On An Island
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There's really only one thing on my mind the last 10 days. My fan experience - it could be just The Illini Football Fan Experience, but this view is probably fairly uniquely my own - is so different from every other college fanbase. At least that's how it feels when I flip through Twitter during bowl season. All fall I feel like I'm mostly following the same sport as everyone else. Back half of December I'm all "are you guys talking about the NFL or something?"
Let's just start with me giving you answers to the questions bouncing around social media these days.
"Should the playoff be 4, 8, or 12 teams?"
I don't care. Honestly don't care.
"Would expanding the playoff hurt the regular season or help it?"
Do I care? I don't care. What are you even talking about? I'm trying to get my team to win six games.
"When players opt out of bowl games, does it hurt the sport?"
The sport? Why would I care about "the sport"? Get out of here with The Sport.
"Are there too many bowl games?"
Look man, I don't know how to help you. I cheer for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. They happen to be in the Big Ten. Had I chosen to go to Millikin, I would be attending Millikin football games in the fall, home and away. And I'd probably have a Millikin blog. And I'd be writing about the 49-7 loss to Wheaton College in the final game which would stick with me the entire offseason. Go have your "should the NFL have expanded to 14 playoff teams?"-ish discussion somewhere else.
I get a little testy when I ask myself questions.
In the fall, most all College Football Twitter discussions feel familiar to me. Traditions and rivalries and tailgating and whatnot. But once we get to late December, I'm confused by nearly everything I read.
Part of this is something I've written about many times. That I'm not a college football fan, I'm an Illinois football fan. I rarely watch non-Illini college games. My Saturdays are not "there's our game at 11:00, and then Michigan State-Iowa is on at 2:30 and I want to watch Georgia-LSU at night" - it's just "there's an Illini game at 11:00" full stop. If I do watch a college night game, it's usually because we won and I want to see if they mention us on the broadcast (seriously). Hey, I warned you that my views are "probably fairly uniquely my own."
But being that kind of fan feels normal in the fall when I flip through social media. There's not much discussion of "the sport" and lots of discussion that aligns with the way that I follow my team: Team X beat Team Y and that means Team Z is still alive in their division. Also, here's a fun video of Team X celebrating with a ridiculous rivalry trophy.
Then we get to bowl season and it's The Sport The Sport The Sport. "Is it good for college football that Alabama and Georgia are so much better than everyone else or is it bad for college football?" I don't even think I have an opinion. I'm pretty much only focused on the Drive For Six followed by (pinch me) Illinois someday winning eight games in one season. If I have three hours to watch football, I'm choosing Illini re-watches on BTN Plus over the Outback Bowl 100 times out of 100. Unless, you know, Illinois is in the Outback Bowl (IT WILL HAPPEN).
Another part of this, of course, is the fact that we're one of the five-worst Power Five programs the last 25 years. When you have no hope of ever making the playoff, you adopt a Jim Mora Sr. view towards playoffs. Put an Illinois fan in a room with two Kansas fans and a Rutgers fan and nobody is going to be discussing the playoff. Playoffs??
"But Robert," you say. "The 2001 team was 8th in the final BCS ranking. In an 8-team playoff it would have been a matchup with #1 Miami and in a 12-team playoff it would have been an 8/9 game with Stanford." Yes, true, and that would have been a lot of fun, but that doesn't feel like "getting to the playoffs" to me. There's a Saints fan somewhere today saying "the Rams will beat the 49ers so we just need to beat the Falcons on Sunday, get into the playoffs, and then anything can happen." And they're right. The 2005 Steelers did just that (got in as the lowest seed) and then won the Super Bowl. If you want a baseball example, I give you the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. 83-78, World Series Champions.
That's not the same as a 12-team college football playoff, though. The 2001 Illini would have been what, 24-point underdogs to Miami in that game? It would have been fun to get in, but once we were in, my thoughts would immediately turn to "just don't get 60-balled."
Maybe I shouldn't even use Illinois here. Let's use Iowa. Iowa has been to 18 bowls in 20 years. And they would have made a few of these 8-team and 12-team playoffs if the field was bigger. But not one of those Iowa teams - not their 12-2 2015 team, not their 11-2 2009 team - would have had even the slightest chance to win the playoff. The sport just doesn't work like that. There's no salary cap to keep things even, no draft to fairly distribute the talent. Like the English Premier League, there will always be 4-5 teams with significantly more talent. I've accepted it. And I don't hate it.
I see it like a Mercer Bears fan would see the NCAA Tournament. Winning the conference tournament and getting into the Big Dance is a dream come true. And sometimes, the dream doesn't stop there. If the stars are aligned just right, you can knock off Duke in the first round. But no Mercer fan ever dreams of winning it all. It's basically impossible. You can pull off one upset, maybe even two. But six consecutive upsets? Not remotely possible.
As a result, I doubt a Mercer Bears fan even cares about the things that high major basketball fans discuss at Tournament time. "Is NET really the best way to seed the field?" "How should protected seeds be handled?" "These Big Ten officials are calling this game so drastically different from the typical Pac 12 game and it's unfair." The Mercer fans are just happy to be there. A dream come true would be winning one game, not six.
That's mostly how I feel when I open Twitter during bowl season. I'm completely on an island. "Is the playoff good for the sport? Should it be expanded?" I don't really care. I mostly want to know if we can find a safety to replace Kerby so that we might be able to hold the defense together enough that we could possibly win six games and go to the Motor City Bowl. Where I would absolutely be Just Happy To Be There.
I care about tailgates and The Hat. I'm here for the Illini Walk and hoping that our punter wins the Eddleman-Fields Big Ten Punter Of The Year award. I can tell you anything you want to know about the 2008 Illini spring game. Before going to bed last night I watched the four touchdowns in 11 minutes and 11 seconds from the Northwestern game in November and I don't understand why you didn't. People think I'm joking when I start things like Kerby Joseph For All American campaigns on Twitter but I was 100% completely serious. He should have been a first team All American.
And like some Brentford Bees fan in the Premier League, I don't spend a single moment thinking about winning a championship (or even somehow getting to Europe). That's that other sport played by those other teams over there. This is my team over here, and we have our own set of goals, and we're good with that.
The tailgate I attended after the Minnesota game in November - a bunch of Illinois fans celebrating next to the stadium long after every single Minnesota fan went home - felt great because of that. This is our thing, and we have our own little set of goals, and we don't reach them very often, but when we do, it feels amazing.
Found a little video I took that day and made a quick gif of it. An entire parking lot of Gopher fans headed home sad, leaving one tiny group in orange who had planted a flag and claimed their parking lot. The Minnesota tent made it even sweeter.
That's what I care about. Honestly, that's it right there. Not playoffs, not opt-outs, not The Sport. I have a team, I'm fully aware that historically we're not very good, and when we win on the road (and I'm there), it feels like Christmas. Yes, the losses are painful, and no, I don't want to stay "historically not very good" forever. Talk to me when walking out of Iowa 63, Illinois 0 and I can barely speak.
But for now, I'm good just trying to clear the next hurdle. Those teams over there - they play a different sport with different expectations. They can debate the playoff all they want. For me, I just want to plan next year's road trips. Wisconsin? Nebraska? Michigan?
See you there.