Saturday, November 17, 2018


Let's just lead off with it: the Northwestern Wildcats have won the Big Ten West.  There are two games left; Northwestern could spend its road trip in Minnesota lounging on hammocks and its Hat Game against Illinois in a beach resort, zinc-nosed and sun-addled, and they can be 6-6, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from showing up in Indianapolis to represent the entire Big Ten West.  Football analysts, burning out their BCS computers and going through cartons of green accounting visors have all stared at their Johnny Mnemonic virtual reality devices and come to the same conclusion: this is incredibly funny.
College Football analysts try to deal with their computer models that 
keep showing that Northwestern won the Big Ten West

This is not to take anything away from the Wildcats, who have had a simultaneously disastrous and heroic season.  It is to say that Northwestern has managed to win an entire division championship to the point where they get to wear special hats and get a trophy that I had no idea even existed until Saturday by what has been very close to the absolute minimum number points required.  Northwestern will be the first major conference team to win a division without defeating a single out of conference opponent-- this includes Akron, a profoundly shitty MAC team whose win over Northwestern was its first over a Big Ten opponent ever in a football history that stretches to the nineteenth century.

Northwestern won the West by racing to an enormous lead against Purdue then failing to score a point in the second half, by beating an at-the-time winless Nebraska team in the throes of its worst season in recorded history by scoring ten points in less than three minutes including a 99-yard touchdown drive to send the game to an overtime period won by a backup kicker playing in his first game, by somehow needing to come back against a Rutgers team so putrid that they had been trying to consolidate their turnovers with an agency so they just owed the entire Big Ten a few interceptions on weekly installments.
When you're coaching Rutgers

The Wildcats have confounded predictions, statistics, numbers, gamblers, logic, and reason.  They have won the Big Ten West through what appears to be the absolute minimum amount of success.  For three months, the Big Ten West has been told to get its act together and, with minimum competence, seize the division but no one has; Northwestern's stand is like the terrifying and insidious effects of climate change.

And so the Wildcats go into their next two games in the perfect position.  They cannot lose.  Yes, they should beat Minnesota, a team that is currently thrashing about every week while deciding whether or not to turn into a werewolf.  And yes, they should beat the flailing Illini, who remain under a tailspin under Lovie Smith who has just decided to cope by getting grizzled, even with the prized Hat at stake.  But consider this: what if they lose?  What if they get rowed by the Gophers or the Illini sneak by while Northwestern follows their patented just sort of hang out and see whatever happens is good with me gameplan and then they lose? 

They can't get taken out of Indianapolis at this point.  Jim Delany can't deploy a cardboard Yosemite Sam that says "you must win this number of games against the Illini to play in the Big Ten Championship."  And while the Big Ten would prefer to set up road blocks between Evanston and Indianapolis for this game than let a 6-6 Northwestern team play there, there is nothing stopping them.  Of course, it would be a giant bummer for Northwestern to lose the next two.  But it would also be extraordinarily funny, and the Wildcats have seized the mantle of America's Funniest Power Five Division Winner as an avatar of chaos that will easily carry them over whatever unlucky chump gets served to them in the Big Ten Championship that they are actually playing in (you can look it up) and then head to the Rose Bowl to attempt to win their first out of conference game.


It has the sorry lot of Iowa fans to wake up in the middle of the night over the last decade and realize they have a rivalry with Northwestern.  They would, like most Big Ten fans, like to have a rivalry with a traditional Big Ten Power like Ohio State or Michigan or even Wisconsin, the type of rivalry where you have a Farm Implement Trophy and songs about how you hate each other and the Big Ten Power actually does despise them back but instead they are forced to deal with Northwestern every year.  The Iowa-Northwestern rivalry is not a traditional football rivalry where fans taunt each other and letter jacket guys kidnap the mascot and perform sporting japes worthy of stories that will last for generations at the Grim Waterfowl Club; their rivalry is more like the one between homeowners and termites.

Northwestern has now beaten Iowa three years in a row.  Each victory has been a disgusting affront to football.  Last year, in the midst of a howling southern gale at Ryan Field, both teams refused to score until Northwestern lured them into overtime.  This year, they battled to a putrid 3-0 half and basically refused to play offense until Bennett Skowronek made one of the greatest catches I've ever seen from a Northwestern player almost at random and then Iowa decided to close the game by bashing themselves in the head with large, comical props.  My sources on Iowa message boards inform me that Northwestern got away with numerous Uncalled Holding Penalties.

This is what life is like now, for the Hawkeyes.  Their fans do not want to give in and debase themselves to admit they have a rivalry with Northwestern; every year, Northwestern comes in and the teams blow raspberries at each other until the Wildcats ruin their season. 

In 2000, the Wildcats took on an abysmal Iowa team with an outright Big Ten Championship and trip to the Rose Bowl on the line and they lost one of the most devastating games in Northwestern history.  It was bitterly cold, and on the way out of the stadium, Iowa fans gleefully taunted anyone in purple to enjoy San Antonio, taking it as a given that the Citrus Bowl would pass up Northwestern for the more lucrative Michigan fanbase even though Northwestern had beaten the Wolverines head to head in one of the greatest games ever played.  Those vengeful Hawkstrodamuses were proven right.  This time, though, Northwestern's win, combined with just an absolute Rube Goldberg Machine of Big Ten shittiness propelled them to a Division Championship to celebrate upon Kinnick Stadium in front of disgusted Iowa fans who had, along with every other Western team, squandered an opportunity to win this wretched division.

Last week, Northwestern took on Notre Dame in another sort of quasi-rivalry game.  There is no way that Notre Dame considers Northwestern a rival: all of Notre Dame's rivalry is with the past itself, a sepia-toned succession of leather helmet mustache guys gouging the eyes of Army or valiantly battling the Spanish Flu; Notre Dame's current rivalries seem to mostly be with the entire sport of college football as everyone else has grown sick of the men's hats of the Associated Press constantly vaulting them into title games based on a stale, ghostly aura only to see them humiliated by a never-ending succession of JaMarcuses Russell.  This is how Notre Dame exists now, its pugilist cartoon mascot now squaring off at every fanbase in the world waiting for them to lose.  It is fitting that Notre Dame will play today in Yankee Stadium as their football program is the closest thing to every Boomer anecdote about Mickey Mantle made flesh.  A middling Big Ten program that resurfaces every dozen years when Notre Dame deigns to play them until they lose and mysteriously vanish off the Irish schedule cannot compete with History.
A 1991 image of "Mickey Mantle," a fictional 
baseball player invented in the late 1980s by 
Bob Costas and Ken Burns has created a cottage
 industry of fake Boomer Baseball Anecdotes and 
must be exposed by courageous people not afraid 
to put the truth on

College football rivalry fits within the sport's completely discursive tradition in that the biggest marker of a rivalry are fans talking about whether or not a fanbase is or is not their rival.  Conferences and schools try to cement these with annual games on the schedule, "rivalry week" showdowns, and trophies, but the concept of rivalry belongs entirely to the fans.  The greatest moment in the history of college football rivalry was Bob Diacco's laudably insane quest to build a trophy from scratch and instigate a Big Game with UCF and UCF's hostile indifference to the Civil ConFLiCt.  No one has seen the trophy since it was abandoned somewhere on a sideline, ignored by UCF who would not even deign to parade it around.  In an ideal world, the complete rejection of this Rivalry Overture would eventually twist its way into a real rivalry, with UCONN coaches bringing larger and more elaborate rivalry trophies to the stadium every year while UCF makes more pointed shows of ignoring it until the Huskies roll up with a semi full of life-sized Dog-Knights while UCF has hired a crew of backhoes to immediately bury them.  The other great rivalry moment of the twenty-first century is this:

The accepted, Branded Rivalries are the most boring in college sports.  Instead, it's the ones at the margins, the ones that are constant sources of bickering about whether the teams are actually rivals, whether one team cares as much as the other about a rivalry, ones where there very nature of the concept of rivalry is contested in a way that would make an absolutely unreadable and dreadful paper called like "'Little Brother' or 'Big' Time Rival: College Football 'Rivalry' and the Discourses of Disparagement in American Society 1978-2012" in PAAAWWWWLLL Quarterly.   

The sole exception remains America's greatest rivalry game, the Battle for The Hat and I'm concerned because Lovie would look tremendous sporting that thing with his silver beard. 

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