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The ‘Jeopardy!’ College Championship Is Here to Fill the Sporting Void

Desperate to watch some kind of previously unaired competition? ‘Jeopardy!’ has you covered.

ABC/Ringer illustration

For weeks, you have traversed the sports desert, boredom growing and wallet intact—nary a foolhardy bet nor a well-meaning young person in the wrong uniform color to loathe. Then you hear it: the distant, unmistakable rap of snare drums, the dulcet voice of Johnny Gilbert sounding out all three syllables of “sophomore.” And see it: 15 anxious hoodie-wearers, unevenly insisting that they definitely knew five minutes earlier what their schools’ respective mascots were.

The Jeopardy! College Championship, as sportive a nonsport as we are likely to witness for who knows how long, is finally here. Many casual Jeopardy! viewers are surprised to learn just how sportlike the show can be, with a prospect pipeline (in the form of quiz bowl and other trivia competitions), physical and mental training regimens, advanced statistics, players turned coaches, and, of course, a hall of fame. The annual College Championship takes all of that and reformulates it to be even more familiarly sporty, with college students taking the stage in their alma maters’ colors, an open invitation for the audience to pick their favorite and root their hearts out. While we may for now be denied the hardwood, the rink, and the maybe-too-crisp sound of bats on juiced-to-hell balls, we have this:

The two-week tournament kicks off Monday. Here’s the format: Week 1 will have games featuring three new contestants every weeknight. The winner of each of those games, plus the four nonwinners with the highest scores, will advance to Week 2’s semifinals. The three semifinal winners will head to the two-day final next Thursday and Friday, where the winner will be given $100,000, plus a berth in the upcoming—and already stacked—Tournament of Champions. (Fear not, my masked fellow citizens: Jeopardy! stopped taping new episodes last month due to coronavirus concerns. This tournament, and all the sub-6-feet commingling it features, was recorded at the beginning of February; the contestants are now practicing strict Zoom socialization as they should.)

Jeopardy!’s college tournaments feature clues that are generally a little easier, a little more playful (see: the 2018 College Championship, which featured the clue, dutifully read in full by host Alex Trebek, “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, yeah, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle wiggle, wiggle, yeah”), and more pop-culture-focused than the clues on the show’s regular offerings. And that pop culture will be, er, probably not of the 1980s and 1990s variety—if you’d like to join me on my walk into the sea, the four seniors in this year’s pool may be the only ones of the group who were born before the year 2000.

Strange things can, and do, happen in the College Championship because, among the show’s current tournament offerings, College Championship players are some of the only ones who audition specifically for their competition. (They are joined in this by the similarly quirky entrants in the Teen Tournament; the Teachers Tournament, on the other hand, is made up of contestants who applied for regular Jeopardy! competition but specified that they work as educators.) This can mean that the players are a little less prepared than your average I’ve-Been-Training-for-Jeopardy!-for-35-Years middle-podium physicist. Which is not to say that the competition isn’t fierce—this year saw 18,000 students throw their hat in the ring, and back in 1996, no less than eventual all-time winnings leader Brad Rutter found himself passed over when he, then a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, originally applied to compete on the college edition. But do expect the unexpected, from coordinated intros to novelty answers:

Joey Beachum, who won the 2008 College Championship while representing Mississippi State University, remembers an unusual ending to his tournament. As the second half of the finals wound down, Trebek read Beachum and his opponents’ Final Jeopardy responses and wagers, just as happens on TV. It was a nail-biter of a finish, with Beachum and Marquette University’s Danielle Zsenak barely $3,000 apart entering Final Jeopardy; Beachum would win by just $400.

But as all three strained to add up the two-day total, and before Trebek could name Beachum the winner, Harvey Mudd’s Andrew Chung, who knew he had sealed his own third-place finish when he couldn’t come up with the answer (he offered instead: “Congrats to the winner. West is Best.”), reached his own conclusion. “Andrew turns to Danielle and shouts, for all to hear, while the camera is rolling,” Beachum told me in an email, “‘YOU FUCKING WON!!!’”

Gasps rang out from the audience; the director had the trio retape their ending, and viewers at home watched Trebek crown Beachum the champion, none the wiser. In the College Championship, anything is possible.

This year’s tournament features 15 bright-eyed contestants, who skew decidedly toward institutions with well-known sporting programs: four from the Big Ten, two from the SEC, one each from the Pac-12, Big 12, and ACC. (Shouts to the tournament’s two Division IIIers, Carnegie Mellon’s Emma Farrell and Hendrix’s Joe Coker. Ain’t no sportsball in heaven.) Three schools are about to be represented for the very first time on the collegiate Jeopardy! stage: Hendrix (by Coker), the University of Mississippi (by Londyn Lorenz), and Liberty University (by Natalie Hathcote). Compare those to the juggernauts: Yale, represented for the school’s ninth time by Nathaniel Miller, and Northwestern, which is making attempt no. 10 with Beni Keown. (Neither school has ever won it all—each the 21st-century Dodgers of Jeopardy!, perhaps.)

Should neither your school nor your hated rival have a candidate for you to have strong feelings about this year, there’s much more fodder to satisfy your sports jonesing. Despite his Northwestern bona fides, Keown is, as the only freshman competing, the baby of the group, and a solid underdog candidate. Florida (represented by Kayla Kalhor) and Florida State (Sophie Casarico) face off on Tuesday, a divisive matchup I would like to believe the producers set up wholly unintentionally. A witness from Hoosier Tyler Combs’s audition claims he pledged to use his potential winnings to finance his “hot sauce startup business.”

In truth, regardless of who takes home the championship, this is a victory for all of us who are longing for a chance to scream at our televisions. Just make sure to order some wings.