vague fear and misdirected rage that underlie so much of it all. I'll try to do a few posts in the coming weeks to look at what it all means in the long term -- maybe I will, maybe I won't; you get all the customer satisfaction guarantees that you pay for here -- but in the short term, I fear for the fate of sanity in our political discourse, no matter how many attendees showed up this weekend at what appears to have been a magnificent rally.

History still arcs toward progress, of course, but sometimes there are a lot of fits and starts along the way. In the meantime, in the timeless words of Hunter S. Thompson, a man who knew a little something about both politics and sports: "The time has come to get deeply into football." Here are four of the many possible observations about the finest version thereof.

Alabama still somehow controls its destiny: Considering I'm the kind of rabid partisan whose mood and (if things reach a sufficiently good or bad extreme) entire outlook on life can ebb and flow depending on how the Crimson Tide fares on any given Saturday, the loss to South Carolina should have bothered me much more than it did. Alabama fell behind early, got thoroughly outplayed, and plummeted down the polls after losing on the road to a better-prepared, well-rested team. But a clear memory of a crystal football goes a long way toward soothing football-related pain. So does the knowledge that the SEC's four straight national titles essentially have earned the conference a mulligan in the national horse race: If an argument with even the slightest plausibility can be made for your champion, voters will accept it.

Sure enough, here we are at the end of October with the dominoes lined up perfectly. Only two undefeated teams from automatic-qualifier conferences remain, and one of them comes to Tuscaloosa the day after Thanksgiving. If Alabama wins out against a schedule that could include four top-20 teams in the last five games, the Tide will get a chance to defend its title, and there's nothing Boise State or TCU can do about it. It'll be a month-long tightrope walk to get there, but when is it ever not?

Auburn is evidence that history repeats itself: The last time Alabama won a national title (1992), Auburn followed up by going undefeated the next season. Now, a year after the Tide's 2009 championship, the Tigers are on pace to finish unbeaten themselves. Sure, the team would be average at best without the one-man wrecking crew that is Cam Newton, but that's not the point: They have Newton, and that makes them a force to be reckoned with down the stretch. It also ensures the Tigers won't get jobbed 2004-style out of a title shot if they go undefeated this year. The worst-case scenario for Auburn would be a 10-win season, which is twice as many as it had two years ago, when the idea of Gene Chizik as head coach was much funnier than it is now.

Schedules have to matter this year: If you're undefeated, you should get a chance to win the national championship. If no one has beaten you, no one can be certain that anyone could beat you. In any other sport with a just playoff system, a team that outscored everyone on its schedule would get an opportunity to win the crown on the field of play. But the convoluted, ad hoc history of college football has left the sport with a postseason that makes less sense than any other. It's not about giving a shot to everyone who deserves a shot; it's about deeming two teams -- just two out of 120 -- the worthiest and then pairing them off to pick a champion. It's blatantly unfair and largely subjective, but for the foreseeable future, it's the system we have.

And as long as the BCS is the system we have -- as long as only two teams get a shot and not eight or 16 or as many as merit inclusion in any given year -- what a team has accomplished has to matter. Boise State and TCU are marvelous underdog stories, and they may well be the two best teams in the country. They almost certainly would win the ACC or Big East with ease. But if one team only beats three or four really good teams in a year while another squad beats seven or eight, pollsters shouldn't vault the former team over the latter just to make a point about a broken system. When you're whittling a list of a dozen deserving teams down to two, objective facts have to be the key factor in where you end up. If programs like Boise State and TCU want to be atop the polls at year's end, they need to do whatever is necessary -- even if that means agreeing to play four road games at BCS conference schools every year -- to position their teams to build a resumé as good as or better than those of everyone else.

Stop messing with the uniforms: Look, I know a helmet with a mutant bronco springing out of a player's neck on one side (and one side only) may appeal to today's youth. But that doesn't mean I don't have to have nightmares about it. Sure, TCU's new look wasn't bad, but have you seen what happened to Ohio State and Virginia Tech? If the trend continues, I fear Alabama will take the field a few years hence in houndstooth helmets, black pants, and jerseys featuring the cover art of the latest Cage the Elephant album, because, you know, you guys have an elephant, right?



Nice football

3:17 PM  

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