Throwback Thursday: The 2017 College Football Season Ruled. Can 2018 Match It?

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College football returns Saturday. Yes, I acknowledge Week 0 and am excited for it because I’m not an elitist knob. *clears throat, adjusts tie*

With that out of the way, kickoff to another thrilling three months (and bowl season) sparks renewed energy. Each autumn is memorable in its own way, but certain seasons transcend even the lofty standards we hold for college football. The gridiron gods deemed it appropriate to celebrate the 2007 season, one of the sport’s most chaotic and entertaining, with a redux.

The 2017 campaign concluding with the first overtime national championship game, and Nick Saban taking the supreme gamble of benching his two-year starting quarterback for a largely unproven freshman. Tua Tagovailoa’s game-winning touchdown pass provided the most crystallizing finish to an altogether bonkers college football season.

We can only hope 2018 offers the same level of insanity and unpredictably. It’s possible; though not remembered in the same reverent tones fans speak of 2007, the 2008 campaign was every bit as wild. Still, the bar last year set sits dizzyingly high. There are certain moments 2018 simply cannot replicate.

The Rose Bowl

I left the 2017 Rose Bowl Game convinced I would never in-person see a greater college football contest in my life. USC and Penn State exchanged more haymakers than Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago, but defense won the day. Leon McQuay III’s interception of Trace McSorley to set up USC’s game-winning field goal brilliantly encapsulated the Trojans’ year. At 1-3, USC was dismissed and Clay Helton was Dead Coach Walking. Likewise, McQuay had been benched under the previous regime, but flourished with the return of Clancy Pendergast to oversee the defense.

As the 2018 Rose Bowl Game progressed, however, I leaned over to the reporter on my left at one point and said, “You know — I didn’t think it could ever get better than last year. But I think this game is doing it.”

While the 2006 Rose Bowl remains the pinnacle — not just for Granddaddies but perhaps all college football games — 2018 is the only installment that approaches it. And this year, no matter how dramatic the 105th Rose Bowl Game turns out, last season’s produced a magic that cannot be duplicated.

This is an off-year for the Rose Bowl in the Playoff rotation, so barring a situation in which a split champion can emerge, the Granddaddy of ‘Em All has no title implications. Perhaps this year’s semifinals will be just as compelling, with star players akin to Sony Michel and Roquan Smith, Damien Williams and Baker Mayfield, making big-time plays. Maybe even this year’s semifinals will go to overtime after a tense, back-and-forth battle.

But none will be played at the home of the first bowl game, and still today the most magical. As the sun set behind the San Gabriel Mountains and the third quarter gave way to the fourth, thousands of fans held up their cellphones in unison. The light of the screens buzzed about the stadium like myriad fireflies.

And, while I do appreciate and enjoy the conference affiliations that shape Rose Bowl history, Oklahoma and Georgia participating added a new dynamic. For Georgia in particular, the program’s first Rose Bowl berth since the 1942 season both honored the game’s history and advanced its place in the modern landscape.

New Mexico State Goes Bowling

New Mexico State’s bowl-game drought reached almost mythic proportions in recent years. 1960 — the year in which the Aggies beat Utah State to win the Sun Bowl — became something of an albatross, as one regime after another failed to win in Las Cruces.

Coaches tried different approaches; even one of the most celebrated offensive figures of all-time, Hal Mumme, past through with a plan for success. The air-raid offense’s forefather finished 11-38 in four seasons, and his was one of the better runs in the past two decades.

New Mexico State’s historic ineptitude appeared almost impossible to overcome. Once the NCAA approved conference championship games without 12-member divisions, the Sun Belt Conference — NMSU’s refuge when the WAC went belly-up in football — opted to pass on retaining the Aggies as affiliate members. The Sun Belt made its decision final and public in 2016: 2017 marked the last season for New Mexico State and Idaho as members.

To that end, New Mexico State ending its long bowl-less existence in its final Sun Belt season offers something poetic. The Aggies beat four conference opponents, all of which were added to the Sun Belt football roster either the same year or more recently. The last and bowl-clinching victory came over South Alabama in one of the most exciting finishes of the 2017 season.

In front of a home crowd and trailing by a point, Tyler Rogers led the Aggies almost 90 yards for a game-winning touchdown to seal a spot in the Arizona Bowl.

Talk of expanding the College Football Playoff began before the system ever even debuted, and the lingering implications of placing further emphasis on the tournament infringes on the bowl season. Attitudes toward bowl games are increasingly dismissive as pundits grow increasingly jaded and championship-obsessed, but New Mexico State’s Arizona Bowl appearance serves as a reminder of just how special college football’s unique postseason can be.

The thousands of Aggies fan descending on Tucson and the excitement that ensued with another nail-biting victory solved New Mexico State’s postseason conundrum upon moving to independence.

Arizona Bowl organizers took notice, and earlier this month, announced a reserved bid for NMSU in 2018 if the Aggies are eligible. Martin returns a roster capable of doing just that.

2018 has no parallel to NMSU. With New Mexico State’s bowl drought snapped, the longest postseason dry spell belongs to Kansas. The Jayhawks gained that dubious distinction over the course of the past two seasons, with streaks of 29 years (Eastern Michigan) and 13 years (UAB) snapped in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Kansas reaching bowl eligibility would certainly be shocking — it’s the worst Power Five program by a considerable margin — but just 11 years, the Jayhawks were in the national championship conversation.

Less than four years ago, 2017 Bahamas Bowl participant UAB nearly went extinct.

#TheComeback

I can find nothing in recorded college football history comparable to the story of the 2017 UAB Blazers. A long-sputtering program, the arrival of coach Bill Clark in 2014 promised hope. Clark enjoyed a successful one year at perennial FCS Playoffs contender Jacksonville State before taking the UAB job. 

In short order, Clark led the Blazers to bowl eligibility. I remain steadfast in my opinion that denying UAB what would have been just its second postseason in program history was one of the more egregious failings of the bowl system in recent years, particularly in light of what was to come. 

Just a week after the Blazers wrapped their regular season, university president Ray Watts announced the closure of the football program. 

Months of backlash and an aggressive, grassroots fundraising campaign resurrected UAB football. However, the initial closure left dozens of players transferring and UAB missed out on a 2015 signing class, forcing Clark — who, remarkably, stayed on as coach amid the hiatus and turmoil — to start building toward 2017. 

That UAB kicked off the 2017 season with a football program at all is itself a terrific story. That the Blazers were in contention for the Conference USA West division, winning eight games in the regular season to earn just the second bowl appearance in program history, is nothing short of jaw-dropping. 

More egregious than UAB not landing a bowl invite in 2014 was Bill Clark not winning Coach of the Year in 2017. Alas, we (we referring to either media or fans) collectively sometimes fail to adequately appreciate greatness in our sport. 

The Playmakers

Baker Mayfield basically moon-walked his way to the 2017 Heisman Trophy. A no-doubt-about-it selection, led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff with a gravitas and genuine enthusiasm that separates the collegiate game from its professional quarterback. 

Mayfield’s now in the NFL, and despite playing for the hopelessly cursed Cleveland Browns, I think he has the tools to be a standout pro. I don’t expect him to be quite the same kind of energetic presence as he was at Oklahoma, through no fault of his own. In general, we all mature upon leaving college; it’s the chief reason so many of us wax nostalgic about our glory days on campus. 

the pBut the characteristics the NFL values in quarterbacks take growing up to an extreme. Franchise quarterbacks don’t do Fortnite celebrations and sprint to their cheering section after scoring in marquee road games; they give dignified helmet dabs then after the game, hawk cheap auto insurance and do stilted radio interviews with Jim Gray. 

College football will miss Mayfield’s brash electricity now that he plays on Sundays. For as much as TV wags a finger at swagger, reality is that it gives the game personality. Everyone loves the glory days of The U … now. Not so much in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

If there’s any takeaway I left the outstanding 2017 season with, it’s to embrace all the fun and greatness the game offers. We’re all well aware of the seedier elements that can fester in a culture obsessed with wins and TV revenue; we saw it this week with Ohio State’s tone-deaf response to Urban Meyer’s continued employment of domestic abuser, Zach Smith. 

And yet, despite the ugliness that’s all-too familiar, we return every autumn. Why? 

It’s the athletes. It’s their breathtaking athleticism; their ability to execute a variety of different schemes that give each program its own unique identity; and their youthful exuberance that, in a small way, reflects our own younger days. 

Every season passes more quickly than the one prior. Sure, there are more actual number of days in the season with the recent introduction of Week 0, more bowls and now a Playoff. But sport’s shorting regular season now feels as if it passes before it’s begun. 

Having greater appreciation for the standout performers like Mayfield, or Bryce Love, or Rashaad Penny — who I contend was very much under-appreciated — helped me more thoroughly enjoy the 2017 season than in the last few years.  

The 2018 campaign may lack some of the same ready-made possibilities for memorable stories, but approaching it with a willingness to embrace the excitement that does come promises for another terrific three months. 

And, hey: Maybe we’ll get another Group of Five national champion.