I Didn’t Think I’d See You Here

Usually, there's not a ton of blockbuster stories that surface during the college football offseason. Decision days on the recruiting trail, spring games, and summer camps are seen as the standard fare of the sport's culture during the "in-between" months. Sometimes, tremors shake up that traditional culture before things settle back into routine. This spring and summer, several stories appear to be molding the perception of the sport away from that tradition. But are they actually highlighting an underside to the pageantry that comes from those Saturdays in the fall?

The two-time defending champions are about to open up their three-peat campaign to abundant fanfare and pressure. After decades of missing out on their potential, Georgia is flying at heights the program has never seen. But as the climb soars, everyone will be trying to clip the Dawgs' wings. UGA also needs to stay cautious about self-harm.

Since lifting their second consecutive trophy, players involved with the program have been cited for traffic-related moving incidents numbering in the double digits. The lowlight of this trend happened just nights after the dominant title win over TCU. A racing incident concluded with one deceased player, one deceased team staffer, and probation for star defensive tackle Jalen Carter. There's no doubt that Kirby Smart is a phenomenal football coach. However, with the number of incidents continuing to pile up, how hot can the spotlight get before those wings of victory melt away?

If you think of the most prestigious institutions in the sphere of high-level college football, Northwestern has to be near the top of the list. With some of the top educational programs in the nation, the private university sits in a handful of non-Ivy destinations where academics among athletes looks to be considered a notch above (including Duke and Stanford).

Admit it. When a story involving hazing amongst a football team hit the headlines, several top programs would come to mind well before the Chicago-area school would be the chosen ones. But there it was, sitting on the homepages of all our favorite sports sites. Once the news came out about coach Pat Fitzgerald's suspension and ultimate ouster, the floodgates have opened across much of the NU athletic department. I don't want to say I'm naive to knowing this could happen anywhere, but it was jarring when a place perceived as "on the up and up" is a hotbed for unsavory practices.

Now, let's take a trip west in Interstate 80. Across the Mississippi River is a state I'm somewhat familiar with. In the world of college pigskin, nobody will mistake Iowa or Iowa State for world-beaters. Heck, more often than not, the Cyclones (which, if you've read my musings over the years, you might know I'm one of them) have been the bug and not the windshield. For students in both Iowa City and Ames, current times are (at least) decent. But that all changed in early May, when reports surfaced that the schools were cooperating with state gambling regulators on allegations several Hawkeye and Cyclone athletes were illegally gambling. That group has expanded in recent days.

Two things about these allegations and/or charges. First, I enjoyed my time as a student in Central Iowa, but that doesn't mean the campus was Shangri-La (I, of course, can't speak to anyone else's experience at the school). Second, this isn't the first gambling crisis to hit the industry (yes, industry) of collegiate athletics. And it doesn't appear, as of now, that any in-game fixing or point shaving took place. This is a different world from scandals of the past. Money is more available through NIL and daily betting sites. The leap back to shaving or insider tips is just a thin line away. For this type of scandal to rise from the corn, though, was pretty jarring.

Then, you have the piece de resistance. Conference realignment has been the most consistent headline over the past few decades. Since the early 1990s, leagues have expanded in size, both numerically and geographically. Over that spell, the Southwest Conference dissolved, the WAC reformed, and independents were gobbled up like dots on a specific video game. Five main leagues grew out ahead of the others. For a while, they seemed untouchable. That changed a dozen years ago, when four Big 12 schools cut bait and ran to other conferences. The questions buzzed around the remaining members. "Who would latch on to other floating ships? Who would wither on the vine of major conference affiliation?" It turned out that cooler heads prevailed ... but that didn't last.

I will wholeheartedly admit this. I thought the Pac-12 was untouchable. Even more than the SEC, ACC, or Big Ten, the Pac-8/10/12 appeared to be the best definition of a conference on the collegiate level. I believed that the pairing of the schools, the proximity to large urban areas, and the camaraderie of being a western hub in a country that values its east and central much more consistently would have united the league through rough stretches. Most importantly, I thought the history would bind their causes enough to resist outside money. But the money was just too good. My theories were naive (at best) thinking that togetherness would ultimately beat out the dollar.

When USC and UCLA announced their departure last year, those questions from a dozen years back drifted westward by about 1,500 miles. With the meat picked pretty clean off the bone, Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State are in the same position folks thought Kansas, Iowa State, and Baylor would be in 2012. I sit here tonight still puzzled at the fact that this will be the last school year of the Pacific Conference, no matter what number is associated with it.

All these stories show the side of college football that fans don't want to force to the front of the line. The games will start in about two weeks. By Labor Day, everyone following the sport will be fully invested in another campaign for the CFP, me included. However, this offseason could provide a small template for how the game can improve. Traditions (rivalries, Bowl importance, etc.) and cultures (two-a-days, dictator coaches, etc.) wither or change all the time. Maybe looking forward is the only rational thing to do. And maybe it will take a couple more turbulent offseasons to get us thinking that way.

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