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Confessions of a College Football Convert

After adopting the Michigan Wolverines, a longtime agnostic discovers the sport’s ecstasy — and agony

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This weekend I Googled the words “michigan football playoff hopes” and yelled, “It’s short! SHORT!!!!!” at the TV. In the days since, I have developed convoluted opinions on things like strength of schedule and sought solace from sideline tantrum GIFs. I tuned in — eagerly! — to a weekly show involving opaque rankings determined with the input of, among others, Condoleezza Rice. I currently feel both glum and, weirdly, cynically optimistic. I never thought it would happen, but I am becoming a college football fan.

Last night, ESPN aired, as it does every Tuesday in November, the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings for NCAA FBS football. The manufactured dramatics were off the chart: At the start of the segment, over B-roll footage of the 12-member committee sitting in a conference room and looking all serious-faced, was a voice-over reminder that this was college football’s “power chamber and epicenter; its capital and congress.” Heavy stuff, man. But you can understand why: Under the current championship system, adopted in 2013 and first implemented the following season, four teams will get the chance to compete for the national title, and that power chamber is where the hopefuls are dissected and selected.

This week’s biggest question was: What would happen to Michigan? That held particular interest for me because, in what is probably a breach of conventional journalistic ethics, I’ve turned into a fledgling enthusiast for all things Wolverine. What can I say: I went to Ann Arbor for a week in September to write about the team in the era of Jim Harbaugh and came home unexpectedly smitten, like Steve Martin’s daughter going abroad in Father of the Bride. I’m not even ashamed of this forbidden bias; I embrace it. It has done nothing but open my eyes to the midday glories and night terrors of college football.

Jake Butt (Getty Images)
Jake Butt (Getty Images)

Michigan football hooked me with its early-season blowout victories and tighter, bigger wins over rivals like Michigan State. Veterans like Chris Wormley and Jake Butt have provided consistent highlight-reel plays all season, while coveted NFL prospects like Jabrill Peppers are a reminder of why it’s so fun to be there for the dawn of what could be a brilliant career. Harbaugh isn’t for everyone, but to me, he’s like a combustible acquaintance: As long as you never get too close, you can sit back and just let the theatrics endlessly entertain you.

But it’s possible I’m getting too close. The past few weeks have been a rougher ride, a mere glimpse into the tumultuousness of a typical college football season. Winning the national championship seems like an impossibility: Just getting the chance to try requires a constantly evolving team of near-children remaining close to perfect over the course of a 12- or 13-game season. (NFL teams, meanwhile, can barely squeak past .500 and still win Super Bowls.) Even in a post-BCS world, the scope and sprawl of FBS football means that it will forever be hostage to subjective decisions by conflicted parties.

The margin for error is so tiny, which is what makes every week feel so huge. And it’s why, for Michigan this weekend, a 30–27 double-overtime loss to hated Ohio State culminated in devastation, Harbaugh earning the university a five-figure fine, blog posts involving “parallax errors” — and a significantly increased probability that, whether deserving or nah, the Wolverines won’t make that four-team playoff to get a shot at a national title.

I am, like so many people, drawn to athletics for their unpredictability, their aesthetic beauty, their reminder of the awesome things the human body and mind can do. But come on, let’s be honest, I’m also in it to celebrate the absurd. I praise the weirdo eccentrics, on the field and in the stands, who are so deadly serious about such total pointlessness. I enjoy the meta-arguments and drink in the camera shots of sad fans in full-body paint. College football has all of the above, from the truly transcendent to the laughably frivolous. It is a sport that both creates and feeds upon catastrophic disarray. It is, by all metrics, a sport for me.

For years, though, I’ve tried and failed to find my way into the Thunderdome of college football, never quite successfully latching on to a team. I’ve watched Twitter roll by for hours at a time without understanding the references even a little and had zero idea who anyone was in the NFL draft. I longed to get on the level of the crazed humans who leave unhinged ROLL DAMN TIDE comments on, like, recipe blogs and dissect the actions of athletic directors as if they are world leaders. What must it be like to wake up at the butt crack of a Saturday in hopes that your topical dick jokes will make the background of ESPN? I have always admired that. But as someone from New Jersey who attended a university with an extra-mediocre Division I-AA football program, I had no obvious in, no birthright.

I tried to get into Boston College football once, because I had a manager at work who had gone there (and a little bit of Catholic guilt). After the New York Giants drafted BC’s Mathias Kiwanuka in 2006, I’d email my coworker, company BlackBerry to company BlackBerry, whenever he made a good play. It was a weird time: Most NYC cabs didn’t take cards yet; the stock market soared; my job involved breaking it to millionaires that sought-after funds were closed to new investors. I was 24. My roommate and I were too cheap for cable, so I never actually tuned into BC games. Eventually my coworker got fired; a great deal of those funds no longer exist. But while I will always have a particular love for Kiwanuka, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, when it came to the Boston College Eagles, my attempted faith eventually lapsed.

That wasn’t even the only time I have tried and failed to love a college football team. There was a brief Notre Dame phase with a two-part rationale: The team was reliably on TV, and I’ve got Rudy memorized like the total basic that I am. There was an attempt to like LSU: I suspected, based on my Twitter feed, that I could expect consistent antics from Les Miles. But for whatever reason, it never took. Out of allegiance to my home state, I faithfully spend a few minutes each September wondering if maybe Rutgers will be any good, or even interesting, this time around. The answer is reliably no.

I once watched a Giants-Steelers game from a divey, mostly empty bar outside Biloxi, Mississippi. When Eli Manning threw a touchdown, people cheered along with me, and I couldn’t understand why. “Is this a Giants bar?” I asked. A man put out his cigarette and laughed. “Sweetheart,” he said, “this bar is Ole Miss.” I so wanted in.

It all changed this fall, when I attended the Michigan blowout of Hawaii and was treated to delicious pork sandwiches at tableclothed tailgates; a fired-up, chest-pounding Harbaugh; and a memorable debut from true freshman running back Chris Evans. It’s possible I was a cheap date, but I was immediately sold. Since then, I’ve faithfully tuned in to Wolverines games just about every Saturday, and it has opened up a whole new athletics realm.

For a while, I felt weird about this, kinda guilty and lame. After all, my timing here was uncommonly fortuitous: The Wolverines have been struggling for years now, and my buy-in came conveniently after a grueling spell of tough, big losses, like last season’s heartbreaker against Michigan State. My taste is unrefined and super obvious. I feel like a tourist who spends a weekend in New York City and raves about discovering Carmine’s or this cool new neighborhood called Downtown. I understand that Harbaugh makes many reasonable, longtime football fans physically recoil. But whatever: We all start somewhere, and for me, that somewhere involved khaki pants and a perfect sky that looked like the opening credits to The Simpsons. That somewhere featured horn-rimmed glasses and even had a connection, in Peppers, to my New Jersey roots. And with nine consecutive wins to open the season, that somewhere seemed like it might be destined to go, well, somewhere.

But ah, there’s the rub, that’s how they getcha. For years, my lone impression of college football was that everyone was always bickering — not about players, even, and sometimes about coaches, but always about the intricacies of rankings and conferences and conference rooms and polls. So much angst, so much analysis. The whole enterprise seemed specifically engineered to cause maximum dissent. Now I understand this obsession, and have started to feed off it. I have read playoff predictions that resemble coverage of Congress, so devoted are they to lobbying and unpacking shady alliances. I have realized why so many college coaches are tyrannical loons: So much can come down to one tiny detail; a whole season of precision can be undone by one bounce here or there. It’s excruciating and irresistible.

Michigan has been a top-four team since mid-September, and after a small road loss hinging on inches to an Ohio State program ranked second nationally and almost certainly poised to earn a playoff berth, the Wolverines fell to fifth — first loser — in this week’s ranking. It was an announcement that clarified everything and nothing at all. The Wolverines still have a shot, but it’s a long one, and they are no longer reliant on themselves. At the very least, Michigan would seem to need Colorado, which it beat in nonconference play and also carries two losses, to beat one-loss Washington. But even then there’s added Big Ten competition from Wisconsin and Penn State, who will play for the conference title on Saturday while the Wolverines sit anxiously idle. They are ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, and both have two losses as well; but whoever wins the game will have a conference title, and thus a strong case for a playoff berth. But Michigan will too.

I’ve resorted to reminding myself that every year, college football goes up in a cloud of controversy; maybe this is the one where a surprise Michigan berth is the reason for widespread dissent. I’m also well aware that this season, in general, has defied all sorts of expectations. But that doesn’t mean it won’t wind up a disappointing what-if. (As a Mets fan, I know how that goes.) For now, the grotesque carnival ride that is college football continues to rise and fall and spin around and around, and now that I’ve hopped on I feel nauseous. But I’ll take that any day over having felt nothing at all.