Another college football season is in the books, pending conference championship games, bowls and a handful of Sun Belt and Big 12 matchups next week.
The melancholy hit me at various moments this week. I realized Tuesday that I was witnessing my last midweek #MACtion until next November. Regular seasons wrapped on Friday, and again Saturday.
I made my last march down the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum steps toward the field Saturday, and walked through the tunnel for the final time until next fall.
It’s such a bittersweet feeling. Football will return soon enough, but days like this crystallize what makes the college game so unique.
For the seniors who ran out of the Coliseum tunnel, it was their last time taking the field in cardinal and gold. Certainly the circumstances are different, but everyone who went through college knows going through “lasts” as a student.
The college football season feels like the college experience, condescended into a few months. There’s the eager anticipation, the belief that anything is possible once the ride begins, lessons and setbacks along the way, and the joyful sorrow of saying goodbye.
Once more in the 2015 season, this is Four Downs.
FIRST DOWN: Every College Football Season Is Its Own Story
Consider USC. The Trojans opened 2015 ranked in the Top 10, yet understandably could have been given up for dead when they lost their first two home conference games, their head coach under unusual circumstances, and fell to 3-3 midway through the campaign.
Saturday, the Trojans beat crosstown rival UCLA for the first time since 2011, 40-21, to capture the Pac-12 South title and program’s first conference championship game appearance.
USC’s turnaround is a testament to a coaching cliche, but one that bears weight given the sport’s identity: win the week. Win the week without focus on any big picture narrative.
NFL coverage is built around crafting overarching narratives around every week’s outcome. That’s made its way into college football, somewhat erroneously.
Because of the vastly different styles college teams see week-to-week, and because the game’s played by…well, college kids, anything truly can happen on a given Saturday.
A loss or two doesn’t dictate the identity of a team.
“You guys kind of make it a bigger thing than it is,” USC quarterback Cody Kessler said, you meaning fans and media. He referred specifically to questions about his ability to beat UCLA, but the sentiment is one I’ve heard repeated frequently throughout this college football season.
David Shaw — whose Stanford team will meet USC next Saturday at Levi’s Stadium in the Pac-12 Championship — discussed the differences in reaction to losses inside and outside the locker room.
He said outside reaction is one of panic and malaise, with a sense that one loss is reason to avoid taking the field the next week. But every week is a new opportunity, regardless of what preceded it.
Anything can happen in a given week. Connecticut coach Bob Diaco, fresh off an upset of previously undefeated Houston last week, asked a reporter on the American Athletic teleconference call if UCF would beat USF.
The reporter said no, emphatically.
Diaco responded with an amused, “Oh, OK. Well, alright.”
OK, perhaps that’s a bad example. USF steamrolled UCF Thanksgiving night, 44-3, completing the Knights’ 0-12 season.
But who projected Diaco’s UConn Huskies going to a bowl game? Who could have foreseen Iowa navigating the regular season undefeated with a shot at the College Football Playoff? How many bandwagon-riders for USC in July abandoned the possibility of the Trojans playing for a conference championship in October?
A college football season is the best drama because it’s guaranteed to take us through so many plot twists, and no week is ever a letdown.
I can’t write the same of The Walking Dead.
SECOND DOWN: The Mad Hatter Stays One Step Ahead
In much the same vein that the NFL mindset of weekly edicts has crept into college football, so too has the professional league’s pervasive definition of success.
Nowhere is the NFL via Ricky Bobby mentality of If you ain’t first, yer last more apparent than at LSU, where boosters flexed on head coach Les Miles through the media after a Tigers losing spell.
Miles’ rumored ouster set the stage for a dramatic week in Baton Rouge, which ended with LSU putting an old-fashioned beating on Texas A&M and Miles seemingly keeping his post.
Les Miles indicates that this Saturday's game will be his last with LSU. https://t.co/VuEJ8ZDMjN
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 27, 2015
— John M. Phillips (@JohnPhillips) November 29, 2015
Score one for football populism. The boosters leaking information to reporters last week did so with the belief their money and clout were infallible , popular sentiment and Miles’ success be damned. Influential boosters might hold a lot of cards, but they don’t hold them all.
And Les Miles had one more ace up his sleeve.
THIRD DOWN: A Comeback Complete
Southern Miss rolled in its de facto Conference-USA West divisional championship matchup with Louisiana Tech, 58-24. The Golden Eagles’ win completes a 9-3 regular season and caps a four-year journey for this once thriving program.
In 2011, Southern Miss’ last trip to the C-USA Championship Game, the Golden Eagles ran circles around Houston to deny the Cougars a spot in the Sugar Bowl and pave the way to USM’s own Top 25 finish.
Varying levels of failure plagued Southern Miss in the years since, though that variation hasn’t been far from rock bottom. At a time when C-USA counterpart UAB had its program shut down, a 4-32 run couldn’t have made too many in Hattiesburg feel very confident about the program’s future.
Saturday’s blowout win to send USM back to the C-USA title game, where the program reached a peak four years ago, is as drastic a turnaround as there is in college football.
Such scenes are why we love this sport.
Southern Miss had fun today. pic.twitter.com/CtWUdTJ99B
— Jason Munz (@munzly) November 28, 2015
FOURTH DOWN: Playoff Impact
The introduction of the College Football Playoff has created a cottage industry built entirely around asking who’s in from week to week, which Stanford’s David Shaw says has helped obfuscate attention from a game that’s “better than ever.”
But at the same time, the Playoff has provided a backdrop for a sport currently at its apex.
The college football season has an NCAA Tournament feel from Labor Day Weekend to Thanksgiving. With that chase reaching a natural crescendo in the Playoff, the sport has fitting climax.
Saturday had a decidedly March Madness feel to it. But really, that’s the case every Saturday in the fall. The Playoff isn’t just a four-team tournament at season’s end. It’s a three-month event.