The 2017 college football season technically started last Saturday, when Colorado State beat the brakes off Oregon State, Rice tried really hard against Stanford, and new South Florida head coach Charlie Strong almost got fired at the end of the first quarter against San Jose State until his Bulls ultimately rallied to win pretty easily. All of that is fine and well, but like every other red-blooded American, I don’t consider the college football season to be truly underway until I throw on ESPN and see Lee Corso acting a fool, Kirk Herbstreit overselling the genius of a man who goes by “Bear” and wears a drive-thru headset, and someone like Kenny Chesney predicting the scores of MAC games as drunk kids in the background try to get cameramen to notice their signs emblazoned with dick jokes. College GameDay isn’t a television show so much as it’s an announcement of autumn’s arrival, not unlike Halloween or collectively cheering against the Yankees. Sure, Corso has gotten a little nuttier, Herbstreit’s frosted tips have darkened, and Chris Fowler looks a lot like Rece Davis these days. But there’s no denying that there’s a special charm to what GameDay brings to the college football experience, especially when the show is COMIIIIIINNNGG TO YOUR CITTTAAAAAYYYYYYY.
On Thursday, that CITTTAAAAAYYYYYYY will be Bloomington, Indiana, home of the Indiana University Hoo—wait, WHAT? GameDay is kicking off the new season by coming to Indiana? For football? Is this real life?
Well I’ll be damned. This might just be the biggest moment for Indiana football since Purdue’s entire program was flushed down the toilet when Kyle Orton fumbled against Wisconsin in 2004.
No, seriously. I don’t think the general public understands just how bad Indiana football is. I mean, I’m sure that most people are vaguely aware that the Hoosiers have sucked, but the extent to which is remarkable. Consider this: Indiana’s first football team was formed in 1887, one year before Jack the Ripper started killing prostitutes in London. The Hoosiers have won only three bowl games since. Alabama has won more national championships in the past eight years than Indiana has won bowl games in the past 130. The Jacksonville Jaguars have won more playoff games in the past 21 years than Indiana has won bowl games ever. The Hoosiers haven’t been ranked in any version of the AP poll since 1994 and have had only one winning season since 1995 (when they went 7-5 in the 2007 regular season before getting their asses kicked by Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl). Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns have posted two winning seasons since 1995, and they didn’t even exist for three of those years.
I know what you’re thinking. Of course Indiana sucks. It’s a basketball school! This is an excellent point, which is why I should mention that North Carolina and Duke each have more 10-win seasons in the past four years than Indiana has ever had, Kentucky beat top-ranked LSU in 2007 and was ranked no. 8 in the AP poll for a couple of weeks that fall, UCLA has been ranked in the top 10 at some point in eight of the previous 20 seasons, and Louisville boasts the defending Heisman Trophy winner. Michigan State has had a top-10 team at some point in each of the past seven seasons; Kansas won a goddamn BCS bowl (Never forget: Kansas has more BCS bowl wins than Notre Dame); Arizona has defeated more top-10 opponents under Rich Rodriguez than Indiana has under every coach it's had since World War II; UConn became an FBS program in 2000 and already has as many bowl wins as Indiana; and Syracuse’s storied history includes legends like Jim Brown and Greg Paulus.
That’s how bleak things have been for Indiana football. The best player in program history (running back Anthony Thompson) played in 37 NFL games and scored just six touchdowns. The most famous player in school history (Antwaan Randle El) set all sorts of records for total yards (passing and rushing) and touchdowns, yet still went just 16-28 in his four years in Bloomington. I can’t stress it enough: Football season exists at Indiana solely for students to prepare their livers for basketball season.
Which brings me to the present, with no. 2 Ohio State visiting Bloomington and bringing the eyes of the college football world with it for what feels like the biggest Hoosiers football game of all time. Regardless of whether that label is accurate (it’s not—the 2014 game against Purdue to determine who was the Big Ten’s worst team was far more important), the point remains: Indiana fans may try to trick themselves into believing that Thursday could signal the beginning of a new era. It’s easy to get mesmerized by this idea that maybe—just maybe—the Hoosiers can pull off the miracle upset with all of America watching, raise the program’s national profile, and finally get something cooking in Bloomington.
I would offer this bit of caution to Indiana fans: Don’t do that.
Since College GameDay started broadcasting from college campuses in the fall of 1993, unranked teams have hosted the show in the lead-up to a game against a ranked opponent 14 times. Unsurprisingly, the hosts have gone 3-11 in those contests. (The three wins were Miami beating no. 3 UCLA in 1998, Oregon upsetting no. 6 UCLA in 2000, and USC defeating no. 5 Stanford in 2013. Both Miami and USC had multiple future first-round NFL draft picks on their rosters, and Oregon went on to finish 10-2.) Meanwhile, Ohio State has brought a top-five team on the road for GameDay 10 times. The Buckeyes are 7-3 in those contests, with the three losses coming at no. 5 Michigan in 2003, no. 1 USC in 2008, and no. 18 Wisconsin—a team that featured J.J. Watt and an offensive line that sent all five starters to the NFL—in 2010.
None of this is particularly groundbreaking. It’s really just another way of acknowledging that good teams usually beat teams that aren’t as good. I just think there’s this perception that GameDay has some sort of mystical power to catapult slumping programs back to relevancy, as if it’s the college football equivalent of Johnny Carson calling a comedian over to his couch. History suggests otherwise, though, which is a lesson Northwestern fans learned the hard way against no. 4 Ohio State in 2013. It’s what Oregon State fans learned when GameDay made its first trip to Corvallis on the same day that no. 1 Oregon beat the hell out of the unranked Beavers in 2010. It’s what Iowa learned against no. 2 Ohio State in 1996 and again when hosting the top-ranked Buckeyes a decade later. NC State learned it against no. 2 Miami in 2004; Washington learned it against no. 2 Oregon in 2013; and Temple learned it against no. 9 Notre Dame in 2015. The list goes on and on. As much as fans of unspectacular teams would like to think that College GameDay COMIIIIIINNNGG to their CITTTAAAAAYYYYYYY is a sign of great things to come, more often than not the host school just serves as a punching bag for the visiting behemoth.
That’s just the nature of college football as a whole. The sport feels like it’s in a constant state of chaos and that upsets can happen at any moment, and to a certain extent that’s true. But it’s also true that only four active Division I head coaches (Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney) have won a national championship, which feels like a ridiculously small number even before recognizing that the ACC alone has four title-winning coaches in basketball. And that’s a great reminder that even though college football is absurdly entertaining to follow, the sport has a distinct caste system. Advancing up that ladder takes years of sustained success that can’t be cut short with some ESPN cameras and a bunch of signs making fun of Purdue.
Keep this in mind, Indiana fans. Sure, the Hoosiers can win against Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a habit of making games against Indiana much more interesting than they need to be, and opening the season on the road, against a conference opponent, on a Thursday, isn’t an ideal scenario for any national title contender. The most likely scenario, though, is that the Buckeyes (who are 21-point Vegas favorites) annihilate the Hoosiers en route to another playoff berth that the rest of the country thinks they don’t deserve, Indiana goes on to have another uninspiring six-win season, and by this time next year we’re right back where we started.
And that’s OK! Even though I’m an Ohio State alum who hopes the Buckeyes rip the Hoosiers apart limb by limb, I’m also a native Hoosier who has cheered on Indiana in countless games in Memorial Stadium. I know what it’s like to think Indiana starting a season 3-0 is cause for celebration. I know what it’s like to watch the Hoosiers be right there against ranked teams, only to let it all slip away over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I know what it’s like to tailgate in the grass on 17th Street all the way through the first half of the game and then argue with friends whether it’s worth going into the stadium to watch the second half since the Hoosiers are “only down by a touchdown to Michigan at halftime.” And I know what it’s like to have lost all hope in Indiana football by Halloween, only to remind myself that none of it matters anyway because basketball season will begin soon.
That’s the life of an Indiana football fan and always has been. There’s no reason to change things simply because GameDay is COMIIIIIINNNGG to YOUR CITTTAAAAAYYYYYYY. So don’t get wrapped up in worrying about whether the Hoosiers are going to bring the program back from the dead by pulling off their first upset of a top-10 team in 30 years. Don’t get suckered into caring about kicking Kevin Wilson’s ass now that he’s Ohio State’s offensive coordinator after leaving the Indiana head-coaching job under bizarre circumstances. All that does is set you up for inevitable heartbreak. Instead, appreciate how wild it is that the same College GameDay that has been to Tuscaloosa, Columbus, and Tallahassee a million times is opening the 2017 season in Bloomington f’ing Indiana. Acknowledge this for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that it is, and revel in the reality that for one night the entire college football world will revolve around IU.
Would it be cool if the Hoosiers achieved the impossible? Absolutely. But the game matters less than everything surrounding it. What matters is that Indiana students have an excuse to get wasted on a random Thursday. What matters is that Purdue students won’t be able to resist flocking to Bloomington to experience the environment, mostly because Purdue students going to IU to party is such an age-old tradition that it should be depicted on the state flag. What matters is that Corso is coming back to Bloomington. What matters is that Kirkwood Avenue is going to turn into a complete shitshow as Hoosiers fans uphold the “win or lose, we still booze” mentality.
Most importantly, what matters is that a new college basketball season tips off in 10 weeks.