The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football’s weird charm is disappearing into an NFL-style future

Illinois and Nebraska met in one of the first college football games of the 2021 season. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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It feels as if we’re sitting vigil with college football this season. A torrential summer of change is poised to alter the sport as we know it. For traditionalists, the next few seasons could amount to a slow and painful process of letting go.

It’s hard to stay in the moment. The wild end of the offseason left too many questions that will take time to answer. Since June, three huge developments rattled the sport: A playoff expansion from four to 12 teams became a legitimate possibility. The NCAA surrendered its opposition to college athletes benefiting from their name, image and likeness. Lastly, Texas and Oklahoma made public their intention to leave the Big 12 and turn the SEC, already the sport’s greatest conference, into a league of unfathomable influence and revenue-generating potential.

The NIL free-for-all is the only one of the three that directly impacts the 2021 season. As of now, the Longhorns and Sooners aren’t scheduled to join the SEC until 2025. With the other conferences stewing over the SEC’s power move, there is now some doubt about reaching an agreement to increase the College Football Playoff field. So as the year begins, major college football won’t seem different. But there’s plenty of existential dread beneath the surface.

Enjoy the familiarity while you can. And hope that another year of playing through the coronavirus doesn’t increase the degree of difficulty.

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It figures that, after a year of pandemic-induced financial difficulties, moneymaking schemes would take over. It took a once-in-a-century health crisis to impair the businesses built around America’s sports obsession, but these leagues weren’t going to look at it as a temporary problem. Plans to generate more cash and become more bulletproof were inevitable.

Watching it happen in college football serves as a reminder that the sport is an unofficial professional league. During this decade, there’s a chance it becomes unapologetically structured like one, too. When Texas and Oklahoma arrive, the SEC will become a 16-team, ESPN money-printing behemoth. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 responded last week by forming an alliance. This partnership, though not binding, decreases the likelihood of an immediate, reactionary wave of widespread conference realignment. It should lead to some fun nonconference matchups. It should keep the playoff expansion talks from turning into a lopsided negotiation that favors the SEC.

Still, a loose alliance can only accomplish so much. This supersized SEC takes the sport several steps closer to the eventual creation of a mega-division that may one day resemble the NFL’s 32-team model.

If the goal is to make as much money as possible, this might be the more honest way of organizing the sport. Currently, there are 130 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. You already know they aren’t all created equal. But even when you separate the so-called Power Five conferences, the leagues aren’t as competitive, top to bottom, as you would like — if the goal is to chase maximum television dollars.

But there’s a problem with that kind of thinking, and it’s what will cause so much consternation as this season progresses and throughout all the ensuing years of limbo. For many, the appeal of college football is that it’s a sport with regional flavor. The national title pursuit is just sprinkled atop that. If TV revenue is the primary aspiration — and superconferences are the result — it distances the game from its charm.

Past conference realignment has already taken some of the regional thrill out of it. At its best, college football is a sport of intense, local rivalries. It had been a sport that made geographical sense, and while that has changed over time, many conferences still make enough sense for that to matter. But it’s not just about where the teams are located. It used to matter that the values of league members were in agreement; that’s optional now. It also used to matter that just about every conference had a distinct playing style. That’s definitely not the case anymore.

It’s not clear what the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 are doing, but they’re doing it together

Welcome to the season of being torn. The major changes are still pending. So there’s still time to remember the Big 12 as a power conference, with the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry at the forefront. There’s still time to appreciate the SEC as just a normal giant. There’s still time to look at the Big Ten without wondering what it needs to do to catch up.

In the ACC, there’s no reason for Clemson to fret right now as Coach Dabo Swinney chases a third national title. There’s every reason for the Pac-12 to worry about accessing the playoff, but that has become an annual concern. This looks like as close to a normal season as the pandemic will allow. But the future is as big a story line as the present.

The defection of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 doesn’t have to send the sport spiraling toward a homogenous, pro-like setup. A larger playoff field doesn’t have to diminish the feeling that every regular season game matters. However, the threats must be acknowledged to be handled properly.

In this season of waiting, it would be a good time to be reminded why the fuss matters so much. Mostly because of covid-19, last season was an awful, misaligned, truncated campaign that ended with Alabama standing as a dominant champion. The Crimson Tide added greatness to an unsatisfying year, but the prevailing theme was about how every region and conference did its own thing. Some thrived independently. Some suffered embarrassment. And strangely, through all the controversy and dysfunction, that felt very appropriate for college football.

This season needs an intriguing title chase with good depth of contenders. It might be too much to ask during this delta variant phase of the pandemic. But to change the conversation, the sport needs it.

In announcing the three-conference alliance last week, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren hit the hyperbole hard when he said, “It signifies there’s still a lot of goodness in college athletics.” Purity is a tough sell when it seems like everyone is pursuing or protecting money.

In truth, the alliance signifies a fight, at least for now. It signifies a desire not to become a copycat superconference, at least for now. Most of all, though, it signifies a last-gasp effort to keep college football different and weird.

Savor what remains of the quirky sport. It feels more fleeting than ever.

Read more about college football:

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A UCF kicker once quit football to build his brand. Now, the quarterback doesn’t have to.

The college football AP top 25 preseason poll has Alabama at No. 1 with usual schools in pursuit