Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On the Return of Football

Let me just admit it: I watched an absurd amount of football on Saturday. I watched so much football that by the time that Washington-LSU game ended sometime on Sunday morning, by the time I completed a day-long Clockwork Orange cycle of violence and platitudes and blown coverages, I felt sufficiently brainwashed. As always, I now have baseless opinions about things I probably don't know at all.

But then, I think that's the beauty of football: Because it is the most intricate of the major sports (11 spare parts melding into one elegant Mousetrap), most of the opinions we have about the games we watch are based purely on guesswork and feel. It is the one sport where a coach can defend his decision by citing some complexity of the game that we couldn't possibly understand, and 99 percent of us have no choice but to at least allow that said coach, in defending the fact that his cornerbacks were repeatedly beaten because of the implementation of some new coverage scheme, could actually be telling the truth. It's college football, and we know weird things happen; teams win when they have no right to win, and teams lose for reasons entirely beyond our ken, and then look completely different a week later. For instance, I do believe that Kirk Ferentz, the head coach at Iowa, is a smart man who knows what he's doing; and the fact that his team nearly lost to Northern Iowa doesn't change my impression of him. It just proves that this game--which relies so heavily on order and discipline--is in fact guided just as often by randomness* as by any predictable structure.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except to say that I'm really, really glad college football is back. It is the only sport--with the exception of the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament--where the games (especially in these first few weeks) feel like completely unforecastable events (See: Boise State over Oregon, Miami over Florida State, BYU over Oklahoma, Millersburg Teachers' College over Virginia, etc).

I fell into a brief discussion with a friend of mine last night, a Yankees fan who seemed especially pleased by the fact that this overpriced team he supported was finally playing up to the value of its payroll tax for the first time in a decade. He doesn't care much about football. I feel kind of bad for him. But I also know he grew up in New Jersey, where the state university's 150-year football rebuilding project stepped into a pair of cement shoes yesterday, in part of the country where college football essentially exists in a geographic void, propped up only by those of us who grew up in "the real America," those of us who recognize the beauty of a game that rarely ever conforms to our beliefs or expectations.**

And I will continue to believe that the rest of these people have no idea what they're missing.

*Not to mention the quality of one's recruiting base. But that's another story.
**This is why, while I admire Greg Schiano's efforts to make something out of nothing, Rutgers will never have a consistently successful football program: The culture won't support it. And this is why all those programs that have been down in recent years--Miami, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame--will find their way back to prominence: Because the culture does support it. (In Michigan's case, even on Sundays.)

(AP Photo: M. Spencer Green) (I have no idea what's happening in this photo. But I enjoy coming up with varied Paterno thought balloons to match his bewildered expression.)

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