If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’re a college football fan– that, or your Google search has gone horribly, horribly wrong. “College football fan” means different things to different people, though. The typical college football fan cheers for a big BCS school, watches College Gameday every Saturday morning to see a preview of their team’s game, and can track the whims of the players that their school is recruiting on any number of websites. They can see the highlights of their games on Sportscenter, read about their team in just about any paper in the country, and look for where their school sits in the top 25. This is the mainstream; the fan that the national media serves.
But there is another group out there. These people might watch College Gameday, but only with a passing interest; they know that their school won’t get mentioned (unless Herbstreit brings them up just to call them a fraud). Some fans can read countless interviews with their teams’ recruits that break down minutiae you’d never imagine to care about (BREAKING NEWS: Terrelle Pryor ranks his favorite desserts at the dining halls of schools he’s visited!). Other less-privileged fans have to scour the internet just to find a newspaper clipping that might have a sentence or two about a local high schooler who committed to play for their school. This congregation of college football faithful doesn’t worry about the top 25, because their schools are rarely included. News coverage for their schools is limited to papers in the immediate metro area of the campus– before the internet, these die-hards heard nothing if they lived too far away. They are the great unwashed, the low rung on the caste ladder of college football fandom. I’m talking, of course, about fans of the non-BCS conferences.
We are as hardcore about our college football as anyone– maybe more so, considering how hard we have to work to get our news– but sometimes it’s hard to convince other people of that. You know how it is. At work, everyone stands around the ol’ water cooler & talks about the weekend’s big games. One group is talking about the Illinois-Ohio State game, while another group is in the corner talking about Auburn & Georgia. A third group is talking about the latest BCS rankings and how they think the top 5 should shape up. You’ll walk up to one of those groups and listen, and when the conversation appears to be dying down a bit you’ll chime in by saying, “man, that Navy-North Texas game was a real scorcher, wasn’t it? 74 to 62!” At that point, everyone feels a bit awkward as they stare at you like you just chose that moment at the company water cooler to come out of the closet. After 5 seconds or so, they pretend they didn’t hear you and resume their previous conversations, while you slink away, dejected. If it’s outside of the BCS, people don’t want to talk about it.
There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily; living in Jacksonville, I don’t expect people around here to care about Navy any more than I care about Florida. The problem is that my attitude isn’t reciprocated. Around here, if you don’t care all that much about the SEC, then you aren’t even a college football fan. No, tell someone that you root for Navy and you’re met with the most clever of responses, such as, “You mean they have a team?” followed by a hearty guffaw. With my pride crushed by such witty and stinging rebukes, I often escape to my elaborate fantasy land– otherwise known as NCAA 08 on Xbox– to alleviate my anger by building Navy into a national leviathan that tramples teams like Florida every week on the way to 9 straight national championships. Of course, even my fantasies have their limitations as I play my way to glory in some half-assed generic gong show of a stadium. It usually takes a year or two for EA to get around to including Navy-Marine Corps Menorial Stadium whenever the game moves onto next-generation consoles, while BCS conference stadiums are beautifully rendered down to the slightest detail from the beginning. But that’s life as a Navy fan.
So why do we do it? Why do we go through the trouble of unearthing scraps of information when we could have a bounty handed to us? Why put up with the indignities of national anonymity when we could instead revel with the fans around us? Wouldn’t it be easier to just put loyalty aside, find some typical bandwagon reason to like some other school (“my uncle went to Virginia Tech!”) and hop onboard the Mainstream Express? Yeah, it’d be easier. Easy, but empty. We don’t want to root for someone else. Nobody likes a bandwagon fan anyway. We are already as loyal and rabid about our team and the game as any other fan. We just happen to be loyal to schools that aren’t as celebrated. Our boosters might not maintain a log on how hard our coach is working based on on how late the light stays on in his office each night, but that doesn’t make us lesser fans. It makes us well-adjusted.
But this isn’t a plea for pity. As trying as it can be sometimes, there are perks to being a fan of a lower-profile school. The ability to afford season tickets without selling your children into slavery is a plus. And you’d be mistaken if you assumed that the on-field product was inferior. The BCS schools have the advantage in money, facilities, and for the most part, talent. But there’s more to college football than that. College football is more than the lowest-common-denominator world of ESPN, sports talk radio, and other hype outlets. Lost in the glamour of polls, highlights, and televised commitment announcements is the game itself.
We all love football, but we love it for different reasons. “College football” consists of so many different elements. We love the traditions, the rivalries, and the amazing athletes. Yet while each of these items are undeniably critical to the college football experience, they are only supplemental to the game. You know– the game. The coach at the chalkboard, Xs & Os kind of stuff. This is the cerebral component of college football, with coaches matching wits against each other in preparation for and during each game. It’s this clash of ideas that brings about the evolution of the sport, and it’s here that we find the true strength of non-BCS football. For those who enjoy creativity in strategy and scheme, this is the best show in town.
There’s a saying in football that gets tossed around a lot, almost to the point of cliché: “It ain’t about the Xs & Os, it’s about the Jimmies & Joes.” The expression makes the point that it’s talent rather than strategy that ultimately makes for a good football team. There’s truth in that. But for the coach outside of a BCS conference, it’s a truth he must disregard. In most cases, the talent won’t be going to his school. The talent is going to schools with glamour, big recruiting budgets, and posh facilities. But non-BCS coaches are under all the same pressure to win as their BCS counterparts. A lack of talent can’t be used as an excuse for losing. So what does the coach do? He hits the drawing board, and in doing so he begins the next cycle of football evolution.
The cycle goes something like this: faced with the pressure to win against more talented competition, a coach will devise a scheme that accentuates his team’s strengths while masking their weaknesses. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. At first, this new scheme is dismissed as a “gimmick” by media outlets and fans. But the more that team is winning, the more credible that scheme is in the eyes of the mainstream. Eventually, someone at a BCS school gets the idea that if a scheme works that well with lesser talent, it will be unstoppable with BCS talent. So the innovative coach is hired at a BCS school, where he installs his scheme and keeps on winning. Success breeds imitation, and other coaches start to incorporate bits of that scheme into their own systems. Eventually, what was once labeled a gimmick becomes part of the mainstream, and soon the non-BCS coaches are devising something else to overcome this new standard. The non-BCS coach subscribes to a slightly different bit of football wisdom: “Good football teams either do something different or they do it better.” Doing it better isn’t really possible without the best talent. That leaves doing things differently.
And when it comes to doing things differently, no place is better than the non-BCS conferences. This is the proving ground of football ideas. This is where Urban Meyer unleashed his offense before taking it to the SEC. This is where Paul Johnson did the impossible at Navy before taking his spread option to Georgia Tech. This is where Jim Grobe devised the schemes that would take Wake Forest to places it could never have imagined. This is where a school might be willing to take a chance on a high school legend like Art Briles at Houston or Todd Dodge at North Texas. This is the realm of Chris Ault’s pistol and Todd Graham’s Tulsa offense that leaves defenses cross-eyed. This is the last bastion of innovations past, with June Jones running the run & shoot to perfection and Ken Hatfield having clinged to the wishbone at Rice years after both were abandoned by everyone else. Innovation isn’t limited to the offensive side of the ball either, with coaches like Rocky Long perfecting his 3-3-5 scheme at New Mexico. The variety of schemes and ideas are what make the game of football interesting, and the laboratories for these ideas are the non-BCS conferences.
So why don’t more BCS schools innovate? Why don’t they take more chances? Sometimes they do, especially at schools that have traditionally struggled (Kentucky and Hal Mumme’s Air Raid, Duke with Spurrier’s fun & gun). But for the most part, BCS schools don’t want to innovate. It’s too risky. With the money at stake from boosters, TV, and ticket sales, there is tremendous pressure to win right away. That means hiring proven winners, not visionaries. Faith is something that doesn’t have a place in the BCS hiring process; they don’t want to believe that a coach can win games; they want to know that this coach will win games. And they usually have the money to hire someone who fits the bill.
That leaves the non-BCS schools to carry the flag of ingenuity. And that makes non-BCS football the thinking man’s game. Sure, nobody at the water cooler will care, but they aren’t football fans as much as they are fans of everything that surrounds it. Maybe you don’t have anyone to talk to, but hey– that’s life on the cutting edge. When we watch our games on Saturday, we’re watching the future of the sport.