In any other context, it would have been another big game in a season full of them, in a conference full of them, and in a division of a conference in a season full of them. Instead, when Alabama threw itself over the finish line Saturday against Mississippi State, 25-20, the importance of the game faded like the dying smoke of the grills and tiny fire pits along University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa. The events of the day — Alabama’s rushing out to a 19-0 lead, Mississippi State’s maddening litany of missed chances deep in Alabama territory, how close a thing the game really was — were swept away by speculation about games that haven’t yet occurred, and whether Mississippi State would be playing in any of them.
“I know we’re still in it,” said Josh Robinson. “We just gotta win out and play Mississippi State ball, and we’ll be fine.”
He was asked, What’s your message to the people who think you’re out of it?
Robinson, a tough little running back who gained 37 yards rushing and caught passes for another 69, and who paid dearly for every foot, took a moment before answering. “They already thought we were out of it from day one. We’ve always been the underdog. We’re just going to have to climb back to the top. We just beat ourselves. We’ll come back tomorrow and fix it.”
The topic under discussion was whether Mississippi State — which entered a game at Alabama undefeated and left the stadium with one (close) loss — had disqualified itself from the four-team super-duper All-U-Can-Hype television hootenanny that will debut at the end of this football season. The question is absurd, because it depends not on Alabama now having the upper hand on Mississippi State. It depends on Alabama being Alabama, which Mississippi State is not, and the playoff decision will be made not on the relative strength of the two teams but the relative strength of the two brands.1 Because, based on Saturday’s game at least, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between these two teams.
If there were one concept I could purge from modern discourse, it is the notion that everything, and everyone, is a brand. There is something fundamentally dehumanizing in the idea that the primary purpose of so many things, and so many people, is to maintain their ability to sell themselves to the suckers. “Protecting the brand” has become the all-purpose excuse for treating people as though they were pieces of equipment, as though they were products. And that is all that this new playoff system is. It is a battle of the brands.
Certainly, Alabama got off to a fast start, beginning when it trapped Robinson in his own end zone for a safety. (In case you were wondering, the dime’s worth of difference between the two teams is Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, who had 67 yards on six catches in the first half, including some next-level stuff between two defenders on a deep seam route late in the second quarter that set up a Derrick Henry touchdown. Frankly, watching Cooper play one game is enough to make you wonder whether the vote for the Heisman Trophy should be as close as it’s going to be.) Still, though, quarterback Dak Prescott managed to drive the Bulldogs 70 yards to the Alabama 1-yard line in the last five minutes of the half. Unfortunately, once it got into true scoring position, Mississippi State opted for comic opera. This happened all day long. First, a false start pushed the Bulldogs back to the Alabama 5, where Prescott proceeded to overthrow a wide-open De’Runnya Wilson by approximately a hectare. In the third quarter, Prescott tossed an ill-advised pass that Alabama’s Cyrus Jones picked off in his own end zone. For all practical purposes, those two plays were all that separated these two teams on this particular Saturday.
“I’m very disappointed,” Prescott said. “You have to win the red zone scoring to win a big game like this. We had them. I can’t turn over the ball the way I did. Great play on their part but, yeah, that one slipped away, you can put that on me.”
Prescott made his mistakes, but he was tough and stout, and he nearly overcame all of them. But this is a different world now. Every snap, every error, every false start and interception carries much more weight than it once did. This is especially true if you play for Mississippi State and you don’t have the historical cachet of the team to which you lost on Saturday. The brand controls the future now, as it controls most everything else.
Before every home game, the Alabama players walk down a brick pathway beginning in the general vicinity of the Phi Delta Gamma house on University Boulevard and ending at the entrance to Bryant-Denny Stadium. Fans line up on either side to shout encouragement and support to young men with ill-fitting shirt collars. Beneath their feet, embedded in the bricks, are carved the names and team records of all the national champions that have preceded them onto the field in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban’s teams are there, as are the ones led by Bear Bryant, Frank Thomas, Gene Stallings, and the ones led long ago by Wallace Wade, back in the days when Alabama would go to the Rose Bowl. Wade had the first one, in 1925, when Alabama played in the Southern Conference, and when they came back to edge Washington in the Rose Bowl, 20-19, behind the play of Johnny Mack Brown. That team was named the national champions by the Football Annual and by the Helms Athletic Foundation. Subsequent Crimson Tide teams had national championships bestowed upon them by something called the Football Thesaurus, by something called the Dunkel System and the Williamson System, by the Football Writers Association of America, and by the Associated Press. Saban’s teams, of course, won three of them under the late, and extremely unlamented, BCS system. Not one of them was won in an actual playoff, and thank god for that.
It is no secret to my friends that I hate any concept of a college football playoff system with the heat of 10,000 Bogdan Bogdanovics. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, absent a tectonic shift in the way college sports do their business — which would include a fathomless fault into which the NCAA would have to fall, never to rise again — any playoff system is just another gimmick by which the wrong people make the most money.2 Also, I am an unabashed fan of bowl games, large and small. At their best, they are museum-quality specimens of a kind of lost American ballyhoo. The chubby boosters in garish blazers. The festival queens and their courts. The high school marching bands and the civic luncheons for baffled players who never have been in, say, Shreveport before. You will say that these things still exist, but the phenomenon has been devalued. Nobody wants to get excited about a consolation game. And this year, all the games outside the three mega-events that will decide the national title are simply the NIT. I do not believe that what the country really needed was one more gargantuan television event that makes the parasitical power structure of college sports even richer, that provides yet another boon to the national gaming-industrial complex, and that allows people who wouldn’t know Wallace Wade from Wally Cleaver to pretend that they care about college football.
There is no argument more meretriciously hilarious than the notion that we must have a playoff because “the kids” deserve to win the championship “on the field.” Until “the kids” get bonuses for doing so, the way major league players get World Series shares, keep that argument out of my kitchen, OK?
Already, the new system has been embraced so enthusiastically by all the institutions of the tottering plutocracy of college sports that it has deformed the regular season. There is no way for the new system to make sense of the SEC West, for example, which is so fat with talent that it virtually has blotted out the rest of the country — so much so that it is entirely possible that a backlash elsewhere may force a lesser team into the field just so people won’t think the whole system is in the tank for a league that does, after all, have its own television network, with CBS Sports (virtually) serving as another one. It will not be long before we hear calls for an expanded playoff system because the current one is unfair to “the kids” who play in leagues less beloved by television executives. And it will become a genuine tournament, which means it will get bigger, louder, and all of its faults will become worse.
After yesterday’s game, there is no objective metric by which Alabama can be said to be clearly more worthy of a spot in the field of four than is Mississippi State, which had lost the first half, and had squandered almost every chance it had to win the game, but which also had Alabama’s defense utterly gassed by the fourth quarter. But it was only Dak Prescott who got asked whether he thought his team was eliminated from consideration because it had lost by five points on the road to a team that had lost on the road to Mississippi.
“We know the team we are,” Dak Prescott said. “I have a feeling we might see them again. I still think that’s a good possibility. I still think we’re one of the best four teams in the country. It hurts. I haven’t felt this way in a while. I don’t want to feel this way again.” As the fires on the great lawns went slowly dark, however, you couldn’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t feel even worse if he never got the chance.