The knuckleball of a kick slipped through the uprights, giving Tennessee a dramatic 52-49 win over Alabama and freeing a scene only college football can produce.
A sea of Tennessee orange washed over the field. Victory cigars were lit all over the Neyland Stadium. The goal posts were overgrown, demolished, and one was hauled and dumped in the nearby Tennessee River.
The sound system started playing “Dixieland Delight” and everyone sang along. It was a smart troll job since it comes from the group “Alabama” and is played at the end of the third quarter of every Crimson Tide game. (The lyrics mention Tennessee, including of course how you “I couldn’t feel better” on a “Tennessee Saturday night.”)
“This,” Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel shouted on the field after the game, “this is college football at its best.”
It was sure.
He was backed by a ‘blackout’ and a storming on the pitch Utah and a “purple out” and an assault field at TOS and another “orange out” and storming the field at Syracuse and a “corn out” – and just a confident victory — in Ann Arbor, not to mention wild crowds and old traditions on bucolic campuses across the country.
That’s why, whether you’re 9 or 90, you watched this celebration in Knoxville and wished you could be a part of it; the big night, the biggest night, on an electric university campus.
And so, here’s a final call to the people running college football as they focus on what is expected to be an expanded college football playoff announced later this month:
Please get as many post-season games as you can in these beautiful, magical college stadiums.
Fortunately, they will finally push the playoffs to 12 teams. And in a nod to what makes the sport great, it will include four first-round games to be played on campus for the highest-seeded team (seeded 5-8 hosting seeded 9-12 ). These games will take place in front of breathtaking settings.
Yet the expected plan will still serve as a slave to the bowling industry, which will continue to host quarter-finals and semi-finals, as well as a naturally neutral venue for the championship game.
It’s the product of inertia, cronyism and the opinions of some cowardly and unimaginative coaches who fear the disadvantage of a playoff road game more than they enjoy the theater of what makes them rich. .
Continuing to play multiple rounds on neutral sites will be a waste of opportunity, a waste of resources, a waste of artistry, and a waste of time.
Everyone in college athletics knows, deep down, that playoff football should follow the NFL’s lead, where the home field is used in every game except the Super Bowl. Many of the stewards and key sporting directors who will determine this upcoming format even quietly acknowledge that the home ground will eventually be used beyond the first round.
So why not do now what everyone knows should be done eventually?
It’s not too late to set up the next playoff format in the best way possible, no matter how hurt the feelings of the multi-millionaire bowl managers.
Because no one – not even an Alabama fan – could have watched that scene on Saturday from Knoxville and really, honestly said it would have been better if it was played 1,000 miles away in an antiseptic stadium in the NFL where only the wealthiest boosters can usually afford to attend.
There’s a reason there’s a whole tourism industry based around groups of fans visiting college venues for games where they don’t even have a team. Bachelor parties. Fortieth anniversary. Let’s go to the grove. Let’s go see LSU. Let’s jump into Madison.
Nobody says, “Let’s go to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.”
Apply the current AP poll as a flawed and untimely ranking system (some of these teams will knock themselves out) in the expected 12 team playoff format you would have the first round games in Tennessee, Michigan, Alabama and be miss.
Impressive. If you think mid-October games and wins generate unimaginable energy and atmosphere, then imagine a win-or-go-home scenario.
Still, first-round winners won’t visit all four seeds (based on conference championships) Georgia, ohio state, Clemson or TCU. They would go play somewhere on a neutral site. If they win, it’s on another neutral site. And if they win again, another one after that. (And that’s after the neutral-site conference title game for most of those teams).
Only the most well-heeled fans can go to four consecutive games at a neutral site. Players would spend at least six weeks criss-crossing the country because officials seem to hate their own stadiums and campus towns.
The idea of depriving the sport of family atmospheres in Columbus, Athens and Death Valley is absurd.
There is no counter-argument.
College football donates money by contracting out its most valuable games to independent, third-party bowling directors. It also takes the direct economic impact of a big football weekend away from the cities and communities that support those teams year-round and sends it to a big city somewhere else.
As far as competitive balance goes, if you want to host the game, have a better season. The fight for the seeding – up to the top two – will increase the importance of the regular season, making every game truly matter.
Everyone knows what to do here. The NFL does it well, at home until the title game – play it every year at the Rose Bowl if you want a nod to history.
As the powers that be make their final adjustments to the upcoming playoffs, remember Knoxville…and Fort Worth and Salt Lake City and whatever is to come this Saturday and the next and the next after that.
Remember what sport you are assigned to play and what makes it special.