There are any number of arguments for why college football is the greatest sport in history and probably the greatest thing ever to come out of America other than Louis Armstrong. But the best one, one that I think is basically unanswerable, is that in college football all the games actually matter.
In every other major sport, great teams losing is a mathematical inevitability that you don't have to be a statistician to understand. Does anyone care, or even remember, that on a random Sunday evening back in August, the historically bad Orioles beat the American League Champion Red Sox 10-3 in the second half a doubleheader? Boston won 108 games this year, about as many as Baltimore lost. The victory was meaningless.
But in college football, it is reasonably expected that the best teams will win all of their games every year or at most lose once to a quality opponent. I say "reasonably expected," but what I really mean is "Hoped for by everyone except the bloodless technocrat in Tuscaloosa who can guarantee it."
This is the most enjoyable thing about college football: the very real possibility of devastating upsets.
There is nothing more enjoyable than watching an underdog scrape together a victory against a ranked team or even an opponent from a better respected conference, like my beloved Hawaii Rainbow Warriors taking down Colorado State despite being 18-point underdogs in their season opener. The most lovable programs in the country for me are not the teams that are perennial national champions or leaders in the AP and Coaches polls but the teams that seem to specialize in beating those teams. I cannot for the life of me understand how a 2011 Iowa State team that would go on to lose to arguably the worst program in all of Division I football in a minor bowl game was able to beat then-number two-ranked Oklahoma State in overtime. I don't even know how they managed to score. But they did, just like they beat number four TCU last year and a top-10 West Virginia team two weeks ago. There must be something in the corn. Their in-state arch-rival Iowa have won upsets so many times now that losing to the Hawkeyes by a field goal as the clock winds down is arguably necessary if you want to have a truly canonical Big 10 championship team. This is why I never miss the Iowa-Iowa State game, when the two powerhouses of the upset try to do it to each other.
I have a very clear memory of what most people consider the greatest upset in the modern history of college football. In the small town where we lived when I was a teenager, the local cable company used landline phones as account numbers. The family who had our number before ours apparently never paid their bill and it took my parents months to convince the provider that we did not owe them hundreds of dollars. After a few months a guy finally showed up and fiddled with some wires before apologizing for the hassle. Fast forward seven years later and we were not only getting cable but HBO and, from the day it debuted, the Big 10 Network. We never once received a bill.
I mention all of this by way of explaining how it was even possible that I was able to see the 2007 Michigan-Appalachian State game. My father was a legendary tightwad and would never have shelled out an extra $3 to watch Northwestern lose to Purdue on a Friday night when we could just watch real teams play on ABC. But he was happy to do it if it was free. That afternoon, Dad was home, but neither of us planned on watching the game because we were disappointed that the season opener was not against somebody cool, like Alabama or Notre Dame. We had watched maybe three King of the Hill reruns before somebody called us and said we had to run to a bar with Big 10 Network because Lloyd Carr's boys had almost lost to some community college they had paid $400,000 to practice against. "We have it here," the old man said proudly.
I think we might have seen one or two downs before the ill-fated kick. I certainly remember Chad Henne's 50-yard pass to put Michigan in scoring range. With six seconds on the clock all they had to do was knock in a 37-yard field goal:
It was seared into my memory before the ball was even secure in the hands of the Appalachian State safety Corey Lynch. Somehow the fact that he was tackled by a lineman near the 10-yard line before he could run it in for another Mountaineer touchdown made it even more pathetic for Michigan. It was the most deflating, dejecting but also somehow sublime thing I have ever seen on television.
The Block Heard Round the World was not only the greatest upset in living memory but arguably the single most consequential. Never mind the rematch won easily by Michigan a few years later. By 2014 the Mountaineers had been invited to join the NCAA's premiere FBS division. Since then they have won bowl games three years running and are currently ranked No. 25 in the nation, ahead of teams that were winning Orange Bowls and sending first-round draft picks to the NFL half a century before anyone had heard of the 17,000-strong former teacher's college in Boone, North Carolina. This is what I mean when I say that in college football one game can really matter.
So far 2018 has been a classic year for the upset. Old Dominion's triumph over No. 13 Virginia Tech wasn't a pretty sight, exactly, in a mostly defense-less game, but it was beautiful in its way. Then last week there was Purdue's beatdown of Ohio State, at the time universally considered one of the four best team in the country, the favored Big Ten champion and probable playoff contender. This was not a scrappy, last-minute come-from-behind victory. It was an omnidirectional thrashing in which the Boilermakers dominated their opponents on all sides of the football. Urban Meyer looked like he was going to cry. He probably did.
Why do upsets happen? One reason is that the comprehensive preparation you see in the NFL is impossible at a level where there are 130 teams and more than 11,000 players. There is no way to know what they are capable of on the right day and under the right circumstances.
Another is that despite the millions of dollars lavished on strength training and conditioning in palatial exercise facilities, to say nothing of the kingly sums paid to their coaches, these young men are not professionals. One of the weirdest things about getting this side of 30 is realizing that many of the athletes you idolize on television are people who cannot legally rent an automobile or even order a beer. They are very young adults, which is another way of saying very big kids (the odd 29-year-old Australian punter notwithstanding). As a father of three, I can say with something like empirical rigor that kids have a lot of heart. They are unpredictable. They surprise you and disappoint you. They do things that make you sick to your stomach, but they also delight and astonish you and sometimes even fill you with a sense of absolute awe that reminds you what it was like to be one of them.
All of which is to say that, at the terrible risk of sounding like a puppet character in a 1980s Jim Henson movie, I believe that the appeal of college football, and the sense of infinite possibility that is its essence, comes down to the magic of childhood in its final autumnal splendor.