Friday, September 3, 2021

Mergers and Acquisitions

The consolidation of college football's most powerful teams into a superconference at this point seems inevitable. Once the college football powers that be had four playoff teams, the question became why they did not have more. Once the committee established that there is nothing a non-Power Five team could do to actually enter the playoff short of entering Bryant-Denny Stadium in the middle of an otherwise desultory Alabama win and challenging the Tide right then and there and then beating them handily, and once it became evident that the SEC was the only conference that mattered save for a smattering of other teams, then we would eventually reach a point where it seems like the sport is headed for a superconference that picks out the powerhouse teams and makes an entire season of the playoff while the remainders bludgeon each other in increasing obscurity and it is not clear to me if this is even bad.
If there is one thing I can appreciate about the College Football Playoff is that they
invest the proceedings to determine whether Ohio State goes to the playoff or the
Fiesta Bowl with the grim aesthetic seriousness of inventing Yugoslavia from the
Austro-Hungarian Empire

The fact of the matter is that the nebulous world of college football--the major conferences, the powerful schools, the television networks, and the NCAA sort of stumbling alongside them as a deputy emerging from a bathroom with a trail of toilet paper stuck to its shoe to ask players how they managed to afford those pants-- is going all in on a model that prizes the national championship picture over all else and represents a stunning misunderstanding of the sport. They understand that this championship focus is the surest way to bring in advertising dollars and cable carriage fees and sponsorships and even more money trickling to players for top schools in their NIL deals. It is the obvious thing to do by the rules that govern the operation of all sports and entertainment enterprises as vehicles for making money for grasping middlemen who don't have to get tackled by 365 pound nose tackles, but a myopic version of the sport that demonstrates a lack of understanding that the chase for the championship for most fans is a silly and irrelevant sideshow compared to watching their own teams slop around for twelve stupid games that mean nothing except everything to the people there.

What the college football establishment is doing is attempting to build a delicate floating island resort for top teams that can compete for championships over the awful, roiling ocean of football chaos. There are horrible things down there-- triple options, overtimes, toppled goalposts, Ryan Field filled with opposing fans on a gray November Saturday where teams combine for 17 total points and a sinkhole claims the special teams coach. But, for most fans, that cauldron of 11AM kickoffs in half-empty stadiums between godforsaken teams vying for a spot in the Pinstripe Bowl is the experience of the sport and will be until the United States finally makes college football illegal.

With Texas and Oklahoma set to join the SEC, there are few other teams left out of that conference that have any playoff resonance. There is Clemson, of course, and then Florida State and maybe Miami, there is a rusted Notre Dame still held aloft by enough load-bearing red-faced midwestern uncles, and maybe the desiccated husk of USC if they want to consider the west coast television markets. And then there is the big one, Ohio State, currently idling in a Big Ten with no actual challengers after rendering its rival Michigan into a pitiable program that mainly excels at sending strongly-worded letters. The Big Ten, ACC, and PAC 12 are attempting to fight off the SEC’s power grab by forming a hilariously gossamer alliance in a stunning exhibition of cunning and skullduggery in torchlit zoom sessions where they all banded together and vowed that they would hold a vague press conference.  Should the SEC or whatever name the superconference ends up going by attempt to gobble up their remaining glamor teams the way it has just done to the Big 12, they will come together in an attempt to salvage their piece of the pie by furiously trying to shovel each other into the superconference’s maw until they are all devoured, picked clean, and left as rotting piles of Marylands and Washington States.


Whatever shape that college football consolidation takes, it is obvious that there is probably no room for Northwestern. Northwestern managed to grimly hold on to its spot in the Big Ten long enough to get onto the cable television gravy train and become a genuinely annoying enough presence in the conference to repeatedly gatecrash the Championship Game, but even so it is very hard to imagine the Wildcats qualifying for the Playoff or contending for a national championship against the elite programs bursting with NFL players. The program offers little to the sport as an entertainment enterprise; outside of the smattering of Northwestern fans, supporters of the week’s opponent, and gamblers so degenerate that they are acquiring VHS copies of Wild & Crazy Kids to bet on, it is impossible to imagine anyone tuning into a Northwestern game so they can watch some fundamentally sound linebacking and Pat Fitzgerald get an experimental plastic surgery to he could have one of those lizard frills installed on his neck that he can flare up to intimidate a referee who has called a horsehit pass interference penalty.

Artist's rendition
Northwestern and the vast majority of other teams outside the top echelon of the sport operate in a nebulous shadow world of football that orbits around the playoff and championship picture. This is fine because the entire process of choosing the playoff teams and crowning a champion exists as the sports world’s most convoluted, ludicrous, and stupid procedure, one that revolves around a cabal of unaccountable bureaucrats twisting themselves into agonizing contortions to get the teams that will get the best television ratings into the playoff while sanctimoniously pretending they are not doing that and instead are carefully weighing criteria such as Game Control and Body Clocks and whether or not some alumni chartered enough airplanes with a banners over an opponents’ game while everyone from conspiracy-laden maniacs frothing on message boards to the most serious men who have ever lived grimacing in a suit on ESPN all yell about it. From an outside perspective, this makes an entertaining and funny way to crown a champion, but if it affected the team I care about, I would get driven insane to the point of writing slightly longer blog posts.
Since Northwestern emerged from hibernation in 1995, it has been a fairly consistent pain in the ass for the Big Ten, starting the twenty-first century with Randy Walkers’ track meet squads that forced teams to chase a pesky, undersized quarterback all over the field for four quarters and evolving into the program’s apotheosis under Pat Fitzgerald as a team of anthropomorphic neck rolls who turn every game into the aesthetic equivalent of Borat tackling his nude producer in a hotel ballroom for three and half hours.
Is there a role for Northwestern in the picture of big time college football? Will the Big Ten, enamored with tradition, desperately attempt to stay together even as the money that has driven it to rapaciously expand onto the Eastern seaboard is now poised to pull it apart? There is a future where the Big Ten rallies and tries to form a rival superconference to the SEC. There is also a future where Ohio State and maybe a few of the biggest names get picked off, leaving a rump Big Ten desperately clinging to its berth in the Music City Bowl.

Either way, I don’t think it makes a difference. Everything about Northwestern football that matters is because in the larger scheme of college football, it doesn't matter. If the Big Ten manages to plod on, Northwestern will continue to play its grim Sisyphus football and occasionally ruin a promising season. And if college football consolidation forms that superconference and the Big Ten becomes a gentrified MAC, the Wildcats will still be able to perpetrate sloppy, drooling messes against Illinois in the cold November rain for a trophy shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s hat, which is all any of can really desire from this wretched sport.
Of course Northwestern thrived in the grotesque football season that should not have existed. They played college football with a shocking indifference to the raging pandemic, and the swashbuckling monstrousness of the entire enterprise really put a damper on the funniest Big Ten season in years. It started with Scott Frost offering to wander the Earth to find a team willing to play Nebraska in college football with the bravado of a first guy to take a swing at Steven Seagal in a pool hall with similar results and ended with the Big Ten calling an ad hoc Constitutional Convention to allow Ohio State into the championship game and in between a traditional conference power got stomped into a fine powder by Indiana every week and the result of all this fuss and secret maneuvering was forcing America to watch more Northwestern football.

The Wildcats face a tall order trying to repeat this year. Peyton Ramsey is gone. Paddy Fisher is gone. Greg Newsome and Rashawn Slater went in the first round of the NFL draft. As I write this paragraph, Isaiah Bowser is bludgeoning Boise State in a UCF uniform and his successor Cam Porter will miss the season with an injury. They also have some returning building blocks including veteran linebacker Chris Bergen and young stars Brandon Joseph at safety and Peter Skoronski at tackle. The most important returning player will be Hunter Johnson, one of the quarterbacks during a rough 2019 who will get another shot this time in Mike Bajakian’s offense and who I am excited to see because “Hunter Johnson” should also be the name of a character Arnold plays in a 1994 movie where he is a postal inspector tracking dangerous packages in an investigation that constantly requires him to fire antitank weapons in a city center and then say to a horrified bystander “he didn’t use enough stamps.”

Inspectah Huntah Chonson is heeuh to stop da mail froo-awdt
For some reason the Big Ten has decided to open the season with conference play so instead of getting to ease into the season with an alarmingly sluggish game against a local dental college, they have to play on a Friday night against Michigan State. A miserable Spartans team cost Northwestern their only loss of the regular season because Rocky Lombardi turned into a midwestern Michael Vick.  This will be a tough test for a team that traditionally eases into the season before powering up in October before they get FCS Indiana State, quasi rival and fellow member of the ACC/Big Ten/Pac 12 Unbreakable Blood Pact Duke, and Ohio before getting to play a Nebraska team that feels like it will have to cancel a game because Scott Frost has decided that he needs to drive the bus with purpose and a manful chin jut before confidently swerving off the highway and motoring directly to the Yukon.     
There is still a pandemic by the way and they probably should not be playing football but we’re at a point where people are either vaccinated and confused about whether they should be doing anything anymore or unvaccinated because they can’t get a shot or are hesitant because of nonsense conjured on social media or are one of those maniacs mainlining horse pharmaceuticals and no government entity will ever shut down anything ever again even if there is a variant that turns us into werewolves that cough a lot so I suppose the central question from a Northwestern football perspective is whether college football will remain reckless enough to feign a normal season or if things will get dysfunctional and stupid enough to allow Northwestern to once again win the Big Ten West. They might as well, while there’s still a Big Ten West to win.


SRX said...

I don't care much about Northwestern football. I'm a Michigan fan. I still have occasionally nightmares about the M00N game. Yet, I've read everything you've posted for years. I thoroughly enjoy the writing, and I'll be pulling for the Cats to grind Sparty into the ground in a manner that is painful and embarrassing for both teams. Good luck, and thank you.

BYCTOM said...

Thank you for reading and for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

This writing is hilarious. I don't follow Northwestern either (being another Michigan fan) but read every word nonetheless. Well done, sir!