A Long, Surprising Season
The good, the bad, and the ugly of college football.


In the last couple of weeks, college football has been on stage in all its glory, and fans have seen it tawdry, tacky, and dressed up like a debutant. The season, which began back before Labor Day, ended last night when Florida dominated Ohio State to win the national championship. The game was not as close as the final score of 41-14. Ohio State looked hopelessly outclassed by Florida, whose players seemed to have an extra gear. They were plainly and painfully faster than the Ohio State players, who looked like they were running in glue. As they say in football, you can’t coach speed.

They also say speed kills. Ohio State’s quarterback, Troy Smith, winner of the Heisman Trophy as best college football player in the land, completed four passes. He was sacked five times. 

Aside from politics, no field produces more experts than college football, and most of them had been of the opinion that Florida did not even belong on the field with Ohio State, whose only legitimate rival for the national championship was Michigan.

Ohio State beat Michigan in the last game of the regular season to remain undefeated. It was Michigan’s only loss. “Rematch,” the experts cried. When Florida was named number two, they called it an injustice. Michigan, they said, had been hosed. And fans had been cheated out of the best possible matchup.

So Michigan got throttled by USC in the Rose Bowl, and Ohio State got blown out of its cleats by Florida. There are many wonderful things about college football, and one of them is the way it remorselessly humiliates the experts.

The good of college football was the Fiesta Bowl last week. This one looked like a mismatch. Oklahoma — one of the dozen or so teams that experts like to call a “powerhouse” and a “football dynasty” — was pitted against Boise State, this season’s designated Cinderella squad. The question, according to the experts, was can Boise State stay on the same field with mighty Oklahoma and keep it respectable? This would constitute a moral victory, which was the only kind available to the boys from Boise State.

So Boise State took an early lead, of course, and held on through three quarters before Oklahoma awoke from its slumber, came back from 18 points down, and went ahead. Boise State came back to tie the game, but then, with time running out, an Oklahoma defender jumped on a mistimed Boise State pass and took it into the end zone. Now it truly did look like it was over. Nice try, Boise State. You got your moral victory.

But not so fast. With less than a minute left in regulation, Boise State executed a perfect “hook and ladder” play. This is a schoolyard ploy where a receiver catches a pass downfield and almost immediately laterals to a trailing teammate, who can run around the defenders who have keyed on the man who caught the pass. It is almost never tried because it so seldom works. Downfield laterals, at full speed, usually result in fumbles, and to football coaches, the fumble is a mortal sin.

With nothing to lose, though, Boise State executed this one to perfection, tied the game, and took it to overtime. Moral victory, my foot.

On the first play of the overtime, Oklahoma took it in for a touchdown. A few plays later, Boise State was looking at fourth and last chance at the OK Corral. And a player who had never thrown a pass in a game, threw for a touchdown.

All the angels in heaven were screaming “go for two”; so Boise State executes another trick play to perfection.

Greatest game of the young century.

That was the good. The bad wasn’t as bad as the good was good. Still, Notre Dame lost to LSU in the Sugar Bowl and looked awful doing it. Notre Dame just didn’t belong in the game. Wasn’t fast enough to compete with LSU (why can’t these Midwestern football powers ever get up to speed?) and was plainly there on reputation.

Notre Dame is the team that people who don’t know anything about college football know about; the default favorite of the casual fan. Which probably explains why 60 Minutes did a segment on Notre Dame coach Charlie Weiss a while back. It is a Zeitgeist thing, and the experts at CBS aren’t as smart as they like to tell us they are. If they were, they would have done a piece on Boise State. Or Florida.

Finally, there was the ugly of college football. Alabama hired a coach away from the Miami Dolphins for $32 million. During his long and fruitful reign as head coach at Alabama, Bear Bryant insisted he be paid $1 less than the president of the University. Seems quaint now.

So the fan needs to remember that the game is the thing; not the recruiting scandal, the players acting badly, or the mercenary, lying conduct of the coaches who, by the way, have a better excuse than the coaches.  Namely, they are young.  

What counts is that every now and then, the football gods will give you a Boise State.  Then, football seems sublime.

 – Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.


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