By Thomas Sanders
Fear not college football fans lamenting the upcoming bowl season hiatus, because it’s the most wonderful time of the year! We have finally arrived in that sliver of the sporting cycle where irrationality truly reigns supreme. Coaching watches, BCS blunders, distant playoff hopes, even an impending Mayan apocalypse prophecy; cue the Clay Travis, I mean Kenny Loggins, ladies and gentlemen, because we’re officially in the 2012 Danger Zone!
Any sports fan knows this zone well, and more than a few of you are directly contributing to the madness. Cue the Arkansas fan who wanted Les Miles sheepishly nodding. Passionately believing in the future of your team, be it an impending playoff run or the very distant future of, say, the Kentucky football team, is not a crime and I will not vilify it; but the fervor surrounding sheer speculation makes for fantastic commentary.
Go ahead and think for a moment—is there a single sport currently immune to the effects of the Danger Zone? With the NFL season winding down, more than a few high school dropouts suddenly know every playoff scenario and correlating percentage for their team’s wildcard picture. Baseball junkies feast on the never-ending whispers of the winter meetings. NBA superfans get to watch their fearless leader dish out quarter million dollar fines for resting veterans. Hockey enthusiasts, arguably the least entitled and most rational fan base in all of sports, face a different sort of Danger Zone altogether. Even Tiger Woods makes the occasional winter headline in the Danger Zone.
Here in the South, though, where rationality admittedly takes a backseat to most everything, college football escalates to near insanity come early December. Five-star recruits begin the time honored tradition of committing and de-committing between rival schools. Boosters and students alike rush to make last minute bowl game plans (I’m fairly certain the best time to buy airline stock is the Friday before Championship weekend). Undoubtedly the biggest stories each year—call them the President and Chancellor of Danger Zone U—are the bowl selections and the inevitable coaching vacancies. Other than NFL stories, these two angles really drive the sports media landscape for four weeks in December, and drive the rest of us without a dog in the hunt insane.
Bowl selection committees operate a lot like the American government: their power is unchecked and their decisions are based entirely on their own financial implications, but they claim their choices are made in the best interest of the fans. Try to imagine any other sport egregiously picking and choosing their match-ups based on the cash value of their opponent. What if Major League Baseball auctioned off the rights to play the Yankees in the playoffs each year because they represent the largest market? Or if the NFL used revenue speculation as a tiebreaker? The NFL Sunday Countdown set would spontaneously combust. Merrill Hodge, the king of foolish banter himself, would probably suffer that aneurism we’ve all been predicting. And yet we all buy into such a system for the college game. The four team playoff of 2014 will alleviate some of the nonsense, like Northern Illinois laughably beating out Oklahoma for a BCS bid, but the vast majority of college football will still be stuck at the mercy of a few baby boomers.
Vanderbilt understands this unfortunate truth better than most other teams this year. After leading the Commodores to their second straight bowl bid and a very impressive 8-4 record, Coach Franklin and his team will be staying in Tennessee for the second straight year because Gator Bowl officials deemed a sinking Mississippi State team, fresh off an embarrassing Egg Bowl loss, the better option for their pockets. If we’re going to allow complete subjectivity to affect these decisions, then Gator Bowl officials should be ashamed, because their decision just failed the eye test.
Every sports fan knows that winning championships comes one of two ways: fielding the best team, no questions asked, or getting hot at the right time. Is there an SEC fan alive not shaking one of those miserable cow bells that thinks Mississippi State would beat Vandy on a neutral field if they played this Saturday? Granted, bowl committees make selections based on projected travel and economic footprint of a fan base, but how can you overlook a team clearly playing great football coming off a historic season with fans of significant means? Because Vanderbilt fans travel poorly? You cannot make that argument with much certainty because no season has unfolded like this before, thus no precedent has been set. Or maybe because of a rematch with Northwestern? Both of these programs look to be headed in the right direction, so wouldn’t a rematch set the stage for a nice out of conference rivalry down the line? The absurdity here is palpable.
Bowl selection controversy makes for a nice Danger Zone appetizer, but look no further than a viral coaching rumor if you’re really hungry for some irrational hope. More than a few premiere SEC coaching vacancies arose these past few weeks, but none more shrouded in false hope and zealous enthusiasm than the University of Tennessee opening. As Derek Dooley’s ship slowly sank, UT fans decided to parlay two equally hilarious pipedreams around tailgates and sports bars throughout the South: a) that, despite a non-existent defense and a quarterback with his own name tattooed on his back, the Vols were sure to beat Vanderbilt handily in Nashville; and b) ESPN Monday Night Football announcer Jon Gruden was definitely going to come save their program from a future of losing to Vanderbilt regularly (a fate worse than death to be sure).
Of course neither of these guarantees came to fruition, and now the Vols fan base, with enough egg on their face to make the world’s largest orange omelet, isn’t even all that fun to lambast anymore. They’re like the bad joke that “the loud guy” tells at the bar: it builds and builds with intensity as the crowd’s anticipation slowly turns to impatience, and when finally the payoff seems inevitable, even after a few lies to dress it up a little, the punch line completely misses the mark. It’s sad, really; like the feeling of driving to Chick-fil-A on a hungover Sunday morning, only to end up settling for something far less delicious. Metaphors almost don’t do the situation justice—not only did they think an ex-NFL coach with the cushiest job in all of broadcasting may want to coach in Knoxville, but they were legitimately convinced it was happening.
Name any situation where complete and utter blind faith makes for a good situation. “I’m pretty sure Angelina Jolie would leave Brad if she just knew how much I wanted her … I better go track her down and knock on her door.” I actually hope for the sake of the SEC that Tennessee returns to relevancy soon; the conference is stronger when UT plays well. Hopefully, though, they understand that nobody in this elite conference is entitled to success, and that failure makes the program stronger for the future.
Actually, forget of all that nonsense; this is the Danger Zone, where anything goes! Merry Danger Zone, sports fans, because it’s truly a special time of year. Now all we need is a freshman to win the Heisman…