Saturday, December 19, 2020

A Football Apocalypse During a Regular Apocalypse

This Saturday, Northwestern meets Ohio State in Indianapolis as a necessary blood sacrifice so that the Buckeyes get to go to the Playoff and Big Ten officials can go light up some cigars and congratulate themselves for making the decision that teams should play through a pandemic in order to get television money and reflect on how they fought through the adversity that came from teams becoming fetid Covid swamps and the many arduous phone calls they had to make.  

Now, after building an eight-game schedule with no slack, allowing Kirk Herbstreit to accuse Michigan of not playing Ohio State during a team-wide outbreak as some sort of ridiculous rivalry hi-jink on the order of stealing the Brutus head and firing it out of a bulbous air cannon, and convening an very silly emergency Ohio State Needs to Make the Playoff Meeting, all that stands in the way of their machinations resulting in that precious playoff berth is this:


Not only would a Northwestern victory be satisfying for winning the conference and vanquishing Big Bad Ohio State, it would also serve as a monkey wrench that would destroy the precarious house of cards constructed by the Playofff Committee to get all of their favorite teams in.  Would they have to put in one-loss Big Ten Champion Northwestern over a team from another conference that didn't hypocritically pretend that they give a shit about playing through a pandemic and they are now yelling through gritted teeth about how many games they played on their post-game zoom calls or would they have to consider putting in one of the excellent undefeated Group of Five teams that should be there? Would a potential Northwestern upset fuck up the Playoff Picture so badly that, if a Northwestern player was sprinting toward the end zone in a game-winning play, would Gary Barta himself sprint on the field to tackle him or maybe try to throw a piece of Lucas Oil horseshoe logo signage at him to knock him down before throwing down a smoke grenade and vanishing to an emergency Big Ten complex under the stadium that is filled with mirrors and potentially hundreds of fake Garys Barta any one of which could be the real one who is outfitted with a claw?  These are important considerations for the Playoff Picture.

The Playoff Committee, though, is resting easy in their hotel suites because the Buckeyes are heavily favored.  Northwestern has for the most part been winning games by playing excellent defense and holding on by the skin of their teeth through second-half puntfests.  Ohio State has star quarterback Justin Fields, and it seems likely that Northwestern will have trouble adjusting; my analogy for this is the Simpsons boxing episode where Homer has no idea what to do with superstar Drederick Tatum after gently knocking over a bunch of winded hoboes that here represent the oaf-quarterbacks of the Big Ten West.  Ohio State has obliterated every single team they have faced in the horrid Big Ten except for 2020 football heroes Indiana.  But they aren't playing the game on paper, and who knows; in this most insane year, maybe Northwestern can pull out its greatest upset yet.  "If anyone would like to say anything derogatory toward our players, please do so this week," Pat Fitzgerald pleaded, desperate in search for the next Rece Davis insult that he used to lead Northwestern to its only loss.

Don't you dare call them R*ce D*vises. (Thanks to @AceAnbender for the screengrab.)

 As enjoyable as it would be for Northwestern to destroy college football's postseason, there are no heroes during the 2020 season.  Northwestern, like all programs, has asked its players to shoulder ludicrous burdens for the Big Ten to show me ads for the Brett Favre Knee Brace and the fact that their win as an enormous underdog would also fuck up the Playoff does not mean that it was a good idea to play.  The Big Ten West Championship is both a testament to players doing something remarkable during this upheaval and an obscenity that they were asked to do it.  There are no winners here, although I want to be very clear that Northwestern winning the Big Ten Championship would be incredibly funny.   


Last Saturday's victory over Illinois had no affect on the Wildcats' division championship, but there was still a Hat on the line so they had to run over the Illini.  Northwestern's dormant running game came alive in a wet day that turned Ryan Field into a mud pit, and they nearly equaled a school record for rushing yards against a Big Ten opponent that they set in 2003 that was also against Illinois.  The Wildcats have won six Hats in a row and are now only win away from evening the all-time record.  

On Sunday, Illinois fired Lovie Smith.  Smith, who I am fond of as the best Bears coach of my life who was fired after a ten-win season so they could hire a Canadian league coach who looked like a ventriloquists's dummy on the cover of an R.L. Stine book, was far too normal in my opinion for college football, the domain of maniacs.  I hope when Illinois engages in its coaching search they consider the fact that I would prefer to write about a coach that was a weirdo lunatic.  I've been able to get by for the past couple years making fun of Jim Boylen, but now the Bulls have a normal square haircut guy in charge.  Perhaps the Illini would consider hiring Jim Boylen, if he is available.  If Illinois goes with another normal coach, it may be necessary to sabotage the Bears' kicking footballs and finally push Matt Nagy over the edge of madness.

(UPDATE: It appears that Illinois is going to hire Bret Bielema, I can work with this.)

Northwestern football is also on the precipice of change.  Athletic director Jim Phillips, most often seen at Northwestern games running around like a shirtsleeved secondary mascot, is moving on to head the ACC.  Phillips will go from working for Northwestern and its boosters to a job where he will, in essence, be working for Dabo Swinney.  Under Phillips, Northwestern's sports programs have thrived in terms of winning games and raising money for ambitious real estate projects and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Here is a good post from Ben Goren about Phillips's legacy at Northwestern about his successes on the field and the costs that those entail.

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will also retire after this season.  I have written before that it is strange how coordinators get so much outsized credit and blame for a team's performance and suspect that it is something fans to latch onto, especially when they are mad and want someone fired.  After all, most college coordinators move in an endless itinerant parade where they are continuously swapped with identical goatee guys.  On the other hand, Northwestern has had a very good defense for most of the time Hankwitz has been there, and whatever he is doing it has obviously been working.  Once again, Northwestern will enter a coaching search this time not to replace a reviled coach blamed for the offense's ineptitude but to replace a lauded favorite whose unit has been the heart and soul of the program.  I have the utmost confidence that if there is one aspect of American life that will remain unaffected by the pandemic it will be the football coach speculation industry with all of the attendant flight trackers and self-proclaimed message board insiders.

Finally, there have been rumors that the Chicago Bears are interested in hiring Pat Fitzgerald in a potentially nuclear mutual self-own fueled by ambition, hubris, and naiveté reminiscent of the scene in the movie The Other Guys where Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne The Rock Johnson play those types of devil-may-care badge necklace detectives who make an impossible leap off the building and plummet to the ground below or the decision to pursue an advanced degree in the humanities.  I hope this is just a rumor because Northwestern has remade its entire football program in the image of Pat Fitzgerald and I have doubts that his shit would work in the National Football League but on the other hand watching Fitz try to handle questions from the fevered Chicago football press and deal with untold legions of mustache guys that have never even glanced at Northwestern muster their forces from Kenosha to Tinley Park in order to oust him from Halas Hall because of punting would be funny.

I don't know what the future holds for Northwestern after this game.  If they do as expected and get flattened by Ohio State, then they will supposedly go to some bowl game even as the entire infrastructure around bowl games appears to be collapsing.  College football is poised to limp across the finish line having grasped at whatever money they could find, and it is impossible at this point to believe there is nothing that conferences will not do with their programs to get every last penny.  Bowl season, already a sort of jaunty appendage to the college football season, will probably exist and mutate into something even stupider as exhausted players beg to for the season to end, as teams continue to have outbreaks.  It will probably end up being like one field in a complex that every team who still wants to keep playing comes to and just sort of footballs at each other for a few hours in an unorganized free-for-all as announcers just scream the name of sponsors over the action until someone emerges in a robotic exoskeleton.  But nothing can affect the Playoff as college football marches towards its pot of gold that cannot be stopped even if Northwestern manages to completely destroy it this weekend.

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