I have a problem. From early September to the beginning of January I am completely addicted to college football. The fact that I can admit this problem lets my family rest a little easier, but nonetheless, my parents find it a little unsettling. College football season becomes more than a few months to me; it becomes a life goal, Novocain against the real world, and an answer to questions like, "it's 4 am, why are you still awake?" and "why is the Tivo full again?" I take solace in the fact that I know I'm not alone. I know that when I'm shutting off the television after watching a replay of two winless teams slug out a 7-3 game at two in the morning, there's others of you out there hitting the power button, but simultaneously wondering, just as I am, if they'll show it yet again. It's okay to admit your problem. We have a group. We meet every Saturday.
With my passion for college football and my die-hard loyalty to the Trojans, Matt Leinart's decision to return for his senior season to line up alongside some of the most offensively skilled players this game has ever seen sent me straight back to rehab. Spring practice hadn't even started and I couldn't get to sleep because the sheep I was counting would invariably be scattered by a LenDale White power run. Walking to class left me winded as I juked and spun around fellow classmates, Reggie Bush's #5 on my back and Keith Jackson's voice in my head, counting down the yard-lines until he screamed, "Touchdown!" This team would make the college football season year-round. The 2005 Trojans would be setting out to win a third consecutive National Championship, something that has never been accomplished in modern football history.
But then something started happening this summer that still isn't sitting quite right with me. The national media got a hold of the story. Now don't get me wrong. I realize that going for three straight titles wasn't going to remain a Los Angeles secret, but when I say they got a hold of it, I mean they got a two-handed stranglehold and choked the absolute daylights out of it. Every magazine featured a story on the Trojans trek for the triple and every new article featured on every sports news website debated whether or not USC will get through the Rose Bowl unscathed. Analysts made their predictions as to which team will end the winning streak, putting the Trojans under the microscope and examining them for each and every noticeable defect.
I know that analysts are paid to analyze and writers have deadlines, but the regularity with which the Trojans were put in the spotlight bordered on ridiculous and centered on overkill. There's nothing I love more than the cover of a magazine (save for Sports Illustrated) graced by a Trojan and nothing kicks off the college football season like championship predictions, but when I'm reading 12 stories a week about the departure of Norm Chow or Matt Leinart's fall course load, it ceases to be about college football. The BCS, thanks to our society's must-win attitude, has made college football about rankings, decimal points and votes, turning it into a popularity contest not unlike a grade school election. Entire formulas are created to determine strength of schedule, conference rankings and who had the best field position on odd numbered Saturdays in November. Since when did you need to take an advanced math class to understand and appreciate college football?
As this season gets underway and marches toward its inevitable conclusion, the stories about the Trojans' run will continue. Somewhere, a new poll is surely in its stages of infancy as a math major looks to determine the fate of college football. Arguments will be made about who should be playing in which bowl game and why some team didn't earn their way in because of a weak schedule. But somewhere far removed from the, "which team is best?" question and the, "play a tougher schedule," demand, there will be a kid making his way up the steps of the coliseum for the first time, his left hand clutching a cardinal and gold pom-pom, his right hand closed around his grandfather's thumb. He'll stand in the aisle as he stares down at the field, the grass a most perfect shade of green and the midfield logo tattooing an SC onto his heart. Unable to put it into words, he'll hug his grandpa's leg and for a moment, two lives are made perfect.
Now I'm not so naïve as to think that wins and losses don't matter. Jobs are on the line during every game and there's always lots of money to be had. But as we head into this potentially historic season, think about what made you a college football fan. I'm fairly certain it wasn't so you could get into long-winded debates about which team has a better winning percentage against unranked, non-conference, out-of-state agricultural schools. With the importance of statistics and numbers in today's college football and the zoom lens that has been placed on the Trojans, it has been easy to let the past few years blend together and simply roll by in a streak of wins and National titles. The national media still seems completely intent on making wins and losses their whole story. But in doing so, they're missing the best parts of college football.Think about how great it feels to be able to flash a "Fight On" to a perfect stranger on the freeway, simply because they've got a USC license plate frame. Think about how LSU or Southern Mississippi fans will feel when their teams take the field at home for the first time. And think about that kid, his life irreversibly altered, because a little piece of laminated paper let him through a turnstile and into college football history.
When the Trojans kick off this Saturday against Hawaii, you won't just be watching another Trojan attempt at a victory. You'll be watching college football, and I'll be watching with you. My name is Erik McKinney, and I love college football.