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No, College Football isn’t “Ruined”

Associated Press 2003 College Football National Championship Press Conference Photo by Jon Soohoo/Getty Images

I always enjoy this point of the season in college athletics. NCAA Basketball always kicks off with some big time match ups and it’s extra fun when your favorite team is wildly overachieving (looking at you, Brad and co.). It’s fun to peruse the tournament brackets of other fall sports as they come to an end. This particular year was amazing to watch not only the Clemson men’s soccer team hoist the trophy at the end, but also to see Clemson’s women’s soccer team make a critical step in growing their program and finally making it to the Final Four.

While Clemson football may not have met many of the fans’ expectations, the holidays bring a chance to sign a highly rated class with some freshman who will be absolutely special and maybe even the possibility of flipping a recruit or 2. This year there’s an added opportunity to dip in to the portal and get a few players.

It’s in that last sentence that I see a ton of descent into chaos but not in the way you think. Let me give you the scenario that I face daily so this can spell out my argument:

You’re scrolling social media and minding you own business or maybe trying to pass the time before you log off for lunch when, by accident, you hit a tweet about someone transferring. You then make the critical mistake of viewing the first 3 to 5 comments, all of which say the same variation of something like: “College Football is ruined, it’s not the same. Ever since (insert NIL, the transfer portal, the playoffs) it just isn’t the same. I hardly watch it anymore.”

I never respond, but I have the same thoughts every time:

1. You’re lying. You still love it, otherwise why are tweeting about it?

And

2. All of this change is necessary and good. Just let this play out.

I’m going to give you as quick a breakdown as I can about how College Football (and College Athletics as a whole) aren’t ruined, or dead, or any other kind of ghoulish adjective one might use to describe it. It is simply being reborn for modern times. This isn’t to say everything is perfect, but if you just do a light amount of research, you realize the guardrails for all of this change could have been accomplished decades ago.

We’ll start with the biggest animal in the room:

NIL

We have to first take a step back and realize there was a time when college football was a truly regionalized sport. Games on TV were sparse, travel was more local, and the reach of the athletes at these schools was astronomically lower prior to say, 1975. To understand just how slowly things have come along, you have to understand that it took until 1983 for the US Supreme Court to rule against the NCAA and give football teams and their conference affiliations to have the right to negotiate their own television rights.

Why does that matter? Because it took 30 years for the schools themselves to have the freedom to vie for a broadcast partner in order to make money, much less the athletes. As broadcast rights grew, the biggest thinkers in the room should have had the forethought to a least debate about potential compensation structures and rules for athletes. New found freedom and growing dollar signs tabled that conversation. Since these schools had struck a huge win in getting broadcasting rights, there was no need to shake the tree any further, especially in the wake of “scandals” such as those at SMU.

I put quotations around scandals for SMU because 40 some odd years after essentially having your program murdered in cold blood in the name of academia and integrity, you’d have to think that the Mustang fans who remained loyal have a right to be extremely bitter with whatever is left of the NCAA.

The SMU saga should have served as a case study in those days of how to mitigate and not punish. ANY major college in the 80s had some sort of involvement in “100 dollar handshakes” or “cars showing up mysteriously in recruits driveway with keys hanging on the door.” Instead of this causing leadership to examine their ways and challenge their thinking, the NCAA leaned on the old stalwart of punishing the visible symptoms. It took someone taking the NCAA to court in the 2020s to crack collegiate athletics’ thin veneer of amateurism and expose their authoritarian stupidity. With that came a pathetic move of the then (and now disgraced) NCAA president cleansing his hands of anything and allowing the NIL to be figured out by the states, schools, and, more irrationally, the donors.

The good that comes out of this is not just the money made from NIL, but also a chance for athletes to craft skills in “something other than athletics” as the NCAA would say. Players can make podcasts or YouTube videos. If you’re a green thumb, you can now go do yard work for someone and receive compensation. In the case of a former Clemson player, you can now own your own music label and studio. Simply put, it allows athletes to be more like their peers around them....you know, the students.

NIL isn’t a big bad greed machine. Sure, there are players who will act as bad actors simply to gain monetarily and not for the love of the game or development. The bigger issue is the 40 years of lackadaisical leadership kicking the can down the road until someone challenged it. As time goes on, guardrails will gradually go up but for the next decade this is something everyone will need to just be patient with. Don’t blame the athletes, blame the leaders of the past.

The Transfer Portal

This one is a lot simpler than the last bullet point. Much like NIL, there will always be bad actors, like a kid that wants to make a buck selling his ability to the highest bidder. But at the same time, there is a lot of sense in the portal.

The first thing is that this too allows athletes to be more like their peers around them. Any student can go to college and transfer where they are eligible. It’s not healthy to do it 5 times, but it can happen sometimes.

This isn’t me saying “every player should have unlimited transfers” but I am saying that newly-instituted rules are finally something that make sense. I may be in the minority but I am perfectly fine with the “everyone gets 1 freebie” transfer rule. You have no clue what any given individual might be dealing with. If you’re from Oregon and the grass doesn’t seem that green in Athens, Georgia anymore, why can’t you have one free shot to go home. I also think the “exception rules” tend to make sense. Did your coach leave or get fired? Might be time for a fresh start. You have a medical or family hardship that needs you close to home? Be my guest. But most of all, if you graduate, you should be able to do what you want. You’ve accomplished the main goal of going to college anyway.

Most of this was just a matter of common sense. Much like applying for and going to new jobs, it can be a risk to go to so many places in 4 years. The rules that are in place seem to be getting fairer, and although people view this as “free agency,” it’s a way for some to bet on themselves to actually develop.

I mean, look at someone like JaMori Maclin. He wasn’t getting a ton of reps at Missouri; he transferred to North Texas and set the world on fire. Now he’s graduated and he’s getting another shot in the SEC with his last year of eligibility. That’s pretty neat if you ask me.

The Playoffs (12, 16 whatever it ends up at)

Here is a hill I will die on: Bowls are dumb.

That’s not a conclusion I reached yesterday. When I was seven years old, my brother’s high school team had made it to UpperState Semifinals in the playoffs the year before. My pro team, the Carolina Panthers (unfortunate, I know) had made it to the NFC Championship game the year before in the playoffs. Imagine my surprise when someone told me Clemson was going to something called “The Peach Bowl” in 1997.

“Why don’t college teams have a playoff?” I legitimately asked my parents when I was in 1st grade (not the typical thoughts of a kid, I know ). The answer I always got from my dad, brothers or any other adult was the same: “There is just too much money in the bowl games.”

That’s a lie that I never believed. It’s hard to say there’s too much money in bowl games to change the system when in 2001, I witnessed a then D1-AA Furman team play multiples televised games in route to a national championship game....oh and they won a few playoff games to do it.

Remember how I said TV rights were a big deal in the 80’s because of the NCAA being overturned. If you want to look at how strange the governing body of college athletics applies it’s rules then lets look back at 1978.

It was this year a group of “power conferences” were able to coerce the NCAA in to splitting leagues in to D1, D1-AA and D2. Many viewed this as the possibility of a new “super conference” for college football (time is truly a flat circle).

One of the differences were that the champions of D-1AA and D2 would crown their champions in a playoff format while D1 would cling to it’s sacred made-for-TV cow: the bowl structure. This would set up a nearly 35 year “putting off” period in which people like me said “hey, that playoff thing seems cool, why not do that?”

They tried in the 80’s and 90’s to appease the masses with Alliance bowls. But anyone with half a brain know that allowing the AP to crown a champion is like trying to win a beauty contest with a judge that has a daughter in the competition.

Then to appease the masses, they moved to this new fangled technology thing — the BCS. This way every conferenced champion would have a major bowl and the computer will decide who is number 1 and number 2. That was fine for the moment....and then Florida State made it to the Orange Bowl over Miami even though Miami had won head-to-head (kind of ironic now). A year later, Nebraska made the national title. The problem was they lost they’re prior game 62-39 to Colorado, failed to make the Big 12 title game and every metric said Oregon should have gone.

Don’t even get me started with the debacle of 2003. The computer picked #1 and #2. The game was played, and #2 LSU beat #1 Oklahoma in the championship 21-14. All seemed fine, until the aforementioned AP reached their greasy fingers in to claim that “No, we like USC as a champion better” and that is how we end up with a split champion in a system designed to avoid split champions.

Finally, the powers wisened up. The voices had gotten louder. A playoff was unavoidable. What would be the play off size? At the time there was 6 conferences (RIP Big East) so surely it will be 6, 8, 12, or maybe even 16 teams! The postseason in football will finally make sense.

No, just four teams.

Oh, and it’s going to be picked by a committee of AD’s, businessmen, and congressmen who may occasionally watch football.

What?

This year was the biggest burning sign that suggest the four-team playoff is just as dumb as any of the past ideas to trying to actually crown a champion. I don’t care about the debate between “Best Team” or “Most Deserving,” it’s a dumb argument to have. Moving to 12 is a good start to finally get good AND deserving teams in to the playoff. And if the tea leaves I read are correct are true, a new playoff contract in 2026 likely expands to 16.

All I can say is, thank God.

This process took excruciatingly long to get to. And no fan, expert or leader can articulate why. And when you press them for a legitimate reason, all they seem to be able muster is “well, we don’t want it to be too much like pros”.

That is another lie I will never believe. Not after the sheer number of undefeated teams, most recently Florida State, who were left out for dumb reasons and won’t at least get a title shot.

Gone will be days of stale neutral site game in mid-December, and soon are the days of home playoff games in surreal environment. Always ask yourself this if your conflicted about a larger playoff: How crazy would a postseason game in Death Valley be?

That’s the long and short of it. College football isn’t in trouble, or ruined, or dead and buried. It’s going through a renovation that’s nearly 50 years in the making. It won’t be perfect, and I expect even more change will come (super conferences are something we can talk about later), but in the end, with the growth of the game and the national spotlight getting bigger and bigger, all of these changes needed to happen. All we need to do is just sit back, relax and watch what happens.