After an offseason that can best be described as “too **** long”, football has returned to us at last. The final season of the Bowl Championship Series is underway, and true to form, a national title controversy is brewing as usual, with Clemson, Oregon, Ohio State, and the SEC West powers eyeing their championship hopes while Louisville looks on from the outside. The elites jostle for position and strut their resumes for the press in the one sport where, inexplicably, newspaper columnists’ opinions directly matter.
However, we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. This Saturday provided an instant classic between two title contenders and newfound rivals, Texas A&M and Alabama. The Aggies, led by Jonathan “Johnny Football” “Johnny Heisman” “That Guy Who Constantly Draws Condescending Remarks From SportsCenter Anchors” Manziel, first freshman Heisman Trophy winner, who managed to eclipse even Tim Tebow’s high bar for incessant media attention…ahem. Anyway, the Aggies were seeking to defend their home field against the top-ranked juggernaut Alabama Crimson Tide, who came into College Station seeking revenge for their lone defeat in last year’s national championship campaign. The hype was turbocharged, the star power tangible, the atmosphere electric. And the game delivered on all of it. Manziel and Co. struck first, building a shocking 14-0 lead on two almost-effortless touchdown drives, and the near-record crowd at Kyle Field Home of the Twelfth Man (that may as well be the stadium’s official name) was roaring its approval. Alabama began to show its teeth, however, and a pair of Manziel interceptions let the Tide go into halftime with a two-touchdown lead. In the process, controversy erupted regarding the NCAA’s new automatic-ejection rule for targeted helmet-leading hits, as the Alabama safety Ha’Sean “HaHa” Clinton-Dix was flagged for apparently incidental helmet-to-helmet contact with an Aggie receiver. The initial ejection ruling was overturned on replay, but the personal foul flag stood. The safety rules evened out in the end, however, as A&M suffered a similar personal foul in the fourth quarter when a player lost his helmet and continued to pursue the play. Say what you will about the aggressive new player safety rules, but their implementation thus far has been somewhat disruptive, reactionary, and at times nonsensical.
Alabama opened up a lead that reached 21 points by the start of the fourth, and seemed able to move at will against the Aggie defense. However, a fumble on A&M’s goal line followed by a 95-yard touchdown pass from Manziel got the Aggies right back in it. A&M scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and was an onside kick away from potentially tying the game, falling just short in a 49-42 thriller. However, Manziel utterly devastated the Tide’s vaunted defense, putting up 628 yards of offense and scoring more points than any Tide opponent in the Saban era. Alabama looked vulnerable earlier in the season against Virginia Tech, and this game did nothing to alter that perception. The Tide may need to lean on veteran quarterback AJ McCarron to put up enough points to win, which leaves Alabama vulnerable to a bad offensive game. The Aggies, meanwhile, have effectively lost their SEC title hopes, as Alabama would likely need to lose two conference games to allow A&M back in the hunt.
Meanwhile, across the world of college football, Oregon continued to show its muscle, shaking off a slow start to run up 59 points on an overmatched Tennessee team. Ohio State rolled against Cal, and UCLA overcame an 18-point deficit to hammer Nebraska. Arizona State escaped with a controversial victory over Wisconsin when a Sun Devil defender held onto the football after a play with the clock running in the final seconds, preventing Wisconsin from a clock-stopping spike play; the officials failed to assess a delay of game penalty and the clock ran out on the Badgers in a game that called back memories of last season’s “Fail Mary” play at the end of the Seahawks-Packers game. Aside from the headline game, it was a fairly uneventful weekend in college football, and next week seems likely to continue this trend; ESPN’s College Gameday, for instance, will be travelling to Fargo, North Dakota, to cover the high-profile Division 1-AA game between North Dakota State and Delaware State.
As the season unfolds into conference play, the national title picture will slowly become clearer. Until then, there is always the argument, the lobbying, the beauty pageant that is college football. We won’t really miss this aspect of the game when it’s gone, but for better or worse, it helps to define this sport. College football is gloriously quirky, and it is great for it.