In college football, a handful of schools regularly have more access to the national championship (or at least a path to it). January almost always gives the sport a highly familiar name in the final, most consequential game. Yet, that reality coexists with the fact that even in the top tier of the sport's workings, chaos makes its voice heard every autumn. The end product might have been seen a mile away, but the process which brought that result couldn't have been guessed in a million years. In many cases, the eternal mystery and charm of college football is not that surprises occur; how they unfold is what catches the sport's observers off balance.
Among the plot developments of the 2017 season, consider these at the forefront:
* An all-SEC national title game occurred, but this time through a mechanism the 2011 season and the BCS era didn't have. Georgia-Oklahoma is akin to what Alabama-Oklahoma State WOULD have been if the 2011 season had a four-team playoff.
* Like the 2011 season, an SEC rematch occurred. Like the 2011 season, a participant in that rematch made the national title game. Unlike the 2011 season, the winner of the rematch (Georgia over Auburn) did not win the national title.
* As in November of 2011 against LSU, Alabama's kicking game floundered in a game of considerable importance (against Georgia). Alabama lost the former game and won the latter. That difference, however, fades into the mists of history because the Tide won the national title at the end of both seasons... despite failing to win either a division or conference title.
* Alabama, in 2017, was the foremost beneficiary of not playing in a conference title game. Other teams benefited as well. Washington got a New Year's Six bowl bid at the expense of Big 12 title game loser TCU. On a different but relevant plane, winning the Big Ten Championship Game didn't benefit the champion for the second straight season, which leads to the next mind-blowing reality:
* An Urban Meyer-coached team won a Power 5 conference title game over an unbeaten opponent and did not get the benefit of the doubt against a non-champion of another Power 5 conference. Imagine that happening in any circumstance three years ago, when Ohio State beat out TCU and Baylor and then won the national title. Remember that Meyer's Florida team beat out Michigan for the 2007 BCS National Championship Game spot opposite Ohio State. The SEC rematch scenario which in fact occurred in the 2011 season could have belonged to the Big Ten in the 2006 season had voters and the BCS system put Michigan over Florida, but they didn't. Given Meyer's reputation for regularly taking advantage of opportunities in both the BCS era and in the first year of the playoff, imagine arriving at a point where his team didn't get the nod in a contentious debate.
Alabama, right or wrong, is the only team which realistically makes sense as an obstacle to an Ohio State solution, because Nick Saban is the one coach who has been better than Meyer in the 21st century.
* As you can see from the various examples just presented, the 2017 season took a lot of the surface realities of 2011 (and a few from 2006) but injected a lot of fresh subterranean details and new situations which prevents these seasons from being remembered as cookie-cutter campaigns. That is such a college football thing to do.
* Here's another "of course this happened -- it's college football" reality:
Three years ago, a Hawaiian quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and carried his team to the national championship game... but couldn't get his team over the hump. Who could have possibly imagined that a Hawaiian QB *would* win the national title just a few years later, but after playing one half of the final game of the season, relieving a starter (Jalen Hurts) who had lost only two games in two full seasons and was not injured?
Tua Tagovailoa did what Marcus Mariota did not. It is the "parable of the workers in the vineyard" of college football, if you know your Gospel stories from the Bible.
* The 2017 playoff brought us the baffling and remarkable reality that two play-callers who had done so well throughout the season -- Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma and Jim Chaney of Georgia -- both went to cute and clever running plays (option pitches by Baker Mayfield for OU, wildcat formations for Georgia without Jake Fromm in the backfield set) in the fourth quarter which badly backfired and enabled opponents to make successful comebacks. Why Riley and Chaney both eschewed a traditional power running game with hot running backs (Rodney Anderson for OU, Sony Michel for Georgia) is a mystery which will linger for a long time.
* The 2017 season did lead to a change at a superpower-level program... but who could have possibly expected that Florida State and Florida would be the answers, not Notre Dame or USC?
* The 2017 season shattered Auburn fans' confidence in Gus Malzahn (after the LSU debacle), built it back up again (thrashing Georgia and Alabama), and then eroded it, culminating with a national title game between the school's two foremost rivals.
* The 2017 season similarly watched Ed Orgeron descend into the darkness of the loss to Troy, dig out of trouble with a commendable display of team-building, and then squander ample goodwill by jettisoning his highly-paid coordinator (Matt Canada) in favor of a historically mediocre play-caller (Steve Ensminger)?
* The two Arizona schools made bowl games, believed to be necessities for both coaches staying on the job into 2018. Neither coach survived... for reasons which even Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus would find too absurd to understand.
* For the second straight year and the third time in 11 years, Pittsburgh defeated the No. 2 team in the country. In two of those three occurrences dating back to 2007, the Panthers didn't even have a .500 record. In none of those seasons did Pitt win at least nine games. Pitt's ability to pull upsets isn't that surprising; the Panthers' underachieving play makes their upsets harder to absorb when they occur.
* For the second straight year, Iowa dealt a crippling loss to a Big Ten power. Iowa scored 13 in its earth-shattering upset of Michigan a season ago, 55 in its ambush of Ohio State this past season. The Iowa team which lit up the Buckeyes for a double-nickel failed to score 16 points in four separate Big Ten games this season, all losses... including a two-score home-field loss to Purdue. Iowa scored 49 on the Boilermakers in 2016, a 34-point difference from the 15 points scored this past season.
Iowa, like Pitt and other select programs, somehow fits a certain category or reputation (if not both), yet does so in a twisting, turning, meandering way which still leaves the viewer of its erratic behavior somehow shocked.
* Iowa State beat two teams when they were in the top five of the rankings, and did so in dramatically different ways (38-31 at Oklahoma, 14-7 versus TCU), showing its versatility and quality... and still finished the regular season only 7-5 because of narrow losses to Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Iowa, and Kansas State.
* A team from Florida, as expected, carried the Group of 5 banner and went unbeaten through the regular season... but it wasn't the South Florida Bulls. Hello, UCF!
Predictable result and unexpected plot twist, married again.
Yes, this was a college football season, all right. Everything we know -- and everything we know we don't know -- about the sport was simultaneously reaffirmed and shaken.
That's why we can't wait for these offseasons to end.
Until August, take care.