Friday, September 16, 2016

Week 3: I'm Not Mad, In Fact This Is Funny To Me

On opening day, Northwestern and Western Michigan grabbed each other and dove off the Reichenbach Falls as they tried to simultaneously lose the game on the same play. The Wildcats had been outplayed, but still had a shot to sneak away with a victory until they were foiled by a Bronco unable to successfully lose the game on a delightfully boneheaded miscalculation. Last Saturday, the 'Cats faced a frisky Illinois State squad from the Missouri Valley Conference and sank, thumbs up, into a vat of molten steel.

I know now, why you cry, but it's something I can never do along with understand why they 

had Thorson throw the ball 41 times

There are a few ways to cope with a disheartening loss to an FCS opponent whose joyous fans thronged Ryan Field. One way is to remain positive, hoping the team has stared into the abyss and spends the rest of the week in an unending 168-hour-long sports montage featuring synth-heavy songs that all sound exactly like this poster of the 2005 Wildcats team looks.

This might be my favorite piece of football-related art

The other way is to spitefully revel in the damage that a free-falling Northwestern team can do to ranked opponents on the schedule. By merely playing them, they can destroy their opponents' ranking like a football virus that eats away at the host and, should the montage work and the Wildcats become inspired by a song called "Not (Line) Backing Down" and they beat one of these teams, we can enjoy watching their ranking sink, forcing disgusted opposing fans to become so enraged that they enter their message boards in a clumsy virtual reality, determined to fire the coach from cyberspace while doing battle with rival fans who invade their message board through virtual reality and they perpetuate cyber violence against each other across smoking modems.

Still from a treatment of my new screenplay called Re: UNACCEPTABLE

When the college football honchos got together and devised their byzantine championship system, the last game they had in mind was a mid-September contest between Northwestern and Illinois State. But that is what they have created. College football presents a great ordered hierarchy, a Great Chain of Being from the juggernaut teams that clash in titanic bowl matchups to the tiniest Division III schools(1) whose games are attended by a lonely sports reporter for the student newspaper and small detachment from the nose tackle's seminar patiently waiting for the game to end so they can finish their group presentation on Great Expectations. So when the kicker for the Illinois State Redbirds(2) bonked the football off the left goalpost, he played into college football's most attractive selling point: the setting of up an intricate arrangement of teams within a neat football ecosystem defined by real inequities in money and resources and prestige and then watching college football utterly destroy it as fans of the upset teams stare into the distance, their hands on their head, their butts kicked.
College football upsets come from two streams of inequity. The first is structural. Northwestern plays in the Big Ten, a major conference(3) commensurate with big money and television exposure(4) and the ability to qualify for the playoff by beating other Big Ten teams. Illinois State plays in the FCS(5), a lower-tiered league that does not have its own television network and pants sponsors and allows fewer players on scholarship. In 2015, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said that Big Ten teams should not play FCS schools anymore, characterizing them as an "opponent that is not tantalizing for fans, for players, for television or even for rivals." In other words, Cmsr. Delany thinks that Big Ten fans, even agitated into their most crazed football bloodlusts, have no interest in watching their teams whale on some overmatched lesser-conference detritus before getting back to the serious business of qualifying for the Ducolax Opioid-Related Stool Softener Bowl. Cmsr. D's edict means that the Northwestern Wildcats will not have a chance to avenge their loss; assuming that the Cmsr.'s plans remain in place, the Redbirds will own an perpetually-increasing winning streak against the Wildcats and can spend the next several decades accusing Northwestern of ducking them out of fear of another killing bonk.

The other source of college football inequity comes from perception and media coverage. College football's championship depends on its discursive elements; it is post-modern. There are too many teams to accurately determine which ones are better than the others when they have similar records. Even when they do not, the press, fans, and constellations of football personalities that influence the sport can find ways to dismiss teams by derogating their opponents' record and conference (the "ain't played no one" refrain), rejecting losses from early in the season, weighing the effects of circadian rhythms(6), and referring to the team's general place in the history of college football. College football championships had been lawless affairs awarded based on the votes of hat-wearing reporters. Fans eventually demanded a more accurate championship assessment. For fifteen years, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) tried to balance some of this subjectivity (not to eliminate it since politicking and shit-talking form central parts of the appeal of college football) with a computer formula.(7) The new College Football Playoff has rejected the terrifying Skynet implications and returned the messy business of college football championships to the humankind-- an unaccountable cabal of thirteen notables. 

All sports depend on the tension between what is supposed to happen and what actually happens, but few sports set the perennial power teams (PPT)(8) up for perpetual victory as much as college football. Their advantage reaches beyond the money and facilities and taps into habitual resignation. Fans of PPT fallen on hard times resemble bleary-eyed aristocrats forever pulling sleeves to tell passersby about how volleyball arena used to be a ballroom where they waltzed with Maj. Berensky, resplendent in his hussar uniform, before the revolution. Northwestern is not supposed to beat a PPT because they lost dozens of games in row the 1970s and 80s. Illinois State is not supposed to beat Northwestern because they play in a division so far below them that they are not even eligible to play for the same championship. The Redbirds could revel in their ability to beat a team despite a college football infrastructure dedicated to preventing that outcome. For the Northwestern fans trudging back to their cars and trains, Yr. Corresp. can only report that they seemed utterly bummed. 

1. That's just the NCAA. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) fields teams, and schools also field a number of club teams in all sorts of competitions, but you get the point.
2. Sean Slattery, a Junior from Rockford, Ill.
3. These teams are now referred to as the Power Five (P5) and include the Big Ten, Big Twelve,* the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference, and the Pacific Twelve. These conferences tend to attract the lions' share of attention, money, and television time, and their champions automatically qualify for the playoff. The remaining FBS teams play in the so-called "Group of Five" conferences. This was clearly an attempt to find some sort of name that did not inherently taint them as a group of also-ran football conferences, and what they came up with sounds like a nineteenth-century anarchist cell.
* The Big Ten has twelve teams and the Big 12 has ten teams, but the conferences have decided their brand names have become more important than numerical accuracy. Yr. Corresp. would find this highly irritating, but does anyone want the people who came up with "Legends and Leaders" (see Note 5**) in charge of renaming an entire conference?
4. The Illinois State-Northwestern game was carried on the Big Ten Network, a television network owned by the conference. The arrangement gets the conference direct money from advertisers that sell, based on a few games' worth of samples, salsa additives, tractor equipment, and extra-large men's pants. The network televises games that would never previously air, puts less prominent sports like volleyball and wrestling on TV, and allows for hilarious documentaries of players from newly-added teams that never had anything to do with the Big Ten but are now lumped in, like if the USSR started airbrushing Nikolai Yezhov into pictures.
5. Football Championship Subdivision. The Big Ten plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision. These designations replaced 1A (FBS) and 1AA (FCS) in 2005. The FCS points to the fact that its teams play in a sixteen-team championship playoff, whereas the FBS traditionally decided on a champion after a series of bowl games, a group of polls, and a system of computer rankings (see Note 7). The FBS adopted a four-game playoff for the 2014 season, but it remains the FBS because the playoff games are also bowls and they probably did not want to change the name again and order a bunch of new business cards.**
**These names always come from some marketing committee and spring into being, authorless and fully formed and immediately adopted by fans and reporters. The whole thing is kind of Orwellian, although occasionally successfully resisted when the nomenclature becomes too dumb even for college football, like when the Big Ten called its new divisions the "Legends and Leaders" to almost-universal derision.
6. The Very Same Northwestern Wildcats scored an upset of their own last season against eventual Rose Bowl champions Stanford. Stanford dismissed the loss by claiming that their body clocks had been affected from having to play a game at 11:00AM CDT and they were physiologically still asleep or at the very least mentally pyjamaed.
7. Fans became so upset at computer projections that they tweaked the ranking after the 2003 to increase the input of human polls, even though these polls were still filled out by reporters whose knowledge of West Coast football remained limited by their own circadian rhythms and by harried graduate assistants who fill out the coaches' poll because the coach has no time to watch other games w/r/t his schedule of watching film and yelling at teenagers and walking around all the time in shorts expecting everyone to call him "coach."

8. As distinct from the Power 5

The two consecutive debacles at the beginning of Northwestern's season have certainly dimmed expectations. This Saturday, the Wildcats take on Duke. The Blue Devils hammered FCS North Carolina Central and lost to ACC rivals Wake Forest. They hope to avenge a loss to Northwestern in a spectacularly hideous game that featured a sequence of eleven consecutive punts.

Northwestern has sustained more injuries to an already injury-ravaged roster of defensive backs. Fitzgerald has juggled the defensive lineman after watching them get mauled for two consecutive weeks. Justin Jackson will hopefully get to carry the ball again. Let the sky turn brown with the rain of a thousand punts enough punts to sap the enjoyment of football from everyone in the stadium including Duke's players who get discouraged and just want to go back home and get into arguments about basketball recruiting.

The key to Northwestern's strategy may be on
this VHS tape

The Wildcats' season is not over yet. They still have an opportunity to rediscover their defensive prowess and upset teams or possibly beat Purdue by arranging a convoy of fans to go to Ross Ade stadium and stage a popular vote to determine the outcome of the game instead of subjecting themselves to it.

More importantly, they have an entire season to focus on the single most important goal this season, which is to keep the Hat at all costs. Lovie Smith, for all his Chicago protestations, and his NFL pedigree, has never been in a Hat situation. He does not yet understand what is at stake: a tophat that is mounted, infuriatingly, to a base and unable to worn on the head like other hat trophies, possibly out of some justified fear of Hat Madness.

I don't think Northwestern will finish 0-12. At some point, some team, overconfident in their place in the Great Chain of Football Being will swagger into Ryan Field and leave with a loss, with baffled fans questioning their entire understanding of college football, and most likely punted into oblivion. I know exactly how they feel.

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