From the moment that Pat McAfee, Desmond Howard and Joey Galloway breathed a sigh of relief after Rece Davis said “naysayers” on College Gameday, the College Football Playoff semifinals were off and running. With Michigan taking on Alabama and Washington going up against Texas, there were great expectations for the final playoff before expansion.
The games did not disappoint. Both of them were decided on the last play. Jalen Milroe was stuffed by Michigan on 4th and goal in overtime and Quinn Ewers’ pass attempt on the final-final play of regulation was swatted away by Elijah Jackson. Two thrilling contests to end the four-team system before next-season’s 12-team market saturation playoff with the likes of 13-0 Liberty qualifying.
Watering down the process of crowning a champion with too many playoff teams is straight out of the playbook of the major professional sports leagues. College football adopting that revenue-boosting strategy is just the latest way in which it is allowing money to take away from the spirit that makes it great.
Of course injustice was rampant in the version of college football that existed pre-2021. The players were governed by amateur rules, while the conference commissioners, schools, sponsors and television networks participated in the free market of professional profit.
While College football was more fun when the transfer portal was not an ideal way to stack a roster, conference realignment in the early 2010s began to drain what was special from the sport. Syracuse went to the ACC, Maryland headed to the Big Ten, and Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M nearly disintegrated the Big 12 by bolting. Players having the freedom to change programs makes college sports worse, but not nearly as much as the fire that the regional rivalries provide being extinguished.
On New Year’s Day 2024, though, college football felt like 1994. The Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl were the featured events of the day. Washington playing in Pasadena and Alabama in New Orleans would have felt more like right, but Monday was not a day to be picky.
That fabulous second-half sunset descended over the Rose Bowl which gave way to a rowdy night at the Superdome. With the tradition of these New Year’s Day classics, combined with national championship implications, all the excitement was back from the days when college football players were exploited.
Big plays, massive mistakes and civic pride kept viewers’ eyes stuck on the games like a contraption from the Saw franchise. These two contests didn’t need edible mascots or coaches getting a brand name product dumped on their heads to give a game something for neutral observers to be interested in besides point spreads and over-unders.
Only the long college football halftime show gave viewers time to leave their seats and stretch on Monday evening. With the Rose Bowl going into overtime, the Sugar Bowl began almost as soon as Jim Harbaugh was done with his on-field interview after the game. The day began at 5 p.m. EST and ended at 12:45 a.m. It was not seven hours of commercial-free football, but nearly eight hours of non-stop adrenaline as the four best teams in the country battled for a shot at the title in signature events.
However, between Alabama knocking off Michigan, and Michael Penix Jr. starting to launch dimes all over the field in a 430-yard effort for the victorious Huskies, a Tide defender provided a reminder of college football’s new capitalistic reality. Dallas Turner is considered one of the top pass-rushing prospects in the country. He has eligibility remaining, but told ESPN’s Alex Scarborough definitively that his college career is over.
A level of honesty that he would likely not be comfortable offering without college football in its current state, and I would have appreciated it more in the past. Don’t give me that canned answer about having to discuss the future with family, coaches and others. Give everyone on the team a hug and when asked about the future, say that it’s time to get paid.
New Year’s Day 2024 had it all. Rece Davis put his coworkers’ hearts in their throat while describing what Milroe means by the acronym LANK, and two of college sports’ most hallowed traditions started the year off with a bang. The games were great. The environments were spectacular. And for a few hours, sports fans got to experience college sports the way that it used to be with only the best parts of what is to come.