An Outsider’s Guide to Loving College Football

I did not grow up with this sport. In Washington, D.C., the only college football we have is Maryland and UVa, and watching those games growing up was kind of like planting someone in front of an MLS game and telling them to go crazy for soccer. It was like this for most of my family, too, the rest of whom were from Boston and Connecticut. People don’t live and die around college football Saturdays in Hartford. So, just like a million other kids from that part of the country, I grew up worshiping the NFL.

All that is what makes this so weird: Sometime over the past year or two, I started loving college football more than the NFL. If fun is the goal of watching any sport, college beats the NFL every time for me. When I tell this to people and they ask me to explain myself, I can never quite do it justice in conversation. So let’s try this in writing.

Here’s an incomplete guide to everything that makes college football the best casual entertainment in sports.

Freedom

This is the most important point on the list. I’m positive I like college football more because I don’t have a favorite team.

If you’re not already obsessed with college football, try it this way. College football Saturdays are like a temporary reprieve from all the other misery we expend with pro football teams every week. It’s like an alternate universe: no sense of impending doom, no homicidal urges over some horrible coach, no cell phones getting slammed into the ground, no cursing at announcers for slobbering all over the teams I hate.

This is where ignorance actually works to your advantage as an outsider. Consider my friend Spencer Hall from EDSBS — probably the single biggest reason I got addicted to this universe. He’s a lifelong Florida fan, and he has another year of Will Muschamp ahead of him this fall. Either Muschamp’s going to have a rage stroke on the sidelines or Spencer will have one watching him. This is the only way it ends.

Florida v Florida State

Outsiders? WE ARE FREE.

Free to enjoy Muschamp meltdowns without actually caring or even noticing that his offenses have been a never-ending Dumpster fire that would drive true fans to guzzle paint thinner.

It’s not to say casual fans can’t hop on different bandwagons, but it’s so much better when there’s none of the investment that makes other sports so stressful. Every year a different team pops up that’s awesome enough to get me hooked, and then it ends. One year it’s Cam Newton and Auburn, the next it’s Tyrann Mathieu and Les Miles and LSU, then it’s Johnny Football, then Gus Malzahn pops up with an offense that somehow runs for 600 yards a game, and suddenly it’s Auburn again. In between there are teams like Baylor dropping 70 points on people like it’s nothing, or Michigan State, which is the exact opposite of Baylor, but won me over with badass defense and Mark Dantonio’s rapper affiliations. But that’s just me.

The point is that you can pick anyone, any year. Just don’t get too attached.

And don’t pick Alabama.

The SEC

I probably should have made this disclaimer up front, but most of this column centers on the SEC. There is great college football everywhere, I’m sure, but as an interloper, it’s hard to get obsessed with everything. You have to make choices. In that case, focusing on the SEC plus a handful of teams elsewhere (Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oklahoma, Baylor, Florida State, Clemson, NOT NOTRE DAME) is the best strategy. It’s a world within a larger universe that gives you everything you could want from anything else.

SEC football takes everything that’s great and ridiculous about college football and then puts it on steroids. It’s flagrantly unhealthy and better than anything else. A lot like Southern food.

Roster Turnover

This is one of the biggest reasons college football has grown on me over the years. Every season comes with a new set of stars, new dominant teams, and all kinds of new arguments to have. This is great for two reasons.

First, it means there’s no decade of questions about whether Joe Flacco is elite, or which teams will regress, or who manages the salary cap best. By the time the most obnoxious angles would materialize if this were the NFL, players move on and it all changes.

Second, it’s a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you know anything, because really, we’re all pretty much starting from scratch every year. Like Thursday night: South Carolina was supposed to be a top-10 team this year, and Texas A&M was in the conversation to finish last in the SEC West.

Now, South Carolina might start 0-2 with a defense that looked horrendous and an offense that wasn’t much better, while Kenny Hill looks like a god for an A&M team that just scared the shit out of every other school on their schedule. Did you know who Kenny Hill was a week ago? Doesn’t matter! By October, we all will.

Batshit-Crazy Offenses

Could Gus Malzahn’s offense work in the NFL? Would Kevin Sumlin churn out a new 500-yard passing games if he were coaching the Lions? Would Art Briles turn RG3 into a superstar if he’d taken Dan Snyder up on his rumored offer this past winter? The answer to all these questions is almost definitely “NOPE.” For every Chip Kelly, there are lots more Steve Spurriers.

In some respects, it seems like this could be changing. The evolution of offenses in college is ahead of what’s happening in the NFL, and that dictates a lot of what we see changing in the pros every year. NFL teams have to adapt to players who’ve spent their whole career playing in spread offenses, so they add various wrinkles of college schemes, and slowly, the NFL looks a little more like college. This is probably a better topic for Chris B. Brown, though.

What’s important for our purposes is that college is where the craziest offenses don’t just work, but dominate. Whether it’s Malzahn turning Nick Marshall and Tre Mason into a running game that’s somehow more exciting than a passing game or Art Briles unleashing hell on the Big 12 with Bryce Petty and eight receivers at a time, most of this stuff would have the life sucked out of it by monstrous NFL defenses. (Or Alabama.) But on Saturdays, the weirdest, most exciting stuff actually works.

Running Backs

You know how everyone always says superstar running backs are a dying breed? Those people do not watch college football.

Look around you this year. Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley are the two best running backs in the country, and both of them are the biggest weapons their teams have. Leonard Fournette at LSU has been compared to Michael Jordan and/or Adrian Peterson before ever playing a down. He’s playing Gordon and Wisconsin on Saturday night. In other words, the two biggest stars in that game are running backs.

Then there are guys like Duke Johnson — Hall of Fame running back name — at Miami, who comes back from a broken ankle this year to run through people and carry Miami’s offense (again). Or Alabama. T.J. Yeldon, a star last year, right up until the Sugar Bowl. That’s when freshman Derrick Henry started ripping off eight yards every time he touched the ball, and HE became the Michael Jordan of running backs.

Derrick Harvey

When these guys go pro, I’m sure they’ll get broken down and plagued by injuries and stop taking over games all by themselves. Even if they’re great (like Adrian Peterson), they’ll be stuck on crappy teams that make it harder to enjoy. That’s just how pro football works. The NFL is constantly proving that no player is bigger than the game. College football still makes you wonder sometimes.

Who was more fun to watch: Reggie Bush in the NFL, or Reggie Bush in college? Remember this when it’s time to watch Melvin Gordon and Leonard Fournette on Saturday.

Saban

Might as well get this out of the way while we’re praising Derrick Harvey … It was fun to root against Urban Meyer’s Florida teams, but Nick Saban is just a whole other level. He’s relentless, he’s utterly joyless at all times, and he’s mysterious even after 1,000 profiles trying to explain him. All we get are nonstop paeans to the “The Process” from the coach who forgot his own birthday. He’s like a cartoon of what a college football villain would be.

Alabama may take a step back this year — it’s been one of the big debates of the summer — but I hope it doesn’t. Saban and those Alabama teams make everything more fun. They are the perfect foil waiting to ruin the fun for heartwarming underdogs with gimmicky offenses. Hopefully, Bama goes undefeated into November, giving college football the enemy we can all loathe and fear in equal measure, and then lose in the most heartbreaking fashion possible. This is the dream, and sometimes it comes true.

Les Miles

Imagine a coach who DIDN’T play responsible football, and instead took stupid risks almost like it was a challenge.

LSU is the only program in the country that can compete with Alabama every year as far as NFL talent, so it’s not like the Tigers are some plucky underdog next to Saban. But somehow Les Miles teams always look like they’re basically making it up as they go along — like, “Oh wow, where’d that superstar running back come from? Does anyone know who’s playing quarterback this year?” These are LSU questions. They may not win as many titles, but they win hearts.

Also, I’ll never be able to think of FIFA again without thinking of Les Miles, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

Road Trips

Eventually, if you get hooked on college football for long enough, you’ll end up planning a trip to go see a game somewhere. It’s perfect for reunions with family or old college friends — not at the actual, mediocre football school you went to, but somewhere in the Top 25, and preferably in the South. It’s very difficult to spend a day tailgating and going to a major college football game without loving it and wanting to plan another trip as soon as possible.

More important: TV’s gotten so good that watching big games at home is almost always better than watching in person. It’s cheaper, it’s easier to see the game, you don’t get stuck in two hours of traffic, etc. College football is the one sport where that’s not really true. Nothing beats watching games in a stadium surrounded by 80,000 to 90,000 people losing their minds. You don’t even have to be a fan; the insanity works by osmosis, and eventually you’re going nuts, too. It’s the best.

Traditions

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Sometimes you might be at a game with friends and hear someone say, “Every sport would be better with marching bands.”

This sounds right, but it’s definitely not true.

Marching bands wouldn’t work in the NBA — a quarter-full Milwaukee Bucks game in February is sad enough; a marching band would make it the saddest shit on earth — and they probably wouldn’t work in the NFL. They definitely wouldn’t work in hockey or baseball. Marching bands do make games better, but they can work only in this exact setting. That’s another reason to appreciate college football (and March Madness).

You know what actually does make every sport better?

LIVE ANIMALS.

Arkansas State v Auburn

Put a live deer behind one of the baskets in Milwaukee and you have nonstop entertainment no matter what month it is.

SEC Quarterbacks

Hinton covered some of this a few weeks ago with his piece on Alabama quarterbacks, but it’s one of the best college football traditions and it’s not limited to Alabama. Every year there are no fewer than six white quarterbacks in the SEC who are completely interchangeable. They look the same, they’re all generally pretty average on the field, and roughly half of them have names that could just as easily belong to lacrosse players. It just never stops. Look at the crop we have this season:

  • Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
  • Jeff Driskel, Florida
  • Justin Worley, Tennessee
  • Patton Robinette, Vanderbilt
  • Dylan Thompson, South Carolina
  • Brandon Allen, Arkansas
  • Hutson Mason, Georgia
  • Maty Mauk, Missouri
  • Jacob Coker, Alabama
  • Patrick Towles, Kentucky

Anyway, I genuinely look forward to this every year. I used to think John Parker Wilson was the SEC QB icon for all time, but then “Hutson Mason” came along at Georgia and made me question everything I ever believed in.

Rampant Corruption

The greatest college football tradition of all! This sport is more or less rotten to the core. It’s a business that generates several billion dollars in revenue every year without paying any of the talent (legally). It’s easily the most visible pyramid scheme we have in American life. To make it all a little more ridiculous, the NCAA won’t even let other people pay athletes.

That’s before you get to the seediness of recruiting, and whatever happens in the shady world of bagmen. Or the elaborate measures all schools take to keep students eligible. Or the coaches who bounce from school to school every winter. Or the schools that ditch decadeslong relationships to align themselves with bigger conferences and bigger paychecks, or the (ahem) TV networks that facilitate all this. For a sport that started out founded on amateurs, it’s shocking how thoroughly things have been corrupted. Every level of the game is full of shadiness.

But you know what? Most of this only makes me love college football more. There are certain scandals that are truly horrifying and depressing and make you question priorities, but stuff like the Miami scandal? Where the smoking gun involves rented Jet Skis and hotel parties? This is just part of the batshit landscape that makes this sport so addictive. I wish I could read a 5,000-word feature about bagmen every single week.

The NCAA should figure out a way to let shoe companies pay superstars, and players should be paid more than just scholarship money, but all that will probably happen within a few years.

For now, when people ask, “How could you support college sports?” the answer is pretty simple: The corruption here is so transparent that it’s almost quaint. Especially compared with the broader, subtler scam of pro sports, in which owners are always holding local governments hostage to pay for massive stadiums, screwing players a little more with every collective bargaining cycle, covering up health issues, and somehow controlling enough of the narrative to keep any of this from becoming too obvious or getting in the way of profits, which makes it all feel that much more hopeless. College football is lawless and ridiculous like the Wild West; pro sports are just a cold-blooded reminder of what America became after that.

The Playoff

There were some people who were worried that after all the protests in the streets we might end up missing the bowl system one day, and I was one of those people (because I hate and fear change). Upon review, those concerns were unfounded. The best part of the BCS system was that it put pressure on teams to win every week and it created months-long arguments about which teams deserve to go to the title game. It also rewarded the best team almost every year, which is supposed to be the goal with title games. A football Final Four had the potential to jeopardize all that.

But no. There will be death battles every year over which teams make it into the playoff, and we’ll get all the same insanity we’ve gotten every year. There will be just as much pressure to win for all the same reasons there were for the past 50 years. Teams are still at the whims of voters, or in this case selection committee members.

A six-team playoff — with byes for the top two — would solve all this, so hopefully it never happens. This sport doesn’t need to be fair for everyone. The possibility of good teams getting screwed creates half the drama all by itself.

Other quick notes …

This American Hero

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This American Hero

And This American Hero

And This Play

Obviously.

Perfection

People were amazed by Auburn last year for obvious reasons, but go back and look at the preseason polls from last August. Florida State didn’t crack the top 10 in either one. Michigan State — the team that finished third and probably would’ve been in the playoff if it happened last year — wasn’t even in the Top 25. Not all years are that crazy, but it’s not that surprising.

Chaos is the rule here.

After last year, even Nick Saban knows that.

saban

The Iron Bowl is in its own special category of insanity, but it happens the same way all over the place. Who’d heard of Johnny Manziel two years ago? Where was Jameis Winston on the preseason Heisman lists? Who thought Malzahn or Dantonio could do anything like that last year? We spend so much time predicting things in sports, and arguing about free agents, and comparing analytics, and overthinking just about everything in the name of being smarter fans. But anyone who’s smart can look at this sport and realize all that energy is a waste of time here.

It’s like March Madness flattened out over five months, with massive tailgates interspersed throughout. College football’s great because it’s the one sport where thinking is totally beside the point. Just shut up and watch. You won’t be disappointed.

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU, Les Miles, T.J. Yeldon, Alabama, Derrick Henry, Auburn, Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel

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Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp