This season that probably should not have been played is now over. Alabama, that behemoth, over-funded, coach-as-analyst-hiring machine that is only dedicated to turning out college football wins, won. The beat Ohio State, a program modeled after Saban’s machine came in second. This season was distasteful for a lot of reasons — including the usual ones that involve an exploitation of labor — but it also had the additional risk of a debilitating heart-related illness on top of it.
That acknowledged, whining on behalf of the players as if they are not individuals and without agency, is disingenuous and is just as patronizing. The current system of college athletics is wildly unfair, particularly for those at the best programs but it is not completely without benefit for the players. There is not a universal reason for playing this or any other game. For some, yes, it is a way to get a scholarship. For others it is a means to an end. For many, it is fun.
The entire endeavor — especially at the FBS level — was a money-grab. I will not pretend, however, that money is not necessary for jobs and the continuing of these programs in the future. We can demand better of those in power while still celebrating the performance on the field. We can guiltily enjoy college football while looking forward to NIL meaning some of these players can earn some money the way I could in college.
Tonight, DeVonta Smith was ridiculously good and did not get paid for it. Playing for Alabama, and Nick Saban on national television against Ohio State did help him earn a big pay day in the NFL Draft, when that day comes. The big programs argue that the only value comes from the programs. In reality it is a shared value creation and only one party is benefiting from the relationship. That should change.
In any case, he put on a show. Twelve grabs on fifteen targets for 215 yards and 3 scores in a half. Alabama QB Mac Jones put up a record number of yards in a title game. Ohio State, whose league begged to get back into play for the opportunity to get the Buckeyes in the lucrative playoff tournament, looked very good against Clemson and very bad against the juggernaut that is Alabama.
Little old Conference-USA was a long way off from that standard this season. There is a chasm of resources between the SEC and CUSA that starts with individual donations and support and continues all the way into unfathomable television contracts. Success and attention beget success and attention and that all begets more revenue.
If the component programs of this league want to begin the work of building something approaching the outer reaches of the edifice to college football success it takes sustained, focused investment. One season, one social media campaign, a cutesy slogan, a fun hire — none of these will be the one thing that changes anything. All of those as part of a larger focused plan of incremental and sustainable improvements can maybe approach the outer reaches. Maybe, there can be a Boise State-like program.
There is a lot to dislike about Nick Saban, the surly, cold-hearted coach, but he knows how to build a program. He knows that there are no skipped steps. It takes unflinching dedication to a singular goal — perhaps a sacrifice many are unwilling to make — to achieve it. Everyone at some level, understands this. There are many factors to help people achieve things — it ain’t all about bootstraps, folks — but there are no paths to truly achieving things without hard work and perserverence.
In CUSA, it is tough to win. There are politics to overcome, revenue to chase, apathy to unshake, and challengers to beat.