It didn’t really hit me until Clemson players were celebrating on that awful Levi Stadium field after one last handoff right into the corpse of Alabama’s defense that college football had once again come to an end. The mid-week G5 games, the primetime ABC game of the week broadcasts, the midnight Hawaii kickoffs, all of it, over, yielding yet another lengthy offseason and 2019 kickoff date (Aug. 24) that feels decades away. Eight months of grasping at any content we can get after the four months of pure bliss that we took for granted.
The end of a college football season never stings less. Every year, the final snap in the final game carries the same weight when the significance of it hits you. Whether that final snap comes long after the game was decided, like it did on Monday night, or as a sudden game winner like in 2017, it hurts just the same. There’s no such thing as a painless end to a college football season, because as fans, we’re obsessed.
The bowl season tries, and fails, to ease us into the long offseason, with the national championship serving as one final expression of college football at its highest level to satiate our desire for the bloodsport. It’s never enough. The end of the season stings every time, and will sting every time, until college football ends for good or the earth floods.
The good news —the only good news— about a college football season ending is that it’s never the end, it’s just an end. No matter how much it feels in mid-April like college football will be gone forever, it always comes back, bigger than the year before. The preview magazines always drop in the hottest weeks of the summer, the media days always provide us inane content to consume, and whatever dreadful Week 0 matchup draws our collective eyes, desperate for any and all forms of college football, no matter how bad, how insignificant, or how unwatchable that first game is.
The cycle won’t break, because we don’t want it to break. We love this. We love the routine of it, spending the whole offseason reminiscing and convincing ourselves that the redshirt sophomore cornerback, the true freshman receiver, the fifth year senior quarterback, or the coach without a single double-digit win season on his résumé is finally going to breakthrough this year. Every season is “our season” in July, because there’s nothing that says it can’t be.
When you’ve been without college football for seven months, anything is possible in the upcoming season, because you’ve completely forgotten the forces that control college football, the laws of the sport that keep the top teams at the top, and the bottom teams at the bottom. Talent level, depth, and coaching ability are all completely hypothetical in July, so there are no rules. You can think Kansas is going to win the championship in July, because there’s nothing in July to stop you from thinking that. There are no games to prove you wrong. You’re free to imagine a world where the top five teams don’t have more talent sitting on their bench than the bottom 125 have on their whole roster.
College football is dead, for nine months, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We can fill the void with recruiting, coaching hires, previews, arguments, podcasts, and any other content we can get our hands on, but the actual sport, the actual games, the actual living, breathing beast, is dead, and it’s going to stay dead until August 24th, no matter what we do.
We can partake in the past, watch old games on Youtube and relive the glory of games we’ve seen a million times already, but that’s nothing more than another form of grieving. College football is only truly enjoyed live, and from January 8th to August 24th, no number of previews, arguments, or Weekend at Bernie’s escapades can bring it back to us. We didn’t kill college football, but we knew it would die, just as we do every year, and we let it happen, as we do every year.
Maybe that’s why the end of each season, and the entrance into a fresh offseason each January stings so much every time, no matter what. Maybe the constant knowledge that no matter how many times we stay up to watch Cal score exactly six points at two in the morning, no matter how many Georgia Southern radio broadcasts we listen to at the gym on a Tuesday night, no matter how much we scrutinize and debate every aspect of each game our respective favorite team plays, the calendar is going to keep rolling on. The games are going to dwindle to just a few a day, to just one a day, to one last hurrah, and then college football will be laid to rest once again, and we’ll have no way to save it.
That’s why we grieve. That’s why we run through every ceremony, every last resort, trying to find a way to bring college football back sooner than the date it promised to return, partially because we don’t want to wait, and partially because we don’t fully trust that this won’t be the year college football lies, and refuses to return on that magical set date.
The 2018 season was worse than most college football seasons in recent memory. It’s hard to say that objectively, because you can’t really put the quality of a college football season into objective terms. However, 2018 just felt worse than 2017, 2016, 2015, or whatever season you want to name from the last decade or so, and college football is all about feelings, so we’re going to spend the offseason slightly bitter, feeling like a college football season, one of our most valuable resources, was wasted.
While the 2018 season was at least subjectively worse than the average college football season, it wasn’t without its glorious moments, because no matter how chalky the season is, college football is college football, and it’s going to produce some incredible moments. Because it’s a sport designed around harnessing spectacle and creating moments, one of our (the collective “our”) favorite offseason rituals is a football variation of a normal stage of loss: we reflect, and we remember.
Honestly, looking back at our favorite moments from each season may be better than the season itself, because the reactionary nature of fandom responding live to a result is erased with time. It’s hard to truly appreciate how special it was when Purdue dumped Ohio State into a garbage can in front of superfan Tyler Trent when you’re an Ohio State fan, watching your season crumble. It’s easy to become a prisoner of the moment, and in that moment, it was really easy to forget what really matters.
The offseason gives us a chance to recenter what really matters.
For the sake of this article, and for the sake of my mental health following the end of yet another college football season, I participated in some reminiscing on the hellsite social media of my choice, and asked my goblin followers to tell me about the college football moment that was most special to them in 2018.
There were a lot of moments still driven largely by fandom for a specific team, be it Darius Anderson gashing Greg Schiano’s skeleton army, Alan Bowman taking a safety, Chris Olave knocking a punt out of the sky, Shea Patterson launching a fastball into Jordan Fuller’s chest, Penn State nearly beating, and subsequently not beating Ohio State, or Chase Young dragging Shea Patterson down to hell.
A favorite team winning, losing, or making a huge play wasn’t the only category, however. There were some sentimental answers, like getting to see Ohio State beat the hell out of Michigan with your dad, or... getting to see Ohio State beat the hell out of Michigan with your dad and running onto the field after it. There was a lot of Tyler Trent, and Purdue knocking off Ohio State in front of a young man that deserved to see his team get one of the biggest wins in school history.
Some of the best moments of the year weren’t football related at all, but rather the expulsion of a dreadful force from a football team’s staff, be it Bill Davis, Mike Debord, or Mick McCall (who remains at large). No one ever claimed that college football fans aren’t petty, and while cheering about someone losing their job feels a little strange, it’s easier when you remember what Bill Davis did to Ohio State’s linebackers.
The last category, the largest category, and the category that my favorite moment falls in, is based in spectacle. College football is a sport based entirely around spectacle after all, so it’s not surprising that the moments we remember the most come from the gladiators’ greatest feats, the largest games on the biggest stages, the matchups handpicked to give us goosebumps as Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit immerse us in the best college football has to offer.
It was simply spectacle when Ed Orgeron was doused in Gatorade before coaching an additional seven periods of play, it was spectacle when College Gameday finally made the trek to Pullman to see Washington State bludgeon Oregon, or when a few weeks later that same Washington State fell to Washington because mother nature decided they would.
Even on the biggest stage, in the most important game of the season, Alabama ramming their kicker into Christian Wilkins provided us the serene reprieve from real life that only college football can.
My favorite moments, fittingly, came from two games involving four teams I have no earthly connection to. Enter Sandman before Notre Dame-Virginia Tech, and Taj McGowan bursting through the line on 4th and short on his way to a 71-yard touchdown for UCF in their comeback win over Memphis. I’m not a fan of any of those teams, and neither game impacted my team at all, but both felt so significant in the moment. It felt like the only thing in the world, and I watched it happen live.
That’s why we care so much about moments, and why we’re so able to boil an entire college football season down to just a few of them. We can aggregate college football when college football is no more, because that’s what it wants us to do. That’s what it’s built for. We can remember the moments, the micro, the seemingly insignificant, because that’s how we move past the death of a season and look forward to it emerging from the fire of yet another offseason.
It’s the most important offseason in school history for your favorite college football team. Yes, yours. It’s the most important offseason in school history for your favorite college football team because your favorite college football team’s coach needs to motivate himself and his 120 extremely young, extremely athletic, extremely tired football players to get out of bed every day.
The quotes about how that redshirt sophomore cornerback is really coming along, or how the fifth-year senior quarterback with more career interceptions than touchdowns has NFL talent that he’s just suddenly discovered aren’t for you. The psychology bullshit every coach does every offseason isn’t for you. It’s for them. It’s for the players. You’re just an observer.
The truth is, the 2019 season, and every season that follows it, is going to feel a lot like every season that preceded it. Sure, the specifics will change, be it new breakthrough teams, a new superstar, or, hopefully, more entertaining football, but the fundamentals of a college football season don’t change.
We’ll start the year by watching whatever junk the NCAA and ESPN throw at us, consuming as much football as humanly possible through weeks zero, one and two while completely throwing moderation to the wind. We’ll delight in a primetime showing of Alabama and some mid-level P5 team they’re going to murder, convincing ourselves that this year is the one where Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia, and a few select others don’t spend the year dominating nearly everyone they play with pure talent.
We’ll post, incessantly, about how angry we are that this awesome top 25 matchup between two teams that are going to finish the year 7-5 is being played in an NFL stadium built by some extremely old man with more money than any of the people playing in the game will see in their entire lives. We’ll use the first three weeks as an ironclad predictor of the rest of the season, determining the worth of each team based on what they do against a MAC school led by a coach you thought died 20 years ago.
After the initial rush of our beloved bloodsport returning to us fades, we’ll recede to the comfort zone. Favorite team, major ranked matchups, primetime games, the occasional G5 battle, and, if we’re feeling spicy, an awful mid-week game between two Sun Belt teams run by coaches that look more like disgraced congressmen than football professionals.
We’ll spend the rest of the season on that abbreviated schedule, enjoying the delights of college football while dealing with the vague reminder that in January it’ll die all over again. We’ll watch, as the same teams, as always, find their way back to the same throne they’ve owned for decades, with January’s Sword of Damocles instilling a fear of the inevitable, because the inevitable comes every year.
We’ll slog through bowls sponsored by various weapon of mass destruction retailers and Chicago towns. The season will wind down, once again, and we’ll reflect on it, determining if the primetime games, the G5 battles, the rivalry showdowns, and the midweek MAC trash was better or worse than usual. We’ll declare Alabama’s dynasty either unstoppable or over, we’ll judge the validity of each conference’s existence on how they do in glorified exhibitions, and then the sword will drop, and college football will die again.
There’s no point in breaking the cycle, because we like the cycle. The offseason, as much as we hate it, has to exist to make the actual football feel special. We have to do the strange offseason traditions and rituals because that’s just what we do, and because if we don’t, something terrible might happen, because we’ve never not done them before. Who knows, maybe the useless media days are what keeps the sport going each year. Maybe if coaches stopped complimenting their large adult quarterbacks after a televised practice in late April, the sport would just cease to exist.
College football is dead, and no matter what we do, it’ll remain dead until August 24th. We know, deep down, that none of the nonsense we do in the offseason to pass the time actually matters, or produces anything valuable. That isn’t why we do it though. We don’t grieve or reminisce, or prognosticate because it’ll make college football find new life before it’s ready to do so.
We do it because we like it, and in 2019, that isn’t changing.