In Week 3, the college football season moved from analog to hi-def. Many good teams started playing legit opponents, and with the clarity of competition, you could see every blemish. A lot of teams turned out to be uglier than we thought. But when the beauty came through, it was breathtaking.
The frauds arrived early in the day. Virginia Tech has a recent history of awful early season losses (James Madison 2010, East Carolina 2008), and so its 35-17 loss to Pitt wasn't out of character, until you noticed Pitt was already 0-2 with a 31-17 loss to Youngstown State, an FCS team. The transitive property of sports doesn't really work, but it's fun to apply if it says Virginia Tech should lose to Youngstown State by 32 points. And if they played in September, it might happen.
Arkansas -- which had a lifetime of hopes riding on this year -- lost 52-0 at home to Alabama, and I don't know how to say this gently, but it wasn't that close. QB Tyler Wilson, who didn't play because of an injury, said after the game that some of his teammates "gave up" on the field. I'm not sure that's the kind of talk that gets your teammates fired up. I'm also not sure it matters. Arkansas dreamed of being 3-0 at this point; now it's 1-2, and the phrase "Rutgers in Fayetteville on Saturday" sounds a lot more terrifying than it did four weeks ago.
A career tip for the young people out there: If you're good at soccer, or kickball, even Hacky Sack, go find the football field. Coaches across the country are dying for kickers. Cal had a great shot to beat Ohio State in Columbus but missed three field goals. Utah State's Josh Thompson missed a 37-yarder that would have beaten Wisconsin in Madison. Stanford missed two and had a third one blocked against USC.
Of course, for Stanford a missed field goal was a good play, because it put its defense back on the field.
Every time I flipped back to Stanford-USC (more on the flipping later), there was a Stanford DB dislodging the ball from a USC receiver, or a linebacker stuffing a Trojan running back, or a blitzer engulfing QB Matt Barkley. Stanford was stout on offense, too: Stepfan Taylor ran through half the USC defense on a 23-yard TD off a screen pass. But the Stanford D starred in the dramatic peak of the college football day.
USC got the ball at its own 11 with 2:51 left, down 21-14. A fourth-down pass to Marqise Lee got one first down; a 20-yard pass to Nelson Agholor got the Trojans to the Stanford 46 with 1:16 left. But Stanford was blitzing on every play, and USC's offensive line just gave out. Minus-3 on a run. Holding penalty. Minus-6 on a sack. False start. Minus-7 on another sack. And then it was fourth-and-40, and Barkley's heave for Robert Woods clanked out of bounds, and somewhere the Tree is dancing.
USC was supposed to be one of the Fantastic Four that would battle for the national title this year, along with Alabama, Oregon and LSU. We'll stick with those last two for the moment, although neither has been tested yet. And it's safe to say Alabama is fairly decent; against two teams that were supposed to be in the top 10 (Michigan and Arkansas), plus Western Kentucky (which beat Kentucky in OT on the play of the day), the Tide's collective score so far is 128-14.
But now, in higher definition, Stanford looks tough enough to beat anybody. Florida has gone on the road and beaten Texas A&M and Tennessee. Notre Dame looked as shiny as its helmets in whipping Michigan State in East Lansing. (The Irish also probably knocked Le'Veon Bell out of the Heisman race, sad news for those budding songwriters writing tributes to the tune of "Levon.")
The point is, we're three weeks in, and there's already stuff dumped out on the floor, and speaker wires strung everywhere, and there's a drunk USC fan on the porch mumbling something about Marcus Allen. In other words, the college football season is broken in.
No other sport blasts you with such a fire hose of entertainment every week. On my cable package Saturday there were 32 games available, from seven kickoffs at noon Eastern to the after-hours insanity of BYU-Utah (more on that later). I should make it clear that I didn't actually watch 32 games, because I would like to remain a functioning member of society. "How do you know when to change the channel?" my wife asked at one point, and although every fan believes he or she is the Luke Skywalker of the remote, the truth is, you couldn't miss. At one point I was flipping between USC-Stanford and Florida-Tennessee (both ridiculously entertaining), looking in on Notre Dame-Michigan State, and peering into the far reaches of the sports tier to see if Utah State could pull the upset and if Colorado is truly that terrible. (Yes.)
A friend of mine who enjoys his adult beverages will sometimes describe a night on the town this way: "We were over-served." This describes every weekend in college football. The NFL gives you a maximum of 16 games a week, and you can't see most of those unless you have "Sunday Ticket" or haunt a sports bar. You might get that many games a night in baseball or the NBA, and more in college hoops, but the seasons are longer so the games don't matter as much. In college football, every Saturday is a can of Sports Emotion Concentrate, unmixed with water, stuffed in your mouth all at once.
Somewhere around 2 a.m., BYU and Utah would not go home at last call. BYU heaved a pass out of bounds and the fans stormed the field as time seemingly expired. But wait! Instant replay put one second back on the clock, giving BYU a long field-goal attempt to tie at the end. Utah blocked it, and the fans stormed the field again. But wait! The ball was still bouncing around live, so Utah's fans drew a 15-yard penalty. BYU had another chance to tie, this time 15 yards closer. Then, that second field goal doinked off the upright -- well, of course it did -- and the Utah fans stormed the field a THIRD TIME, and surely even now there are people in Salt Lake City still wandering around, wondering exactly what happened.
That's college football. One deep swallow and about all you can do is stagger around awhile, tell stories about the parts you remember, and wait for the weekend to come around again.