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An Englishman's Guide to College Football

From the perspective of a neophyte, college football can perhaps best be likened to a jungle. Even before one tries to make sense of its wild and unruly terrain, the same observer will — at least for a moment — wonder why it exists in the first place. In stark contrast to the super-slick, and hyper-corporate NFL (the global face of Gridiron Football), the collegiate game is a quaint and disorganised patchwork-quilt of a sport. Indeed, at first, it seems not unlike quantum mechanics: Probably pretty interesting, but too complex to bother with.

When speaking of the Indian jungle in 1948, the explorer, Jim Corbett, had this to say: “there is no universal language in the jungle; each species has its own language, and though the vocabulary of some is limited…the language of each species is understood by all the jungle-folk”. The British hunter-turned-conservationist could very well have been talking about college football. After all, this is a sport whose participants are held together by loose network unevenly balanced and autonomous conferences; obscure, but mutually-recognised, traditions; historic (and sometimes defunct) rivalries; and a universally-despised governing body that flits between risible heavy-handedness and the lightest of light-touch regulation.

For some — and not least of all to sports fans on the eastern edge of the Atlantic — the disorderliness of college football can be repellent. Where the tightly-packaged NFL and NBA can make for fine, and readily-consumable, American exports, college football is more like an exoitc delicacy — a product that is not just difficult to source, but which also takes time and effort to appreciate. In an age, moreover, that values convenience and simplicity, the collegiate variation of an already-complex sport can seem like an unnecessary hassle. The very mention of terms like “quality losses” and “impressive resumes” can be enough to make the Uber-using, Netflix-watching, Snapchat-chatting, Sushi-eating time-poor millennial simply tune-out.

However, with that said, there are ultimately two types of sports fans: Those who are happy to stick with what they know, and those who want explore. (You’ll know which category you fall into simply by reflecting on how you consume the Olympics.) And for anyone who is looking for a new frontier — one that can, at least initially, confuse as much as entertain — I encourage you to keep reading on while I explain why I, along with five or so other Britons, spend our Saturday nights glued to BT Sport ESPN watching, you guessed it, college football.

Big Houses, Fine Margins

A little over four years ago, I was just another British NFL fan who scoffed at the idea of collegiate sports. My relationship with Division I football was fairly typical for a European with in interest in US sports: I paid attention to the amatuer game only during the weeks and months leading up to the NFL draft.

Game film of the likes of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III was about the extent of my exposure. And any opinions I might have had on Cam Newton were formed for me by the talking heads at ESPN. This, however, all changed on one evening in the fall of 2013. Sitting back, jetlagged, in a hotel room in Boston, MA., I turned to ESPN on the off-chance of catching something interesting — and that, I did. The game was Notre Dame at. Michigan, and my immediate impression was that this was big; bigger, and seemingly more consequential, than anything I’d encountered while following the NFL. It had an irresistible aura; one that I’m still charmed by to this day.

The first thing to note about such matchups in “Big Time” college football is that they aren’t sports games — they’re events. And this is an important distinction. For the Michigan-Notre Dame game, which served as my induction into the world of CFB fandom, there were 115,000 people present in the Big House. That’s three times the Premier League’s overall average attendance (plus a sold-out Stamford Bridge East Stand, just for good measure). The 115,000 might have been a high watermark for college football attendances, but it was by no means an anomaly. In addition to the 'maize and blue' Wolverines in Michigan, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, and Penn State all attract an average of that more 100,000 fans per home game. Another eight schools enjoy average attendances that fall somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000.

But more than that, each game takes on a singular type of majesty during the build up to Game Day. Save for maybe NFL playoff and FIFA World Cup knockout matches, it’s difficult to think of any individual games that are dissected quite as thoroughly as those that take place at the highest level of college football. The reason for this is simple mathematics. With only 12 games in the regular season, each match necessarily assumes a level of significance that you would be hard pressed to find in the NFL, let alone in the 38-game slog that is the Premier League — and don’t even get me started on the 82-game NBA.

The intensity of the competition, combined with the outright scarcity of games, gives the top teams almost no room for error (should they wish to contend for a National Championship). A single loss can place a team’s entire season in jeopardy, and a second one will likely kill it stone-dead (see: Ohio State v Iowa, 2017). The simple truth is that in college football, wins and losses simply mean more than they do in any other team sport. The reverberations of a result in Tuscaloosa, Alabama can felt be felt with thundering force as far away as Columbus, Ohio, or Seattle, Washington. Mere inches on a speck of grass in, say, Norman, Oklahoma can transform the fortunes of a team 1,700 miles away in Palo Alto, California. When it comes to contending for a National Championship, each team has to hope that their marginal mistake(s) prove less costly than those of their rivals.

Moreover, simply winning your games often isn’t enough: Teams invariably have to hope that results from around the country go their way too. A case in point is this year’s 11–1 Alabama which, having committed the contemptible sin of losing a single game, had to sit idle during the final week of the season and simply hope that Wisconsin lost — and even then, it was no sure thing.

A Patchwork Quilt

But as interconnected as college football might be, the sport has almost no organisational cohesiveness. The NCAA might be the governing body, but its role is really limited trial & punishment (it doesn’t even sanction the National Championship). College football’s core units are its independent regional conferences, of which there are ten in the elite Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The FBS is broken down further into five “Power” conferences, and five presumably ‘less-powerful’ conferences (additionally, there are “FBS Independents” like the aforementioned Notre Dame who, due to its unique status, history, and intransigence, has the ability to schedule its own games and sign its own television deals).

Within the elite “Power Five”, you have the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and PAC-12. At the risk of pouring additional fuel onto the fire of confusion, it should be said that the numbers here mean almost nothing: There are 14 teams in the Big Ten and 10 teams in the Big 12, and although the PAC-12 does hold up its side of the bargain, there’s no guarantee it will do so indefinitely.

The landscape of college football can be further divided when we consider the controversial distinction between the “Blue Bloods” and the “rest”. The Blue Bloods are college football royalty; the Manchester United’s, Barcelona’s, and Bayern Munich’s of the sport. They’ve always attracted the best players and most accomplished coaches — and likely always will. Additionally, they have biggest budgets, the largest fanbases, and the most glamorous histories. There are, it should be said, a number of elite teams who have recently risen to the top. You might call these programs the “New Money” Blue Bloods — your Chelsea’s, PSG’s, and Manchester City’s. Finding matches between college football programs and European clubs will give you a good idea as to who is “Blue Blood”, and where they fit into the hierarchy:

  • Alabama — Manchester United: Big in the 1950s/60s under legendary head coach. Back to prominence in the 21st century under arguably the greatest coach of all time. Universally loathed.
  • USC — Real Madrid: The glamour team, replete with the biggest names in the sport.
  • Florida State — Chelsea: Relatively recent rise to prominence. Doesn’t have the history of its rivals in the upper echelons of the game.
  • Florida — Arsenal: Very good in the late 90s and early 2000s. Still popular, albeit with an army of entitled fans.
  • Notre Dame — Barcelona: Strong independent streak. Historically one of the most successful teams in the game. Rabid fan base.
  • Georgia — Liverpool: Should be winning championships, but doesn’t.
  • Nebraska — Rangers FC: Twentieth-century powerhouse, fallen on hard times.
  • Texas — Celtic FC: Twentieth-century powerhouse, struggling to keep up with past glory.
  • Clemson — Tottenham Hotspur: Often good but never consistently dominant. Recent emergence as one of the very best teams in the game.
  • Oklahoma — Bayern Munich: Always very good. Great history. Often overlooked by virtue of playing in one of the least glamorous leagues.
  • Michigan State — Everton FC: Powerhouse in the mid-twentieth century. Still occasionally threatens to be great, but always falls short.
  • Missouri — Leicester City: Good for a year (My apologies, the fine people of my home city).
  • Auburn — Manchester City: Powerhouse in recent years. Doesn’t have the history of its local rival.
  • Ohio State — Borussia Dortmund: Recent explosion of success. One of the most iconic and well-supported teams in the game.
  • Miami — Paris Saint Germain: Archetypal “New Money” Blue Blood.
  • Penn State — Juventus: Legendary team, perennial powerhouse. Strong recovery after being hit hard by sanctions from the governing body.
  • Porto — Oregon: Temporarily reached powerhouse status under a genius tactician.

I could go on…

When it comes to the college football’s teams, traditions, fans, rivalries, and variety, the sport has more in common with European soccer than perhaps any other game. (The glaring difference being those salaries in Europe, and the total lack of salaries in college football — but the game's amatuer status is a separate conversation).

Unlike most of America’s professional leagues, CFB has its roots in the nineteenth century — the era of Harvard and Yale. Indeed, it was then, long before the advent of the forward pass (an iconic motif of the game), that historic rivalries like Alabama-Auburn and Ohio State-Michigan were born. And much like their European equivalents, the biggest rivalries in CFB are frequently styled with unique names in the mold of Scotland’s Old Firm and Spain’s El Clasico. Auburn-Alabama, perhaps the fiercest rivalry in American sports, wears the moniker Iron Bowl; not to be outdone, Oklahoma and Texas style their annual meeting as the Red River Showdown; and, perhaps best of all, the yearly Big Ten clash between Ohio State and Michigan is known simply as The Game.

Similarly, when it comes to the rivalries, the animosity between opposing fans is very real. These aren’t your almost-gentlemanly Red Sox-Yankees — or media-driven Cowboys-Redskins — types of rivalries. Instead, college football’s biggest rivalries frequently approach European-levels of intensity. In fact, as I'm writing this (long before publication), Yahoo Sports is reporting that a shooting took place over an argument between an Alabama and Auburn fan ahead of this year’s all-important Iron Bowl. Imagine the New Year’s Day Old Firm Game, but with guns.

Styles Make Fights

But it’s not just the rivalries and fan-engagement. College football has something else — something more substantive — in common with European soccer, namely the diversity in how the game is played. Just as in boxing, where “styles make fights”, the UEFA Champions League is notable for producing intriguing clashes between sides that approach the sport differently. Students of the tactical side of the game can look forward to seeing a stout Serie A defence contend with a heavy-pressing Bundesliga outfit; or indeed a physical Premier League team grapple with the pass-heavy game currently domiciled in La Liga. While the diversity within the leagues might be greater than that between the leagues, each of Europe’s Big Five leagues has a distinct identity, making continental competition all the more intriguing.

The same is true of college football — only even more so. For instance, the ground-and-pound style of the SEC contrasts starkly with the pass-heavy approach taken in the Big 12 (where defence can seem like an afterthought). Similarly, clashes between run-heavy Big 10 programs and flashy PAC-12 schools can make for compelling viewing. In just a single Saturday evening in front of the British ESPN feed, viewers can sample an entire smorgasboard of styles and strategies in American football. To my mind, at least, no sport on the planet offers that level of diversity.

Ultimately, what makes college football more exciting than the NFL is the offensive diversity. The proliferation of the spread offense — which is designed to exploit the length and width of the field — allows for more explosive plays and a faster overall tempo. The NFL, by contrast, is dominated by the West Coast Offense (which relies on short horizontal passing), and when compared with what’s on offer at the college level, it appears altogether drab. In fact, increasingly, the act of watching the NFL on a Sunday evening has started to feel like drinking a pint of Carlsberg after the barman has declared they’re all out of Timothy Taylor Landlord: you’ll do it, but only because it’s your sole remaining option.

Rule by Committee, Death by Poll

But there’s a limit to how far college football can be compared with Association Football over in the old countries. In something that marks-out collegiate sports from every other game, league, and competition in the world, the 129 teams that compete in the FBS are held together by a series of polls that rank the game’s Top 25 programs on a weekly basis. To fans of the Premier League, NFL, or NBA — leagues in which objectivity and mathematics reign — such an arrangement might sound absurd, or even blasphemous. But consider this: With 129 teams in ten conferences and only thirteen games on the schedule, deciding which are the best teams necessitates the introduction of subjective reasoning. And it’s here that college football starts to get fun, as well as controversial and ludicrously complex.

Oddly, there is no firm consensus on the criteria for determining which are the best teams each year. Most agree that some combination of ‘strength-of-schedule’, wins, losses, road-wins, ‘quality-losses’, and style ought to be taken into consideration — but after that, all agreement ceases. Over the years, various computer programs have been devised in the hope of transforming CFB from a game of subjectivity to one of objectivity. However, none has managed to usurp the AP Poll and Playoff Committee Rankings as the primary measuring sticks in the curious world college football evaluations — and the consequences of this have often been dramatic.

Today, the National Champion is the winner of the four team College Football Playoff, but it hasn’t always been this straightforward. Prior to 2014, the National Champion was determined by the bizarre Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system which used a series of polls and computer systems to select the ten best programs, of which two would go on to play for the prestigious Coaches’ Trophy. (It’s never been clear to me why the other eight teams had to be included). But if you think that’s quaint, consider what it was like before the introduction of the BCS in 1998: Prior to the eve of the millennium, and the introduction of a unified selection process, multiple organisations selected their own National Champion. The Associated Press, USA Today, and the Amway Board of Coaches — as well as independent systems like the Billingsley Report — would determine which team was the National Champion at the close of the season. In short, it was a mess.

The pre-1998 “Wild West” era of college football championships has left us with some bizarre aftereffects. Today, Alabama is recognised as having won 12 championships, yet the university claims 15. Ten national championships remain “disputed”. And even in 2003, during the BCS era, the AP refused to name LSU (the BCS winner) as National Champion, leading to a $31 million dollar offer from Ted Waitt for USC to play LSU in a final, determinative, national championship game. (The offer was rejected).

Since the introduction of the College Football Playoff in 2014, there has been no dispute as to who is the National Champion in a given year. The thirteen members of the committee have the task of selecting a “final four” who go on to play a two semi-finals and a final.

Though certainly an improvement, the new arrangement is far from ideal. While it may now be clear who is the National Champion in a given year, the task of selecting the four teams who will compete for it is by no means uncontroversial. Just this year, the CFP Selection Committee was charged with resolving an impossible problem, as the wider chaos of college football served up something of a perfect storm.

To give you just the cliffnotes, ten teams went into "Championship Saturday" to play for the Power Five conference championships. It was widely assumed that the winners of the ACC and SEC Championships would get in alongside Oklahoma, were it to beat TCU for the Big 12 crown. This relatively uncontroversial equation left one spot in the playoff — a spot that would be claimed by three teams. Wisconsin went into the Big Ten championship game undefeated, where it would play (10–2) Ohio State, while Alabama — after its loss Auburn — would sit idle.

With most observers (correctly) assuming that Ohio State would find a way past Wisconsin, the debate centred around whether the two-loss Buckeyes should get in ahead of 11–1 Alabama (full disclosure: I argued here that neither team desevered to be included). It was thought that Alabama had played a soft schedule, while Ohio State's 31 point loss to Iowa was possibly unforgivable. While the committee may have agreed with both propositions, its members placed more emphasis on the latter, and Alabama was selected as forth entrant. Buckeye fans will long lament the committee's decision, but as the entire episode demonstrated, this is a game governed by subjectivity and fueled by debate. It is unique in the world of sport for being controversial for the right reasons.

For fans of European football who are unconvinced by the NFL’s increasingly tepid product, but who are nonetheless looking for something else to consume during the autumn and winter months, may I point you in the direction of college football. This year’s semi-finals will played on New Year’s Day: Oklahoma will face Georgia, and Clemson will play Alabama in the final part of the trilogy.

James Adam Shaw is the US Sports Editor at Onsideview.com.

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