College football is the greatest thing America has given the world other than jazz. And the game itself is as good as it's ever been.
Unfortunately, the College Football Playoff, now in its fourth year, is interfering with my childish — as opposed to manchildish — obsession with America's greatest game.
Every Wednesday I start asking my wife the same question. So where do you think Michigan will be in the AP next week if we beat so-and-so? What about the Coaches Poll? Then we have the same conversation again the next day and on game day and on the drive both to and from Mass on Sunday until the actual rankings come out. After that we go team by team and I complain about pro-SEC/ACC/(occasionally) Big 12 and anti-Big Ten bias. And then we look at the schedule, scouring up and down for teams that shouldn't be ranked higher than us who might get brought down a peg.
This is so much fun. But the College Football Playoff — in which a committee picks four teams who will compete in a single-elimination playoff tournament — makes our poll obsession and the bulk of bowl games increasingly irrelevant.
I wish the playoff system would disappear and that we could return to the sloppy days when bowl games were played for their own sake. Who cares if we don't have a "real" national champion? Let the polls pick one — or two or three or even six, like in 1980 — and then spend years arguing about it with your buddy who may or may not have donated money to Tom Osborne's campaign for governor of Nebraska. Being uncomfortable with the human messiness of polling and slavishly desiring to submit all questions about sports to the arbiter of some bloodless infallible authority is part of the same grinding, mechanical impulse behind the proliferation of fantasy football that is reducing sports to numbers.
College football has always been about narratives, not numbers. When there is a major upset on Saturday it is always a thrilling plot twist (imagine finding out that Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker's father for the first time roughly every other weekend); because of the voluminous number of games played in other sports, when one of the worst teams in the country beats one of the best in basketball or baseball or hockey, it is a mere statistical inevitability.
Besides, a four-team single-elimination tournament is not enough to give the kind of fan who needs a committee's approval to brag about his team what he craves. A real playoff would involve eight or even 16 teams — and there is no way this is going to happen. (Among other things, the NFL would throw a fit that the NCAA was stealing its thunder.) Meanwhile, this year, for reasons having entirely to do with playoff considerations, I found myself rooting for Michigan's archrival Ohio State Buckeyes over Penn State, when I ought to have been screaming for their destruction, "both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." I should have known better.
As a Michigan fan, I recognize that my motives are suspect here. Paul Finebaum, who as I write this is definitely not paying homage to the bubblegum idol of Bear Bryant he keeps in his closet, can sneer all he wants about Michigan's lack of consensus number-ones versus Alabama's. Guess what? We weren't competing against Alabama before the playoff system existed as far as I'm concerned — unless we were playing them directly in a non-conference or bowl game, which we have done four times (we're 2-2, thanks). We were playing Big Ten football, a contest of terrible weather, tough defenses, low scores, four-star linemen recruits who look and move like meatloaf in human form that is almost a sport in its own right, battling for the chance to compete in the Rose Bowl, which used to be the most venerable event in all of organized American athletics. We brought our good manners and rural pessimism to sunny Pasadena to match trundling farm kids against impossibly tall golden-haired quarterbacks manufactured by the same people who did Michelangelo's David. It was magnificent.
Big Ten football is one of the glories of the Midwest along with Motown, cornfields in twilight, and the Great Lakes. Despite the expansion of the conference to include two lame coastal rejects, it is still being played as well as ever. Two years in a row now the Eastern Division has been a Saturn-devouring-his-progeny-level nightmare in playoff terms, but the best thing imaginable for actual football fans. Michigan annihilating Penn State who beat the Buckeyes who pull away from Michigan with a field goal in double overtime in what is easily the game of the season? Yes, please. If your idea of better football is watching Nick Saban's mechanized armies devastate the wasteland of talent that is the SEC, you're welcome to it.
This year the committee has taken away our chances of playing in the Rose Bowl no matter what — even if Michigan State loses to Rutgers and Penn State to Maryland or both (fingers crossed) and we win out against the two toughest opponents we'll face this season. The Rose Bowl — The Granddaddy of Them All — has been co-opted as a semifinal for the College Football Playoffs, which means that not for the first time in its history it will probably be played by teams from neither of the conferences it was invented for.
Oh well. In the post-Bump Elliott era where we are allowed to play in any bowl game that will have us, Michigan fans have learned not to be proud. We've done them all over the years. The long-discontinued Bluebonnet Bowl against UCLA in 1981, a kind of Rose Bowl Jr.? We killed it, both in the sense that we won by a wide margin and as in they got rid of the contest not long afterward. We did the same thing in Lloyd Carr's first season as head coach with what was formally known as the Builders Square Alamo Bowl — like the memory of Davy Crockett, the Alamo lives on in the name of this contest's successor, but the home improvement chain that the monument to American independence shared honors with went bankrupt four years after we blew it against Texas A&M. We've lost in the Holiday Bowl. We've won the Hall of Fame Bowl on multiple occasions before it was renamed and since. We have both triumphed and lost pathetically in the Gator Bowl and been massacred in the second-best bowl named for a chain of casual dining restaurants. So Foster Farms Bowl it is, then? Why not. The Pinstripe Bowl? I heart NY. Outback? Have a go, you mug. All I want to do is watch more football, Big Ten or otherwise.
Which is why the only thing I care about right now is improbably beating Wisconsin this weekend and why long after the playoff committee have made their selections of at least two SEC teams and whoever else they feel like they have to put in there I will be tuning in for such glorious matchups as a random MAC team versus a mediocre representative of my third least favorite conference in the Quick Lane Bowl on the second day of Christmas.