Uninformed Opinion - The College Football Playoff
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This will be a 45 minute opinion. I write way too many long posts, so I'll restrict this to 45 minutes. I just asked Siri to start a clock, and I now have 44 minutes and 22 seconds to get this opinion out there. No research, no reading other opinions - I heard the news that once this College Football Playoff Committee stuff gets sorted out in the next few years it will likely be 12 teams in the playoffs and now I'm just going to write about what I think about that.
I don't think I like it? I mean, I don't hate it. I don't hear it and think "no no no no NO!" or anything. It just... doesn't matter to me? That's the sport they play over there. My team plays this sport over here. Let me see if I can explain this.
I view college football like I view the English Premier League. I'm an Aston Villa fan, and while yes, the dream is to win the EPL, I know that it will never happen again. I mean, I dream about it - "what if these new owners really invested, I mean, like, really invested on a Manchester City level and Villa got back to winning Europe like 1982?" - but I don't expect it to happen. I expect the Cardinals to win their 12th World Series title and I had hoped that the Blues would eventually win a Stanley Cup, but I have no thoughts of Aston Villa ever winning the EPL. I just don't want them to get relegated again.
I'm not being fatalistic here. Just realistic. Manchester City and Liverpool play a different sport (with different wallets). This is true of every soccer league across Europe. I can tell you right now that Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Atletico Madrid will win La Liga (Spain) every year for the next 20 years. It's just how it all works, and it's fine. This is not the NFL with salary caps and "every team deserves a chance to win it all". The goal is not parity. Imbalance is encouraged.
And when imbalance enters the equation, it opens up all these levels for fan satisfaction below "win it all or else." This season for Aston Villa was just about the most enjoyable season in a decade. And Villa finished 11th.
I'll just give you a quick history. 2011 Villa drops from 6th to 9th and there was some uneasy Veep gif-ing happening in the fanbase. In 2012, it got so much worse. I want to say Villa didn't have a single win in March, April, or May and fell all the way to 16th, 2 single points from being relegated (the bottom three teams in the EPL drop down to the lower league). The three years after that were basically three full years of staving off relegation. 15th, then 15th, then 17th.
Finally, in 2016, 20th place and relegation down to Championship. Villa spent three years down in the lower league - a 14th-place finish, then 4th place (lost the playoff for promotion), then 5th place (won the playoff, promoted back up to the EPL). 2020 was a nightmare season, down in the relegation zone the entire year before finally sneaking up into 17th place the final week and staying up in the EPL. And then this year, after a decade of pain, 55 points (most since 2010), absolute safety, and a seat at the "middle of the table" table.
Villa finishing 11th in the EPL (20 clubs) would be similar to Illinois basketball finishing 8th in the Big Ten. Would I be excited if Illinois Basketball finished 8th? Absolutely not. But that's college basketball. For Illini basketball (and for my professional teams like the Cardinals and Blues), titles are the goal. They don't have to win it all - an NLCS, a Western Conference Final, a Final Four - those are all great seasons. But the goal is a title.
For Aston Villa and for Illinois Football, I don't even think like that. My goal for Illinois football for the last decade has been an 8-win season. I've written about it at least 45 times. Just give me an 8-win season and the corresponding Outback Bowl. Honestly, I'd be 10 times more excited about that than if the Cardinals won their 12th World Series. Part of that is the level of investment I put into each program, but part of that is that college football allows for mid-level "wow, what a satisfying season" destinations. The thought of Iowa ever winning a football title is extremely far-fetched, so the thought of Illinois getting there is laughable. Ohio State and Alabama play that sport over there. We play this sport over here. And that's fine.
Let me put it this way. I have worn my Redbox Bowl shirt, not kidding, 80 of the last 500 days. I was wearing it this morning (before I sweat through it putting that Adirondack chair together in the garage and had to change). I had a lot of fun at the Redbox Bowl, and I still have fond memories of that day, even though we lost. When your moribund college football team wins six games, wild horses could not keep me away from the bowl game. (Or, like, some girl I didn't even end up dating keeping me away from the Sugar Bowl. Seek wise counsel when in your 20's, everyone.)
The beauty of college football for this Illinois fan is that 6-6 seasons can feel wildly successful. I gave up long ago on winning a national title (I'm not sure I even started). Just get me to six wins and a meager bowl game. The four days I spent in San Francisco for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl were just about the best sports days I had in the last decade (and "my" baseball team had won the World Series two months prior to the KFHB). There's all these levels below "winning it all" for college football - the current target is just to win the Big Ten West and then get destroyed by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game - and that's what makes college football so much fun. I tailgate, I watch my team, and I pray for six wins because that means I might get to go to Detroit in December. Detroit! Dare I even dream it?
I don't know what this 12-team playoff will do to the bowl structure. All we can really say at this point is that it will damage the current structure. How much, we don't know. But any step in that direction, for me, steals some of those mid-tier satisfaction levels. 7-5 is a dream season for me, and has been for two decades, and God I have to just pinch myself at the thought of seven actual regular season wins as I'm typing it out right now, but when "some-how, some-way, get into that playoff" becomes the fan goal, well, "can you believe it? SEVEN AND FIVE!" dies a little bit.
I know, I know - dream bigger, Robert. If Wisconsin can go from 3 bowls in 30 years (1960 to 1990) to where they are now, Illinois can climb to that level. No CEO of any company is going to say "people, I want to be the 8th-best toothbrush company in these United States". You take down Oral-B or what are we even doing here? Trust me, I get that whole line of thinking.
(6 minutes remaining.)
All I'm saying is that I love the bowl structure and the mid-level fan satisfaction and the "we're just happy to be here" safe space. Now more than ever, there's a 0.0% chance for Illinois to climb to Alabama's level. So I've been content to let Ohio State be Manchester City while Illinois can just be Villa. Villa more or less just pulled off the EPL version of 7-5 this year, and let me tell you, I'm dancing in the streets.
Yes, I will throw all of this out the window when another 2001 comes along and Illinois is actually in the playoff. If Illinois was, like, hosting Georgia for a first-round playoff game, I'd faint before I even got inside Memorial Stadium. I know that I'll eventually come around to the NFLization of college football. As of today, there's no chance of ever even thinking about the possibility of considering Illinois in the four-team playoff. so going past 8 to 12 should be "good news" for me.
I just love my Redbox Bowl shirt, man. And I have incredibly fond memories of the Marching Illini rolling through the crowd outside the Heart Of Dallas Bowl. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl? My single favorite Illini football postseason moment of the past 13 years.
This starts us down the road for that to no longer really exist. And for right now, that makes me sad.
Now, basically, Aston Villa has to try to win it all.