It’s the Last Year of College Football as We Know It

Coming into this season, I didn't have much hope for the sport being all that exciting or compelling this fall. By the end of August, we had witnessed another round of realignment, leading to the destruction of the Pac-12 and the ultimate nail in the coffin to the regionalism and rivalries that once defined college football.

But now, at the end of September, we might have the most interesting season in years. For example, there's the return of powers of yesteryear like Texas, Florida State, and Washington. Caleb Williams has a real shot at becoming the first two-time Heisman winner in almost 50 years.

Every Power Five conference has a team well inside the Top 10 in the rankings. Washington State and Oregon State each have a chance at the playoff before effectively being relegated out of college football's Premier League. Even Coach Prime's Colorado, who most likely won't factor in the Pac-12 championship race, provided national TV ratings and coast-to-coast intrigue not seen from a team in the Western time zones since the heyday of Pete Carroll's USC dynasty.

It's impossible not to think of this season as the absolute end of an era. Next season, we'll have a Power Four set of conferences with at least 16 teams in each league, and the most geographically compact of those still spanning from Austin, Texas, to Columbia, South Carolina. I'm unsure if the casual or die-hard college football fan has come to terms with some matchups that will qualify as conference games for the next few seasons.

Just a few examples include:

* Colorado vs. UCF
* Cal vs. Wake Forest
* Oregon vs. Rutgers
* Oklahoma vs. Vanderbilt
* SMU vs. Syracuse

I brainstormed all of those off the top of my head, and I still wasn't ready to consider Oklahoma and Cincinnati a Big 12 matchup a couple of weeks ago, which it is for only one year. There's going to be some off-putting sticker shock with these games.

2024 realignment also happens to coincide with playoff expansion to 12 teams. Coupled with the Pac-12's demise and a likely 6+6 model of conference champions and at-large teams, we could see Group of 5 leagues get two teams in the playoff after so many years of 13-0 teams outside the Power leagues being left out. Personally, I would love to see a best-of-three series between Washington State and Oregon State for a "2-Pac" automatic bid next season, but that probably isn't happening.

As a human being capable of processing emotions, you might be familiar with experiencing the feeling of things going swimmingly in a personal or professional setting only to expect or intuitively suspect something bad about to happen. In American English, it's typically referred to as "waiting for the other shoe to drop."

In the case of being a college football fan, I had been approaching this season as waiting for that realignment shoe to drop. But that shoe already dropped with the Sept. 1 announcement of the ACC adding SMU, Stanford, and Cal. Unfortunately, fans like you and me had no say in that decision or any of the other moves that caused the Pac-12 to wither.

The super-conference era marks a point of no turning back for college football, and I'm not looking forward to it. Perhaps there will be unexpected positives that will come about, but having to fly across the country for a conference game when you'll only be playing half the teams in the league in any given season doesn't feel like college football to me. It seems like a Triple-A version of the NFL with a few rivalries still to be played every year. Perhaps it was naive to expect anything different as TV money and the playoff grew.

But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy this final season of relative sanity.

In addition to what I mentioned near the beginning of this piece about the 2023 season providing some unexpected fun and storylines, there's also the fact that the Alabama/Clemson duopoly that defined much of the four-team CFP era has been broken. Alabama could still make the playoff, but the Tide will have to beat Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, Kentucky, Auburn, and Georgia to get there with one loss. Yardage totals aren't everything, but Alabama currently ranks 11th in the SEC in total offense and 13th in passing yardage. Clemson already has two losses and is playing for an outside shot at a conference title and a New Year's Six bowl.

If you think Georgia and Michigan are merely the new Alabama and Clemson, respectively, that's fair. But Auburn showed that Georgia isn't invincible on both lines, and the Dawgs have four more ranked teams to play. Michigan has blown out everyone to this point, but calling its schedule cupcake-soft is an insult to cupcakes. It's more tres leches cake-soft. Michigan/Georgia is the most likely title game, sure, but there's a much greater chance of it not happening, and that's a good thing for college football this season.

There's no turning back for college football after the realignment hi-jinx of the summer. But an unpredictable season — and perhaps the most entertaining season of the College Football Playoff era — awaits us for the rest of the fall.

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