For the last decade, college football has knelt before a crimson oppressor. And in its shadow, it’s developed some strange habits.
At the moment, there’s a corner of the internet warming their beers in preparation for college football games. In any other context this action would seem beyond the pale. Here, it’s just a Saturday morning.
College football fandom craves disorder. It’s not its fault. The weirdness is a reflex reaction. For the better part of the last decade, seasons’ ends have been foregone conclusions. One half of college football’s national championships over the past 10 years belong to Alabama. In two other seasons, the Tide finished second. In each year since 2008 — Saban’s second on the job — they’ve at some point been ranked no. 1. Alabama is inevitable.
The strangeness exists because of the sports’ routine conclusions. They’re the yin and yang that drive college football. On one hand, the banality of repeat results — you can’t honestly tell me a significant part of you doesn’t expect Bama-Clemson V this winter — and on the other, the madness inherent in dedicating yourself to watching week in and week out. Alabama’s vise grip on the College Football Playoff and the BCS before it have extracted all imagination from national championship speculation. And so that excitement has to manifest somewhere else. More often than not, that place is online.
Across College Football Twitter — a world that seems to simultaneously exist and not — supporters push the boundaries of acceptable communication in the name of animal obsessions, or drink gimmicks, or the time Louisiana Tech faced a 3rd-and goal-that was actually a 3rd-and-93.
As Banner Society’s Spencer Hall put it, there is no weird college football Twitter. The community as a whole is divided into three camps: “casual fascists, actually deranged, and Penn State fans tweeting things like ‘Trace McSorley kill me with a shovel daddy.’”
Inevitability isn’t unique to college football, but the severity of the fandom’s response is. In the NFL, the Patriots are the predestined. Exciting players like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are idolized for their talent on the field, but more so because fans hope that they will be able to break the stranglehold New England holds over the league. The Eagles were celebrated so widely by non-Philadelphians when they won Super Bowl LII not because everyone suddenly felt warmth for the City of Brotherly Love, but because for a night, chaos reigned. But beyond that Philly lump who inked his body with Gritty and the Phanatic, the NFL doesn’t lend itself to strange.
NBA fandom comes closer to weird (cough cough NBA Desktop cough cough) but it doesn’t quite compare. We basked in the glow of Toronto and Cleveland’s recent successes in the NBA because Golden State’s continued dominance seemed like a matter of course, and the idea that someone else could finish a year in splendor felt unthinkable. But the dynasties don’t run as long, and the perversion isn’t as ingrained. College football fandom is based on an acceptance of supposed fate; for 60 minutes, 22 men chase a ball around a field, and at the end of the day, Alabama always wins.
It’s why fans found such enjoyment in Clemson’s shellacking of Alabama in last season’s championship game, and specifically in the way it beat them. The Tide didn’t just lose; they were embarrassed. They tried to pick up a fourth down against the best defensive line of the decade by sneaking with their kicker. It didn’t work. They lost by 28. And that margin is important. Typically, Alabama sits on the winning side of blowouts (remember LSU? Or Michigan State? Or Notre Dame?). Saban’s teams have lost more than once in the last decade, but those defeats consistently felt more like blips than tide changes; the long arc of college football had, and seemed to forever continue to bend toward Alabama. But with their second title over the Tide in three years, and the way their most recent victory occurred, Clemson seems poised to break Alabama’s stranglehold.
The thing about an insurrection is that it doesn’t have to lead to a new ruler, and it doesn’t need just one usurper. Power vacuums succeed fallen kings with frequency; Alabama’s reign was born out of one. Since they first rose above the rest of the sport a decade ago, the Tide have been challenged, but never like this. Each time Alabama lost to supposed lesser foes, it rebounded almost immediately. But now the door seems cracked open. So far this year, Alabama has looked like, well, Alabama. Tua Tagovailoa still looks like the best passer in college. His wide receivers still haven’t been tackled at a reasonable rate. And the Tide defense has allowed fewer points per game than all but eight teams, and fewer yards than all but 15. They’re dominant. But they haven’t played anybody (PAWWLLL).
LSU, on the other hand, looks every bit as dangerous as the Tide do on offense. Joe Burrow — not Tagovailoa — is the betting favorite to win the Heisman trophy, and his team has scored nearly as many points per game as Alabama against superior opponents. LSU has played three games against teams then-ranked in the top 10 this season, and Burrow has impressed in each of them.
What’s more is Burrow isn’t getting gaudy numbers by dinking and dumping and allowing his pass catchers to do the dirty work. He has the eighth most completions of 20 yards or more this season. He’s averaging the second most passing yards per game in the country. And doing so against SEC defenses whose players will likely hear their names called in the draft next spring. A win over Alabama won’t just be another anomaly. It’s a sign of genuine change.
When Clemson defeated Alabama in January, it did so as an equal. The singularity of the sport’s hegemony seemed to be breaking. If LSU can hand the Tide its second loss in as many tries against a top-tier opponent, it may smash it for good.
There’s another Twitter account I think of when I watch college football, and Alabama in particular. The Nihilist Arby’s account was founded in early 2015, just as a good portion of America felt the need to turn to such places to reflect their existential dread. The thesis statement of each of their 800-plus tweets since then has been the same: life is meaningless, eat at Arby’s.
It’s a good bit. Nearly 400,000 followers seem to agree. There’s something profoundly strange about a sandwich franchise with dark feelings, just as there is with the new faction of fans and listeners of the Shutdown Fullcast podcast who’ve created lore for Fansville, the fictional town depicted in Dr. Pepper ads this season. Weirdness and college football go hand-in-hand out of desperation. The space between a season’s beginning and end is vast, and even more so when it feels like only a few have a real chance of rooting for a winner. The thought that things might not be predetermined is intoxicating.
It’s hard to envision a version of college football that exists beyond the threat of inevitability. Before Alabama’s reign began, there were Florida and USC and Nebraska, though their stewardship didn’t last as long as the Tide’s has. Before them, there was Miami, whose dominance over the sport feels like the closest a team has come to mirroring Alabama’s success in the last half-century.
In a way, the Tide’s closest analogue might be Coca-Cola; a red monolith that dominates the world in which it occupies. It’s fitting, for as the players and assistant coaches that call Tuscaloosa home rotate each year, there’s been one constant since Saban took over the program: the Coke bottle that sits on his lectern during press conferences. It’d probably go well with a Beef ‘n Cheddar, too.