Early-season mismatches shortchange fans

There is so much to enjoy in college football.

And it's OK that many fans extract a large measure of this enjoyment by reflecting on what has gone before. It is one of the sports that comes most loaded with nostalgia - along with baseball and golf.

It will shock and amaze younger folks that the time was when everyone got dressed up to go to games. Men wore hats and suits and ties. Women wore elegant dresses decorated with mum corsages. Sportsmanship - anybody remember this? - was central. And after a home win many players and fans would walk across campus and ring a victory bell. We're not making this up.

It was so much fun.

Yet, while these days are but very faded memories, laudable aspects gratefully linger. Paramount among them is that, for the most part, the same teams are the best teams year after year. The case can be made that that's boring. On the contrary, in a world where too much changes too fast and too often, any sort of stability is welcome. Nebraska, invariably good, is No. 1; Florida State, invariably good, is No. 2; Michigan, invariably good, is No. 3. The beat goes on.

Scan the Top 25 in the Associated Press poll, and the only somewhat new face is TCU, No. 22.

In the past decade, the only two teams to emerge from oblivion or worse to serious high national rankings are Kansas State and Virginia Tech. The pace of change in the college game's hierarchy is glacial, which gives us a warm and comfortable feeling like being wrapped in a raccoon coat and hollering cheers that have words in them like sis-boom-bah.

True, the derogation in the game admittedly is reason for gloom: Players who are not academically qualified to play video games get to go to excellent colleges because they know how to play football; athletes quit school after two or three years to sign professional contracts; games that used to be played entirely on Saturday afternoon now, sadly, are played on Saturdays from dawn to exhaustion and sometimes on Thursdays and Fridays, too.

But we must be careful not to act like those who saw the automobile as an inferior advancement to transportation by horse power, or airplanes as a risky scheme. In one crucial area, the college game seems to be hanging in the balance: scheduling.

Almost all teams are in conferences and thus focus on league championships. Schools in some of the best conferences - the Pac 10, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 - contend that they have so many hard games with their brethren that they have to schedule patsy nonconference games as breathers.

The problem is this leads to one-sided contests that are not good for the winners, the losers, or the fans. Last week, for example, Michigan buried Bowling Green, Florida stomped Ball State, Miami embarrassed McNeese State. Of course. Each of the winners spends far more money on football than any of the losers.

There is more of the same tomorrow: Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Texas; Kent plays Purdue; Middle Tennessee against Florida. The automatic losers sacrifice themselves in order to collect what usually is their biggest paycheck of the year, an unappealing cash-for-bash deal.

In fairness, a little guy can rise up and whomp a big guy, as Toledo did to Penn State last week, 24-6 - just as the Cubs can win the World Series, most recently doing so in 1908. But the odds against it are intolerably long.

Happily, on the other hand, there are some wonderful games that remind all why the college game can be so terrific. Indeed, the elite football schools involved deserve standing ovations for scheduling games last weekend that they knew full well they could lose: Alabama, then ranked No. 3, took on UCLA in California, and lost; up-and-coming Virginia entertained typically talented BYU, and lost; Texas A&M went to Notre Dame, and lost - entertaining games all.

Tomorrow, Nebraska - one of the prime offenders in scheduling overmatched teams - goes to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame. Good for both institutions.

The problem is everybody wants to win. A terrific effort ending in defeat is not deemed acceptable. But if college administrators continue reducing the number of good games, fan interest will waver. And without fans, football will become curling.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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