Friday, December 2, 2016

Week 14: Who Cares About the Playoff, They Got the Hat

High noon eastern time and the whole country is simultaneously tuned to Big Ten Country for the nation's greatest rivalry spectacle in college sports.  It has been impossible to find anyone with the remotest interest in college football who does not have an opinion on the titanic showdown between the Illinois Fighting Illini and their arch-nemesis Northwestern Wildcats with every snap watched by the selection committees for the Foster Farms, Pinstripe, and possibly Heart of Dallas bowls.

The bowl panels meet to decide the fate of Northwestern

I can't imagine a football game with more at stake: for Northwestern, a chance to secure bowl eligibility for real although they probably would be able to sneak in as a 5-7 team because there are now so many bowl games that teams will be forced to play themselves in brutal scrimmages while executives from Zaxby's bray for blood by waving chicken pieces at the players gang tackling their roommates.  For Illinois, all they had was the opportunity to diminish Northwestern's bowl chances and cackle as the Hat blotted out the sun and winds blew in from the Lake and shrouded Evanston in a year of hatless darkness.

In the end, the Wildcats triumphed.  Illinois, feeble against the run all season, had no answer for Justin Jackson and John Moten IV, who scored his first two touchdowns by flying past Illinois defenders.  The game was much closer than it appeared.  The Illini rallied from 21 down to within a touchdown thanks mainly to Wes Lunt's best game.  Lunt took advantage of Northwestern's soft coverage on the edges to complete the same eight-yard out route approximately 35 times.  The Illini also got a heroic performance from an injured Malik Turner who would come into the game, make some insane diving catch, roll around in agony, and then come back in to make another great play.

Illinois outplayed Northwestern for several stretches in the second and third quarters.  But every time they threatened, something went haywire.  The Illini fumbled the ball away three times, including one on the Northwestern eight yardline with a chance to tie and once on a punt return down only seven.  The most egregiously awful reversal of fortune involved an interception deep in Northwestern territory early in the game negated by a twelve men on the field penalty, an event whose cruelty was mollified only by the fact that it was extremely funny.

Bells rang out in celebration, ceremonial Hats were put onto every statue, and people poured into the streets to celebrate this incredible sporting event.  Lovie Smith and Pat Fitzgerald, old friends as Chicago Sports Icons, embraced on the fifty yard line while Smith waited. He'd have the opportunity to prise the Hat from the collective head of Wildcats next year in Champaign-Urbana, where he would now return and use the ceremonial key to the Illini's Hat Loss Brooding room with a full year to plan his revenge.


If there is one thing you can take away from your visit to this web log, I hope it is the insane and arbitrary decision to mount the Hat trophy on a base instead of allowing it to be worn by victorious players in triumph.  A recent tweet by Northwestern's athletic department caused some confusion on this position:
How is this possible?  Has there been some sort of trap door allowing the base to be crudely worn in hat-like fashion?  Was I succumbing to Hat madness?

For hours, I poured over BYCTOM's detailed Hat Archive for any sort of schematics.  I interviewed top statuary haberdashers and scoured the most recent academic journals of hat science, including "(Base) Jumping to Conclusions" in Brims: The Journal of Hat Trophies and Hamburger Restaurant Advertisements and "That's All Pretty Convenient" in The Journal of Implausible Hat Conspiracies, but could not make any headway.

Eventually, with the help of digital photography from years of Hat Trophy photos, including several obscene ones involving Tim Beckman, I began to slowly chip away at the greatest Hat trophy mystery of our time.  You can see the shocking conclusion below:

Proprietary BYCTOM schematic

It appears the hat can, in a fashion, be worn by a player as long as his head is not so grotesquely bulbous that it envelops the entire hollow base area.  But that only raises a larger question and that is this: why?  Why create a trophy of a hat that requires some diabolical secret head chamber in order to fit on a standard-sized head so the only way it can be worn is approximately?  Was the base in mind initially to prevent players from corroding the trophy with their sweat-drenched noggins only to be foiled by the statue's only weakness, a base soaked in the head sweat of dozens of Illinois-based Big Ten football players?  Is there a heretofore unknown Lincoln habit of wearing a stovepipe hat attached to an unwieldy base, his spindly neck straining to keep the whole apparatus on his head while Stephen Douglas made rhetorical mincemeat of him?  I demand answers from government officials immediately on this matter.

Lincoln discovered in a rare photo wearing a gigantic wooden recessed box underneath his 
trademark stovepipe hat while guys with standard non-base hats look on sullenly, reaching 
into their pockets for a notebook so they can write down reminders to buy bulky wooden hat bases


While Illinois and Northwestern waged their titanic struggle in front of dozens of tarps at Ryan Field, a minor Big Ten squabble took place in Columbus.  There, Ohio State managed to prevail in an overtime game filled with controversy, the best possible result that throws the playoff rankings into chaos and has prompted a Million Michigan Man march on the Capitol where they will read their manifesto entitled "This Manifesto Uses The Phrase Dereliction of Officiating Duties" from You Sir, the News Letter of Michigan Football Harrumphsmanship.  

The playoff picture remains in disarray.  The Committee will have to figure out how to justify including an Ohio State team that did not even qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game over a Penn State team that has a chance to win the conference and already beat the Buckeyes head-to-head; an undefeated MAC team; and potentially a Big 12 champion with a loss that hinged completely on an erroneous referee decision and a minor miracle.

The task of naming a college football national champion remains the most delightfully arbitrary and absurd ritual in sports.  They have tried to do so through polls run by disparate media organizations which means that a large amount of college football history involves a process of claiming championships and defending them through postmodern deconstructionism.  They have tried to do so with computers, which is a sound attack on the narrative-driven insanity of college football.  And now, they try to fit exactly four teams into a playoff, but do so with an unaccountable committee that meets with the solemnity of a papal conclave.  
White smoke by the Playoff Committee signals a triumphant De-emphasis 
of Conference Championships

All this week, people have been attempting to make logical arguments to fill the three non-Alabama playoff spots.  Conference championship upsets this weekend can occlude the picture even further. But logical arguments and opponent defeat flowcharts have no place in this process.  The Playoff is set by the Committee that has its own gonzo decision-making processes that have previously involved things like Body Clocks.  There is no way to know what they value or what sorts of formulae they use.  They could, for all we know, pick teams by throwing knives at walls or basing their selections entirely on the result of human hungry hippos while they hurl goblets of wine and hoot things like "you call that gobbling, you inadequate artiodactyl."

This twisted spectacle is how your college football playoff field is chosen, probably

College football sells itself as a mythological journey where teams rise up and meet challenges by upsetting high-ranked rivals or winning conference championships or even going undefeated in a minor conference and hope that their deeds prove them worthy of inclusion in the Playoff.  Instead, the only mythological elements are a class of powerful, capricious individuals with their own conflicts and agendas that can wipe all that out at a single stroke.  If you are lucky enough to follow a team good enough to aspire to playoff contention, all the college football season does it add increasing opportunities for you to get mad.  And, as fans of college football fans melting down on the internet, we could not have asked for a better system.


Northwestern finds itself at the mercy of unaccountable committees when they meet to decide which bowl game they will be inflicted upon.  The two main possibilities are the San Francisco bowl, which has has turned over sponsors as often as a postwar Italian government and is now played at the Niners stadium located 2,000 miles outside San Francisco and the Yankee Stadium Hey I'm Playin' Football Here Bowl, which offers Northwestern fans the opportunity to see football played in a baseball stadium with more than one operational endzone.  

The game and the opponent do not matter.  The Wildcats clawed back from the portents of a miserable year to enter the postseason.  They boast the Big Ten leader in rushing yards, receiving yards, and sacks.  Austin Carr will have one more opportunity to bamboozle defensive backs. Northwestern has a chance to end the season with a winning record.  This will all be clearer when the bowl fatcats have emerged from their estates with their scrolls.  Until then, we can all luxuriate in the retention of the Hat in all of its mysterious, semi-wearable glory.

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