Errol: Existentialism 101

The North Carolina football season is moving into high gear as coaches and players prepare for a visit by the Texas Longhorns and its prodigal coach, Mack Brown. And while this must be considered a time of great excitement in Tar Heel land, a certain existential despair falls over those who ask, "What's the point?"

With college basketball, there is a simple mission statement for most Division I coaches: "Win a National Championship." A new coach, when interviewed, will declare unequivocally that one of the prime team goals is to win the NCAA Championship. In fact, for some, anything less is a wasted season. An early flameout in the NCAA Tournament means a boat load of basketball shoes wore out for no reason. A total buzz kill.

Truth be told, such goal-oriented, result-driven activity probably struck legendary UNC basketball coach, Dean Smith, as churlish, simplistic, and just plain missing the point. To focus obsessively on the goal and to ignore the journey is to miss the most valued part of playing on a team. The lessons learned while marching to a title are just as important as the final trophy itself, he might argue.

But at least Tar Heel fans have a choice: Enjoy the journey or obsess about winning it all. A perfect world.

Jump cut to the current football season and you are looking at a dreary landscape indeed. Or then again not. Consider: the moment the first collegiate football polls are published, approximately 90% of all Division I schools have absolutely no shot of winning the so-called national championship. Or I should say the BCS championship. No matter the effort, no matter how much they sweat and toil, the season is already over for the vast majority of collegiate football teams. Millions of dollars will be spent in the pointless effort to schedule and play all these games. It's enough to give a French philosopher a bad case of the creeping ague.

Consider the findings of Dana McCall of Raleigh, an opinionated but insightful and passionate Tar Heel fan. He says that since the inception of the BCS 10 years ago, there have been only two out of 20 national championship contenders ranked outside of the preseason top 10 and only 7 that were not included in the AP preseason top 5. I hope you all caught that. That was top 5! (Oklahoma in 2000 is a curious recent exception. The Sooners won the championship after being pre-season ranked number 19.)

The deck is stacked mightily against the Tar Heels because even if the boys in blue stampeded to an undefeated season, their non-existence in any pre-season polls pretty much puts an end to any thoughts UNC fans might have of entering BCS nirvana. It just ain't gonna happen. The national powerhouses such as Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida State, Texas (Which explains why Mack Brown left the Old North State for the Lone Star State), and Tennessee have a lock on the early season polls, which is going to help dictate what happens at the end of the season.

Take Colorado State, for example. They outgunned UVa in college football's earliest ever season opener, then toughed it out against arch-rival Colorado. If the Rams were able to hold on against UCLA, and subsequently run the table, would CSU have any real chance of getting some love from the BCS powers-that-be? It just doesn't seem likely. In fact, I enlisted a few mathematicians at MIT to calculate Colorado State's chances and they reported that their chances were somewhere in the neighborhood of slim and none.

Sooooo, for the Tar Heels, one loss or even an ugly win pretty much eliminates them from any consideration for the BCS. They managed to get that problem out of the way by dropping their season opener in the slop vs. Miami of Ohio.

Some may counter by saying, "Uh, IC writer, Carolina isn't expected to win the ACC much less the BCS, so why waste bytes on the obvious? Because one day, the Heels may have a very good team, and it may go for naught because the preseason polls may have them unranked or buried so deep in the second 10 that it won't matter what the Heels do. They won't be noticed by the pollsters.

The preferred teams are preferred because they make their presence felt year in and year out. They are the few blue chip stocks in a world of teams going from first to worst and back again faster than you can say "NCAA rules violation."

Which returns us to that existential question that nags at many fans. "What's the point?"

The great thing is that we as fans can enjoy the intriguing game of football for its immediate sporting, entertainment, and social value. Under these conditions, the game's the thing.

Extraordinary individual effort is intertwined with a game demanding intricate teamwork, as thousands of festive fans holler for the home team. The hardest working pep bands and totally buff cheerleaders add to the pageantry and spectacle. And not for one moment does a Tar Heel fan have to take a timeout from that fave beverage to calculate a few Byzantine BCS calculations - properly weighted for strength of schedule, of course - and thinking that this game is merely a whistle stop toward some larger, more important goal. No, nothing is more important than this game. And that's a good thing.

A few years back, I jokingly suggested in Inside Carolina that there should be no official polling of college teams until the 4th week of the season. Perhaps then, the less publicized schools could receive proper and deserved attention. Of course, that's not going to happen.

So, all that's left is the game itself on a beautiful Chapel Hill evening with the pine trees swaying and the Tar Heel faithful pining for a stop-the-presses upset of the Texas Longhorns. Maybe it's time to lose that existential despair and enjoy one of the greatest shows on earth.

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