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No Future For You

“Crescere Aude” can’t replace “Non Faciem Meam”

The game has changed. Sure, it’s still four downs to make ten yards, and it’s six points for a touchdown, but that’s just what’s on the field. And what happens on the field is mostly tangential to the direction of college football for the last thirty years.

Because it was thirty years ago that the SEC expanded to 12 teams - so they could use a rule originally promulgated for Division II in order to stage a conference title game. And it almost went wrong from the outset - had Antonio Langham not made a critical fourth-quarter interception, an undefeated Alabama would have lost to an 8-3 Florida team, and who knows what would have come of that? But Alabama won, then went on to throttle Miami, and we were set irrevocably on our present course. Because the SEC had 12 teams, before Tulane and Georgia Tech decamped in the 1960s, but this time, there was a playoff.

People who clamored for a playoff for years didn’t seem to see that we already had one, inasmuch as everyone raced to 12 and you now had to get through a title game in multiple conferences for title consideration. The BCS process attempted to put a veneer of science and math over what was still a “them that has, gets” approach - ask Auburn or Cal about 2004, then plug your ears - but we finally ended up with an official four-team playoff. Which immediately led for clamoring for a six or eight team playoff, as if the conference title games didn’t effectively mean a ten-team playoff as is. And sure enough, this time last year the plan was twelve teams - because every Power 5 champion must be free-rolled, whether they deserve it or not, and Alabama and Ohio State and Clemson must have a way in even if they slip up. And right on time, the SEC prepares to expand from fourteen to sixteen, in a constant push west absorbing bits of the Big (sic) 12. It has reached a point where some writers openly speculate about the SEC setting up its own playoff and challenging the CFP winner in some sort of College Super Bowl.

And then comes Name-Image-Likeness. A long overdue phenomenon, when legitimate. Every player in college football deserves an equal check for having their name in EA College Football ‘23. Every player whose name and number is on a T-shirt at the bookstore deserves a cut. Where it has already gotten completely out of hand is in the realm of booster collectives offering “endorsement” money to players who haven’t even signed with the school yet. The kind of underhanded dealings that predated the courting of Marcus Dupree are now over the table, and Steven Godfrey’s bagmen have their own branding. The quick test is this: could the player stand up there in a generic black and white uniform and make the same endorsement money? If not, that’s not NIL money, that’s payroll. And it has the potential to wreck some athletic departments, because boosters who might have given a million dollars to the athletic department - and seen some of it trickle down to cross-country or swimming or golf - are now as likely as not to give it to the NIL collective so it can go directly into the pockets of Arch Manning. Which then leaves the athletic department looking for money elsewhere - sometimes in a conference TV deal on the literal other side of the country. And now the Power 5 looks like it’s about to be the Last 2.

The problem is, the football tail has wagged the collegiate dog for far too long. The SEC expanded to fourteen, then sixteen teams, all for the sake of just the one sport - in fairness, the only one that actually matters to the conference. But when everything is bent toward the championship aspirations of two or three schools at most in only one sport, and you aren’t one of those three schools or particularly good at that one sport, you have to wonder where the Hell do you fit into all this?

So now, over on West End Avenue, our degree of difficulty is even higher than ever before. Other schools are essentially running their own professional football programs now. To our existing challenges posed by legitimate academic requirements, by decades of losing seasons, by the opprobrium of media and the indifference of locals, we now add the necessity of keeping up with the football Kardashians - with their cash payments to recruits, with their marketing efforts for individual players, with their facilities that cause some SEC players to arrive in the NFL and wrinkle their noses at the step down. We are in a conference where fully half of the membership thinks it should be challenging for a college football national championship every single season, and spends and operates accordingly.

And then there’s us.

Football is different here. We could always be at least somewhat competitive in everything else. We got in on the leading edge of the modern rise of college baseball and have kept abreast of things, thanks to the donations of our many MLB alumni and the generosity of fans and boosters. Basketball only has a dozen or so scholarships, and a couple of the right players can turn things around in a year (if you can keep them, which is its own set of problems, of which more later, perhaps). The delta between our programs and others in tennis, or bowling, or cross-country or golf or (insert non-revenue sport here) is not that great most of the time.

But in football - with eighty-five scholarships (and the resulting Title IX imbalance) and thirty assistant coaches and casino-VIP-grade facilities and the need to provide ESPN or Fox with a studio audience of tens of thousands for your weekly performance, assuming you get carried on something other than the alternate cable channel - the gap between the haves and the never-will-haves has become insurmountable. We’re looking at the prospect of a world where 8 wins - equal to our greatest regular-season total in a century - might not be enough to finish in the upper half of our conference.

But what choice do we have? When U$C - the football tradition west of the Rockies, half of the only truly great and historic intersectional rivalry in the sport, Hollywood’s team and LA’s de facto pro football representative for two decades or more - when they have to fly the coop for fear of being on the outside looking in, how can we do anything but cling to the SEC like a pit bull to a gangster’s ankle? We’re reaching a point where it’s not a choice between the SEC or the ACC or the B2G, it’s a choice between the SEC or the UAA. Because in the brave new world of the Super League, a quarter-billion dollars for Vandy United just got reduced to table stakes. And if it’s up to anyone else at all, when the final invites to the One True Grownups Table Of College Sports (By Which We Mean Football, Obviously, Nothing Else) go out, ours will say “you shall NOT go to the ball.”

So, in the cold light of day, what is to be done? I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to enjoy it.