Thursday night, college football season began with some choppy, awkward, we're-still-figuring-out-the-playbook games, which is par for the course for Week 1, particularly the first night of Week 1. Not a single team looked particularly revelatory. The Carolinas both looked like teams that will be lucky to make a bowl, TCU didn't seem like much of a playoff team to me and Vanderbilt has the feel of a team that is already ready for the holidays to get here. The games were not well-played and, aesthetically, none were particularly pleasing.
I, of course, had a blast, and I'm sure you did too. Every minute of every game felt at times almost unbearably intense. I watched much of each game through my fingers. College football stresses me out more than any other sport. The world seems at stake at every moment.
I've been trying to figure out why this is, and I think it's a sign, as we head into the second season of the College Football Playoff, that the value of the regular season has not been put into any peril by the four-team tournament. Every game means just as much as it always has. It all constantly feels on the line.
Look at Thursday night, a minor night in college football, all things considered. Now that South Carolina has won, North Carolina is a program in peril, with the fifth-year senior quarterback questioning his whole career and a coach about whom a fan base is beginning to wonder whether he's really turning this thing around after all. Had that game gone the other way, though, South Carolina would be even more in chaos. The Steve Spurrier retirement noise would be deafening, the SEC would have had both its opening-night games end in losses, and the Gamecocks could have conceivably been staring down the barrel of a five-win season, or worse. That thing could have spiraled completely out of control.
The same goes for TCU (a team with both national championship and Heisman hopes, both of which would have been dashed had the Horned Frogs not staved off Minnesota), Vanderbilt (which now looks like it might have made a grossly misguided coaching hire after James Franklin left), Central Florida (a team with legitimate hopes in the AAC this year that now is shattered after a home loss to Florida freaking International) and Michigan (which has been reminded that an entire football program cannot be turned entirely around simply by changing into a different pair of pants). There were only 19 FBS games Thursday night, and it already feels like we live in an entirely different reality than we did 24 hours ago.
And this is what college football does. One game, one experience of sitting down and watching a sporting event for three hours, changes everything. One game requires to recalibrate your hopes, your dreams, your expectations, your desires, your entire worldview. Sixteen hours before this writing, Michigan fans believed they were on the cusp of a new era; now they understand just how far from that cusp they really are. Same with North Carolina, and Central Florida, and Colorado, and the tens of thousands of fans of those teams and so many others.
In college football, this happens every week. Every game just means so much. NBA and NHL and even Premier League and MLS games are mostly fungible and interchangeable. One baseball game barely matters at all. College basketball has put so much importance and attention on its tournament that most people don't start paying attention until the season is half over, or more. And for all the talk of the NFL's compressed season maximizing drama, one loss doesn't vivisect your entire season the way it does in college football. It feels like each game is an elimination game, a break in the fabric of time, a Sliding Doors win-or-lose situation that alters all the history that comes afterward. Every college football game is the Butterfly Effect.
This can be very stressful to watch. It's particularly so when you consider how many of these players, these students (not being paid for their efforts to entertain me and stress me out, I feel obliged to remind) pour their minds and bodies into this sport, how it's the single organizing principle of their lives, how many of them will see what happens in these games as a pivot moment in their own lives. One silly game can change the entire trajectory of their lives! And they're, like, 20! Their entire lives will reflect the result of this Idaho State-Eastern Washington game. It's stressful!
And this will happen every weekend for the next three months.
The playoff -- which detractors said would lessen the importance of the regular season -- hasn't changed this. If anything, it has broadened the scope of the sport. At one point last season, you had fans in Starkville watching an Oregon Ducks game on the big screen at halftime, living and dying with every play. The sport, also so powerful regionally, has gone global, and every part connects with every other part now. Maybe you can survive a loss in a playoff universe … but maybe you can't. (Ask TCU and Baylor.) Every movement affects every other movement. It's like a massive-scale television program with a ton of different characters to keep track of, any of whom could eat it at any particular moment. It's Game of Thrones, except it happens constantly, and repeatedly, and eventually there's a stated and known endpoint. There is carnage everywhere.
College football has a lot of problems, still, not least of which is the fact that it's a brutal sport played by young men who are not paid for providing us our amusement. But, organizationally, from a fan's perspective, this is the sport at its absolute peak. The stakes are so high. The games are so plentiful. The world is so vast. This Labor Day weekend is the first weekend of the college football season. This weekend is only one-fifth over. And I'm already exhausted. College football has become engulfing and all-encompassing. I have no idea how we're going to make it all the way through.