Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Saturday That Changed College Football Forever Again

Whenever college football appears headed to a lazy Saturday, you should probably cancel all of your pre-existing plans.

baylor qb
Going into this past Saturday, the consensus was to take the day off from watching football. Notre Dame and Kansas State were playing 5-loss teams with little hope of staying close. The SEC was playing 7 teams from the former Division I-AA. The marquee game of the day appeared to be a hopeless mismatch – Stanford entered into its game against Oregon as a 24-point underdog. Why even bother, right?

By 2pm, 8-2 South Carolina was tied with Wofford in the second half. It was the first indication that Saturday, November 17, 2012, was going to mark its place in the history of college football. The sport literally changed on Saturday, both on the field and off.

Around the same time UCLA was delivering a shocking beating to crosstown rival USC and Ole Miss was stunning LSU in Death Valley, the news blitzed through Twitter that the Big Ten was very close to inviting Maryland and Rutgers. The greed could be seen dripping from every word in every article. The Big Ten did not need to expand. Maryland was about to throw away a half-century of tradition for a few extra million dollars. Well, eventually, since Maryland is facing a $50 million exit fee and has cried poverty for the past few years.

Rutgers is, well, Rutgers. It is seen by people who don’t understand how the Northeast works as the key to New York City. Those people seem to forget that New York City’s favorite college football team plays in South Bend.

It is fitting that Notre Dame ended up as the main talking point by the time Saturday night turned into Sunday morning. During the week, much of the words typed leading into a weak slate of games focused on Notre Dame. How the team was hurt by independence. How it was being overlooked despite a strong strength of schedule. How it wasn’t worthy. How Brian Kelly said he would go on Oprah* to plead his case if necessary.

*It was such a Notre Dame thing of Kelly to say he would visit a show that no longer exists.

As USC finished up losing the Pac-12 South and Los Angeles to UCLA, as LSU stunned Ole Miss 
and gave Les Miles the chance to make us gaze in wonder again, as the evening games kicked off, there was a palpable sense that the day was not going the way it planned. I mean – who woke up Saturday thinking Rutgers would end up in the Big Ten?

Saturday night’s games likely changed the future of several programs – not this year’s team, but the future of programs. Witness:

Kansas State again blew a chance to win a national title, will they ever get another?

Baylor proved the football program is now more than RG3.

Oregon again blew a chance to win a national title and it appears very likely Chip Kelly is on the way to the NFL in 2013.

West Virginia lost its fifth game in a row for the first time in 15 years.

Stanford has won 9 games for 3 straight years for the first time in a century, proving that Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck laid the foundation for a program that isn’t going anywhere.

Vanderbilt beat Tennessee at home for the first time since 1982. Tennessee fired its coach and the Jon Gruden rumors are only going to intensify.

Oregon State destroyed Cal – in all likelihood, Jeff Tedford, the man who rebuilt Cal, will be fired.

For roughly a dozen schools, November 17 changed the face of their football program. That number will rise if/when Rutgers and Maryland bolt for the Big Ten and the realignment game begins again (UConn to the ACC? Florida State to the SEC? Louisville to the Big 12?).

Yet, at the end of the day, it was all about Notre Dame. It has been widely rumored that Notre Dame’s decision to sort of join the ACC – all sports but football – played a role in the Big Ten’s latest power play. The Big Ten and the SEC run college football, though the Pac-12 will always have a strong hand thanks to its West Coast footprint. The SEC got stronger in 2012 by adding Texas A&M and Missouri.

The Big Ten desperately wanted Notre Dame, as it has for the past 20 years. Notre Dame desperately wanted to hold onto its independence, as it has for the past forever years. Notre Dame would give the Big Ten the foothold from DC through NYC it wants so badly. It has convinced itself that Maryland and Rutgers will do the same. They won’t, but it won’t matter. They’ve set it up so if Notre Dame ever joins a conference in football, it won’t be the ACC – that’s the end game here.

Yet as November 17 drew to a close, Notre Dame returned to what its followers believe is its rightful place as the ruler of college football. While other schools scramble to find a home, Notre Dame has its own. While other conferences fight to increase its television value, Notre Dame waits for NBC (or another network) to give it another blank check.

Today, Notre Dame is #1. The sound you hear in the background is the Notre Dame fight song being played on a constant loop in Bristol, Connecticut. On Saturday night, Notre Dame will play USC in primetime for a spot in the BCS title game, a semifinal game for the Irish. Provided they win, they will play in the BCS title game on ESPN in January that, in all likelihood, will be the highest rated in the BCS era*.

*It’s worth noting the previous record, held by Texas/USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl, aired on ABC. This year’s game will be on ESPN. If it’s Notre Dame/Alabama, that won’t matter.

After nearly 15 hours of football – which ended with BYU losing to San Jose State in what has to be a sign of the apocalypse – the landscape had never looked so different. #1 and #2 went down within hours of each other. The SEC, left for dead 7 days ago, now has 3 teams with a good chance to play in the title game and a legit chance, if Notre Dame loses, of having another all-SEC title game. The Big Ten was ready to expand to 14 teams, the ACC looks to be a patsy ready to be raided by multiple, stronger conferences and who knows about the Big East.

The landscape of college football, though, has never looked so similar. Chaos is what makes the sport so great. Teams lose every week to teams they should beat. Programs seem to change conferences on a monthly basis. The BCS is alternately a cause for concern and the reason for joy. It’s why I sat glued to my TV at midnight Saturday, trying to comprehend what I saw. It’s why I’m writing this on a Sunday night, trying to comprehend what I saw.

Despite the chaos, college football never changes.

Notre Dame is #1. Alabama is #2. Is this 1964 or 2012?

Does it even matter?

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