This is what things have come to in college football:
In 2018, Ohio State’s football team went 13–1. Its only loss came in a fluke night game on the road against Purdue, which played out of its mind in front of a young fan suffering from cancer. The Buckeyes recovered by scoring 62 points in an upset demolition of their biggest rival, then won the Big Ten, then won the Rose Bowl.
Ramzy Nasrallah, a Columbus native and Ohio State fan who co-founded the blog Eleven Warriors, recently told me that this sequence of events was “disappointing”—a “lackluster, lost season” in which the team’s coaches “screwed themselves.” The tweet he has pinned to the top of his account is from October 2018 and describes that month’s version of the Buckeyes as “the stupidest team I’ve ever seen in my life.”
To understand why he felt this way is to understand that the United States’ most proudly regional sport has become nationalized by ESPN and the College Football Playoff. [Emphasis added.] As a consequence, this is at once the best time ever to be a fan of college football as a sport and the worst time ever to be a fan of almost every major college football team.
That is my problem with the sport in a nutshell. The morons who think they are geniuses running college football, with plenty of encouragement from Mickey, have convinced themselves that the sport’s future lies in swapping its regional appeal to diehards for that of a more homogeneous, less passionate national one. And this is exactly what’s it’s about now:
The sport’s most important media outlet is ESPN, whose dominance in the TV, talking head, and online journalism realms has expanded as local papers have withered and died. The network has mostly unchecked power to set college football’s narratives via its studio shows and in-house opinionists. What ESPN naturally considers the defining achievement of a season, now, is earning one of the four spots in the ESPN-broadcasted playoff. One of the top stories on ESPN’s college football page when I was writing this story was about how Georgia and Oregon’s big weekend wins raised the possibility of getting “a second chance” at a “first playoff impression.” ESPN, more than anyone or anything else, is the entity creating those impressions, as major sports media becomes increasingly dominated by takes—provocative, declarative statements of opinion whose effectiveness and virality derive from their capacity to enrage.
College football is not better off for it.
… and when your team does lose, you can ruin your week by reading dozens of articles and Twitter arguments about why and how it did so, then be reminded of your newfound irrelevance by TV production teams whose concerns begin and end with the national race. As Banner Society’s Ryan Nanni told me, “It’s strange, but somehow expanding the playoff slightly has made everyone more worked up. … Everyone just sort of accepted that you could have a solid season and not make the [two-team] BCS title game. We all hated it, but now there’s juuuust enough access that if you’re not one of those four and you theoretically could have been, you fucked up.”
I made the mistake of thinking that expanding the playoff field from the old BCS format of two to the CFP version of four would have little effect on the sport. The reality is that it’s had an enormous one already, in that it’s helped accelerate the change away from regional focus. The BCS, by working to have number one and number two face off for all the marbles, had a simple goal of making sure there was a clear number one at the end of every season. (That’s not the same thing as saying it succeeded in that every season, but it had lots more hits than misses in that regard.)
The CFP, by broadening the field, has morphed the discussion into a more general debate on several fronts — best versus more deserving, relative conference strengths, the value of conference championships, etc. And, as noted, it’s had the inevitable effect of diminishing the role of the regular season — if you doubt that, maybe you can explain to me why the Big 12 took it upon itself to tack on a conference championship game for a league that has its members play a round robin regular season schedule.
All that, plus the outsized role it’s given ESPN in shaping public perception of the sport.
The damage is done; the horse is out of the barn. I can’t even say I’m angry about it. Looking back now, given the money driving college athletics, honestly, I’m a little surprised they held off as long as they did with the CFP. But they’ve gone down the rabbit hole now and there’s no turning back. I’m sure that pleases many of you, but I’ll bet in a few years even those of you enthusiastic about postseason expansion will concede that it’s a shame college football lost a little of what made it unique.