Friday, November 6, 2015

Week 10: Playoff Picture

Well, the College Football Playoff Committee has come out of its walnut-lined antechambers and released  their rankings.  There's still a month left of college football action, and the rankings have essentially no meaning, yet here we are, in a world where college football playoff rankings have been released with the subtle dignity of an Imperial Durbar.

The Delhi Durbar of 1903, marking the ascension of Edward VII to the throne with an 
elephant and pith helmet party  

What is the best college football team in the country?  There are three polls that tell you.  The Associated Press poll ranks the top 25 teams in the country and is voted on by a panel of newspaper men selected on the quality of the old-timey reporter hat they wear in their newspaper column photographs.  The College Football Playoff poll is compiled by ten people involved in collegiate athletics, a former USA today reporter, a retired Air Force general with "3,261 flying hours," and a former Secretary of State whose expertise on the Soviet Union has given her unparalleled insight into the byzantine bureaucracy of bowl subdivision football. The Coach's Poll is not actually filled out by anyone and appears, fully formed, on the desk of a USA today sports editor every Sunday written on crumbling vellum and enclosed in a hollowed-out mastodon femur.


What is the best college football team in the country?  The best way to tell is through head-to-head competition.  Unfortunately, there are few opportunities to set up games directly between the best teams.  Instead, the preferred method is innuendo, insults, shaky applications of the transitive property, arguments about the strength of conferences that are not entirely but still sort of fueled by residual Civil War animus, and screaming at people.

What is the best college football team in the country?  The best way to tell is to take a playoff committee of randomly-selected bureaucrats and put them in a conference room where they change into tunics and headbands, take psychedelic drugs, and hallucinate football games that cannot happen.  "I see Alabama taking the lead against Clemson by turning themselves into a swarm of bees that move to the score of a pipe organ played by an octopus made of colors," one says.  "I see Notre Dame and Ohio State, wait I don't see them anymore now it's a really graphic depiction of the conception of a griffin with the roars and screeches and I can't look away," says another.  "Third and three and it's a dive play up the middle for a first down, great block by the right guard," says Barry Alvarez.

What is the best college football team in the country?  Fuck it, it's probably Alabama.  It's always Alabama.


We are still a month away from the end of college football season, and the Football Bowl Subdivision is a smoldering heap of fired coaches.  Two coaches have retired mid-season: Jerry Kill has left Minnesota because of health concerns; Steve Spurrier just threw up his arms, said fuck it, and immediately left South Carolina to shirtlessly drive dune buggies around golf courses and yell PLAYING THROUGH before showering unsuspecting foursomes with empties.  Al Golden was fired after angry Miami alumni demanded it through a series of airplane-borne banners in much the same way they buzzed an MLA convention to demand a new vice provost.  Maryland fired Randy Edsall, who spent weeks attempting to avoid detection by hanging out on the sidelines of Maryland football games. Former Illini coach and man who woke every morning to shake his fist in the direction of Evanston Tim Beckman lost his job shortly before the season.

The only thing college football fans enjoy more than winning is ousting a struggling coach.  For one, college football coaches have an enormous effect on programs from recruiting players to setting strategies, to gland-handing administrators and pretending to care about what some old cigar-chomping, ostrich boot-wearing, scowling, combed-over plutocrat has to say about running the option in an effort to convince him or her to donate millions of dollars for new facilities in the ludicrous college sports facilities arms race. 
College football coaches, millionaire tyrants on the practice field, whose visages are splashed 
across local papers and who leverage their fame into lucrative local commercials bereft of 
dignity, have their jobs depend on the largesse of a person with a name like "T. Boone Pickens."

When a program sputters into a futile, bowl-less wilderness or, for a big-time team, stops winning a national championship every year (the Unacceptable Valley, named for fans using the word UNACCEPTABLE on radio shows, message boards, and other places where otherwise rational human beings temporarily transform themselves into professional wrestlers), firing the coach cuts the head off the snake slowly squeezing the life out of the program. In addition, football or basketball coaches at public universities are, without exception, the highest paid public employees in each state, and demanding that they are fired for losing to a MAC team is the closest thing that Americans have to accountability for their public officials.


It's a battle of two-loss teams at Ryan Field as Penn State attempts to avenge last year's cruel bludgeoning at the hands of Northwestern.  The Wildcats won that game 29-6, the worst Nittany Lion home loss since the legendary 2001 Miami Hurricanes crushed them 33-7.  Northwestern's win over Penn State involved my favorite play of all time, the Manchurian Linemandidate, when a Penn State lineman blocked a teammate into oblivion allowing the Wildcat defense to swarm in and erased the running back from the face of the Earth.

The look of determination on number 72's face as he executes a textbook block against an 
enormous man whose only thought is "why are you blocking me, I'm your friend" makes this 
an all-time great Northwestern sports gif that does not involve Pat Fitzgerald contorting 
himself into a Jim Carrey The Mask face

Penn State James Franklin has never beaten Northwestern.  The 'Cats beat Vanderbilt twice in a row (though Franklin was only coach for the second game), and then the Commodores canceled a home-and-home series with the Mighty Wildcats of Northwestern because of scheduling concerns, a hollow excuse that Franklin and the athletic department used out of cowardice, the terrifying image of the Colter/Siemian monster rampaging through his nightmares.  In 2014, the very year the Commodores were scheduled to steam up to Evanston, Franklin jumped ship.  He took over Penn State.  Some might say that Franklin left a tough job at a Northwestern-like private school with little history of football success in the ridiculously tough SEC conference to run what had been one of the great programs in college football.  From a different angle, though, his strategy was clear.  Much like how Dutch monarch William of Orange married into British royalty and then used the resources of the British Empire against his arch-nemesis Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, James Franklin clearly accepted the Penn State job for one reason only: to one day ride into Evanston with a highly-touted quarterback and stout defense and finally do what the lowly Commodores could not and crush the Wildcats in their own stadium while checking Northwestern's claims on the Duchy of Savoy.

William and Louis's rivalry was marked by massive European wars, fierce mercantile trade 
policies, and an unceasing competition to build the largest and most elaborate Cape Swirling 
Rooms in their respective estates

Northwestern shrugged off its tough losses to Michigan and Iowa with a close win over a terrible Nebraska team.  They are coming off a desperately-needed bye week for an injury-riddled squad.  Cornerback Matthew Harris, who leads Northwestern in interceptions, for example, is expected to return after recovering from a broken face.  Nevertheless, the 'Cats face a tall order against one of the country's best defenses.  There is no doubt that the Wildcat defense can give Northwestern a chance to win, even against a superstar quarterback like the Nittany Lions' Christian Hackenberg.  They will stand little chance, though, if they spend the entire game attempting to stop him after a series of sputtering three-and-outs from the offense. Nebraska could not stop Clayton Thorson from gradually loping down the field, and that made the difference last game.  This week, Thorson has a chance to show he can move the ball through the air for a whole game and lead the 'Cats to another big upset in front of thousands of screaming tarp enthusiasts.  Or, Penn State lineman can heroically block each other at inopportune times enough for a Northwestern win.

The stakes between these two unexpectedly decent Big Ten teams are not particularly high.  Both teams would need an astounding confluence of events to propel them to the Lucrative Conference Championship Game.  The winner will probably enter the top 25 poll.  These teams, however, are mainly jockeying for bowl position, which will tend to be disregarded by bowl committees eager to throw in for the biggest Football Brand they can attract regardless of record, with bowl representatives stuck with Northwestern over a bigger school due to arcane bowl selection rules forced to impotently stand around in their bowl selection command centers and hurl pottery at their  butlers and footmen in fits of rage.  Most importantly, though, Northwestern is playing to frustrate the designs of James Franklin, who will be forced to once again retreat to his lavish traveling quarters and angrily stab daggers into maps.


After five weeks of excitement, Northwestern's pipe playoff dreams fell apart with two crushing losses.  One the one hand, it is disappointing that the Wildcats have fallen off the radar.  It is much more fun to beat Iowa and Michigan while Jim Harbaugh throws Daffy Duck tantrums on the sidelines than see those teams nonchalantly dispatch them.

A dramatic reconstruction of the Northwestern-Michigan game

On the other hand, it is liberating to escape the inscrutable machinations of the Playoff Committee, the next step in college football's arbitrary method of choosing a champion. Fans of teams with a legitimate claim wait on tenterhooks every week for the Committee to emerge and welcome that team to the Promised Land of lucrative playoff football or get cast out into the dustbin of the Holiday Bowl, and this goes on for a literal month before the rankings actually mean anything and no one has been able to explain why this happens other than the Playoff Committee enjoys issuing pronouncements.  

Meanwhile, Northwestern's season is far from over.  There are still four games remaining, and the 'Cats can still put together a memorable season.  They are going bowling.  They have an opportunity to force James Franklin to leave Evanston shaking his fist.  And, somewhere over the horizon, just visible if we squint, the Hat is out there, Chicago's Big Ten Rivalry Trophy to be seized within the city limits themselves and not just in Chicago's Big Ten El-Connected Suburb.  Welcome to big time college football, Bill Cubit.  Give us our damn hat and we'll be on our way.   


Anonymous said...

I love this blog!

Richard said...

Still brilliant.