College Football: Strange and Wonderful Game

With the 2007 season almost here, columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the college football scene.

College football is, in many ways, the strangest of the big-time sports on the American scene.

In the other games that fascinate the American sporting public, marketing and perception create conversation, but in the end, the only thing that matters is what happens on the field or in the arena. Championships aren't disputed. They are won. In college football, marketing and perception can go far beyond creating conversation.

There was a time, for instance, when Alabama claimed only the national championships that had been awarded by major polls. Somewhere along the way--I'm not sure when--some marketing or sports information person decided Alabama should claim more. It truly was a brilliant move. Throughout the college football world, it is an accepted fact that Alabama has won 12 national championships. Auburn could claim as many as eight in the same way, but because Alabama did it first, to do so would appear to be copying Alabama.

Nick Saban is a good coach who won 10 games or more twice in 10 seasons at Michigan State and LSU. Tommy Tuberville is a good coach who has won 11 or more games twice in the past three seasons. Are they viewed similarly? Anyone who has been in the state of Alabama the past six months knows the answer to that.

Coach Tommy Tuberville

Notre Dame is the best example of marketing brilliance. The Fighting Irish have beaten no one of consequence under head coach Charlie Weiss. They go to BCS bowls, get their big paychecks and get their heads handed to them. Yet Weiss and his program continue to be among the darlings of the college football world.

Voters who may or may not have agendas decide who plays for championships. Television networks who definitely have agendas decide who gets national exposure. National writers who become fascinated with one school or another, one coach or another create perceptions that can impact some of those voters and even those television networks.

Computer rankings are just as much marketing and perception as the human polls. When one of those computer rankings says the 10 schools that make up the Pac-10 play the 10 toughest schedules in the nation, that says it all.

So many things in college football become accepted as fact that simply aren't fact. Those looking for reasons to exclude Auburn in 2004 jumped on the Tigers' game against The Citadel. "Easy schedule!" they screamed. How many times has it even been mentioned that Florida played Western Carolina last season or that it opens with Western Kentucky this season? How many times has it been mentioned that LSU beat Western Illinois on its way to the 2003 national championship?

Want more "perception" from 2004? Auburn moved into a tie with Oklahoma for No. 2 after routing Georgia and fell out of that tie after trailing at the half before beating Alabama 21-13. More than one voter pointed to that game as proof that Auburn should be No. 3. A week later, USC had to come from behind to beat UCLA, which had the same record Alabama had, 29-24. "Rival game," the talking heads said.

Because Boise State went undefeated against a schedule that included no ranked teams and pulled out every trick in the book to beat Oklahoma by one point in the Fiesta Bowl, it was suddenly viewed as a team that should be considered for a national championship. Should it have been? Of course not. Boise State wouldn't finish in the top half of the SEC. But it was a heart-warming story that TV networks loved. More perception. More marketing.

Schools go head over heels in debt, spending untold millions on facilities whose main purpose is to impress teen-age recruits. More perception. More marketing.

There seems to be an obsession with "tiers" and lists in college football. Who is first tier? Who is second tier? Who are the 10 best coaches, etc., etc., etc. The truth is that every season is different. The bounce of the ball, who stays healthy and schedule luck have as much to do with winning as do tradition and coaching.

Tradition and history are the very fabric of college football. Without them, the game certainly would not be what it is. It is that tradition and history that causes fans by the millions to stream to games on autumn Saturdays. And that is a good thing, a very good thing.

In less than three weeks, another season will begin. The ESPN hype machine, like it or not a huge part of college football these days, will relentlessly promote the teams from conferences that have contracts with ABC, its parent company.

More perception. More marketing.

I wish it was different. But it's never going to be. The University of (name the state) will always have certain advantages over the likes of Auburn, Texas A&M and other similarly situated big-time programs. It doesn't mean those programs are better, but it will always easier for them to be perceived as better.

Through it all, college football's popularity continues to grow unabated. That's because it has many more strengths than weaknesses. I was fascinated at the age of seven when I went to a game for the first time and I've been fascinated ever since. Despite its warts--and there are many--college football is still the best game going.

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