The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football can’t ruin the magic of college football, no matter how hard it tries

Georgia’s national championship wrapped up another frenetic college football season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Rumors about burning couches swept through East Lansing on the merry afternoon of Oct. 30, 2021, with Michigan State having just edged Michigan, and while you might not condone in general the burning of couches, even those couches disliked at times in life, you might have found your rental car slithering through the rowdier areas of town on the premise of never having witnessed a couch-burning.

A frantic pass zipped through the Saturday night air in Austin on Nov. 13, 2021, from a harried quarterback chased back to the 18-yard line on a two-point conversion, and it did look hopeless until it landed just beyond the goal line into the gut of a fullback/tight end whose reception total to date had been zero, bringing a rare win for Kansas at Texas by an unthinkably rare score of 57-56.

On the Monday of Jan. 10, 2022, a photo turned up of “Blue,” Butler University’s English bulldog mascot, giving a gruff-faced yet warm welcome to “Uga X,” Georgia’s English bulldog mascot, hours before Georgia would win its first national title in 41 years, and everyone agreed this photo was a picture of sheer, majestic glory.

Another college football season has gone by, and if you went around to 15 games in 15 stadiums from September to January and looked, you could spot the madder, goose-bumpier, nuttier elements that sustain the nation’s weirdest sport. They’re the salvations set against all the worries about change and peril and money-money-money. They’re the reminder that we still might cling to all the earthier matters even amid the lopsidedness of the sport toward the Southeast or the committee-room stalemates over playoff expansion, so reminiscent of every other conversation of every other proposal for change dating from last century and involving all the usual fiefdoms.

But wait! What will we do with the Rose Bowl?

Kirby Smart finally vanquished Nick Saban, and now college football feels different

There’s all the sterile talk about TV contracts and whatnot, and there’s all the curmudgeonly yammering about players making NIL deals in a sport that long paid players with a hush — the change of it! — or about players transferring or opting out of bowl games while carefully considering their futures. But then it’s Friday, and it’s the Atlanta airport, and there’s a flight to Philadelphia across from one to Pittsburgh, both gates flooded with souls in the gear of Auburn (at Penn State), the energy irresistible, the weekend here and hopeful.

Ride through the highways of 2021-22 past all the gun-show billboards and the NOW HIRING signs, and you might even wind up riding one week from Chicago to Dallas, past Iowa City (with the sign draped from a house sneering at inbound Penn State), past Lincoln (with some giant game on an inflatable playing surface in the fraternity front yard and Michigan inbound), all the way down to Dallas (with Oklahoma vs. Texas at the State Fair with the fried Jell-O).

In Cincinnati, there’s a stadium tucked into campus next to an old music building outside of which you might stand and listen to singers practicing arias. In Columbus, Oregon has just rushed the ball through Ohio State’s defense all through Sept. 11 for a stunner, and someone has left a tiny plastic duck at midfield. In Gainesville, there’s a muddy lot with tailgates going and entire makeshift living rooms with huge TVs. In Athens, wait, there’s a close-up of Uga on the big screen, and is that where you would want to appear while slobbering?

In Chapel Hill, they beat Wake Forest and stormed the field.

In Waco, they beat Oklahoma and stormed the field.

In Ann Arbor, they beat Ohio State and stormed the field as the snow fell and Jim Harbaugh’s very countenance eased with joy and a 2-17 recent-years record against a rival became something meaningful, something about the value of rarity.

In a season praised for good chaos, Cincinnati upturned the whole established aristocratic order by making the playoff, not to mention affording the sight of Bearcats fans in red and black atop Notre Dame Stadium under gloomy skies, having themselves a day they will have for good.

Baylor got reborn under a marvel of a coach, Dave Aranda, and with a marvel of a play in the Big 12 championship game, arguably the play of the year: Jairon McVea’s hustling tackle of Oklahoma State’s Dezmon Jackson, inches from the pylon. Michigan got to be Michigan again. Michigan State got to beat Michigan again. San Diego State played home games up near Los Angeles yet thrived still. Utah coped with unbearable tragedy and also played inspiring football. Texas A&M went berserk when a field goal against Alabama went through even in a quirky little path. Montana won at Washington and Bowling Green at Minnesota and Jacksonville State on a wacky closing play at Florida State. All those things feed a sport that sometimes seems undeserving of them.

Here came Mississippi. Here came Wake Forest. Here came three or four other things that slip the mind just now.

Highlights from Georgia’s win over Alabama in the national title game

Then it all came down to Alabama and Georgia, the latter living at No. 1 much of the year, and then Georgia got to the last nine minutes with an 18-13 deficit, and then Georgia decided it had had enough. It swept with mad force for three deathless touchdowns, the first a resolute 40-yard catch of part-wrestling by Adonai Mitchell, the last a breathtaking 79-yard interception return by Kelee Ringo, a whole, large state beholding the clinching and bouncing.

Then a season largely about Georgia’s defense had ended on a Georgia sack — by Nolan Smith, of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young — and 41 Georgian years of waiting had ended, not to mention 14 years of residence beneath Alabama’s cleats. The confetti fell, and Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said something nutty to the crowd: “I’m going to tell you, there’s going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight!”

He did not mean burning couches, a relief to those who might feel compelled to seek the sight of them. He meant the famed call of Larry Munson (1922-2011), ever-treasured Georgia broadcaster and unabashed homer, as Munson beheld the shocking 93-yard touchdown pass on third and 11 from Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott.

That happened Nov. 8, 1980, in Jacksonville against Florida, and that sustained a national title, and here 41 years later in an indoor facility with general poshness and random tweets on the big screen, the reference wrought a quick roar from Georgia’s fans just as, come 41 years from now in 2063, somebody’s reference might conjure 2022 with incredible immediacy. The plays, the moments and the games happen, and then they’re over, except they’re never really over, combining with all the eccentricities — the dogs, the ducks, the couch-burnings still unseen — to sustain this sport even as, in the committee rooms and elsewhere, that sport makes no sense.

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