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How to watch a college football game

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We all watch a ton of college football, but do we ever think about how we watch it? Let’s try that right now.

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

PREGAME

Be kind. The people playing this game are not paid. Or at least, they’re not paid over the table, and even in those cases, they are paid well below market value.

Watch as a friend, even to the guy who just blipped through your defense for an embarrassing touchdown. You could even support the effort to get that guy paid some of that sweet TV money fattening his coach’s salary.

Understand pregame fights, speeches, and omens are rarely predictive. Stirring, but none prove much about who’s ready to play.

Unless! Remember the Rule of Bevo. If one mascot attacks the other, then the attacking mascot’s team will win. This is based on a trend of one, but a convincing trend.

Exception two: If Team A is known for starting fights and taunting Team B, then Team B will continue to lose until Team B breaks character and retaliates. Once this occurs, Team B will mollywhop Team A.

Understand that uniforms are always highly predictive.

  • If a team debuts a special uniform for a big game, that team will probably lose. It’s because they feel bad about themselves.
  • If this is a night game, the team with a special uniform will 100% lose.
  • If a team wears a spectacularly ugly uniform, that team deserves to lose. In 2017, Florida cost itself a two-point loss to Texas A&M by wearing some of the ugliest uniforms in the history of sports. No money from Nike is worth the shame of wearing bread mold in public.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 Texas A&M at Florida Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accept the fact that college football is unfair. The same teams win the same titles from year to year. The same schools get the best recruits, spend the most money, and get the best coaches. It works less like the NFL’s parity and more like EPL soccer — right down to the shady accounting, odd billionaire benefactors, and drama surrounding player transfers.

But don’t let unfairness alone ruin your good time. If it’s not your team stuck in the never-ending rain of football injustice, it can be very entertaining. If it’s your team, well, find a way to keep dry.

(See: Mississippi State, Iowa State, or Arizona fans, or anyone else who supports a team regularly playing above its weight.)

For some reason, people keep showing up for David vs. Goliath. Why? All for that one time Goliath gets a rock to the head.

KICKOFF

Know the following facts about football’s most ceremonial and seemingly pointless play. It is actually full of secret meaning.

  • If a team is dancing before the ball is even kicked, that team will probably win.
  • If a team destroys the kick returner on the first kickoff, that team will probably win.
  • If the camera angle switches to the overhead, then the chances of a touchdown rise to no less than 50%.
  • If the kicker tackles the returner, watch the kicking team’s bench. They will be jumping up and down and laughing at the skill player who just got stopped by a recent high school soccer player. These laughing players are now more likely to win the game.
  • If a team makes a surprise onside kick, the importance is secondary to the hilarity. This is the Football Uno deck’s SKIP card. Ignore the ramifications and laugh.

BEFORE THE SNAP

1. Remember the down, distance, and score. This seems super basic, but it determines almost everything. Coaches on both sides have planned their responses to all of these situations, with later stages of the game involving bigger and bigger risks.

The down and distance provide most of the drama. Otherwise the following is just stupid, not a DRAMATIC AND NATIONALLY CONSEQUENTIAL HIGHLIGHT OF THE 2015 SEASON:

This dumb bounce cost Ole Miss an SEC West championship, gifted it to the team that wins it every year anyway, and meant almost nothing for Arkansas! (Please see College football is deeply unfair at all times.)

2. Look at the shapes of both formations. Don’t worry about anything too technical. Is the team with the ball all bunched up in a crowd, or are they spaced out across the field? Does the defense try to match that? Do they just line up pretty much the same way every time, no matter what the offense does?

Whatever these shapes seem like they might mean is probably accurate, at least in one way. For instance, if you see this on fourth and one ...

... it looks like the offense is going to try and snowplow forward for 24 inches, and that’s a good guess. But the offense knows the defense is making this guess, and that’s where the fun starts.

(Unless! Kansas State actually just snowplowed for the first down. But that’s still fun!)

3. Find the open spaces. Notice the areas of grass that the defense is leaving empty. The offense will want to put the ball there, and the defense will try to make sure the offense can’t. Sometimes it is that simple.

Is the defense kind of far away from the offense? Then the offense would like to run or throw short, but might need more yardage. Are defensive backs so close that the receivers can smell what they had for lunch? Then the offense would like to throw over those DBs and find all that green grass behind them.

4. Count how many players the offense has on the left and right sides of the ball. If there are more offensive players on one side, then the offense will probably try to run or pass the ball to that side. See! Football is easy.

5. Count how many players the defense has on the left and right sides of the ball. The defense would like to send more pass rushers than there are blockers, or at least confuse the offense into countering a feint attack. Sometimes the defense will fake one thing before the ball is snapped, pull back into something else, then flash into the third play they were going to run all along.

Oh, in case this wasn’t complex enough? The offense can do all of this stuff too! Boo, football is hard again.

6. A lot of the offense’s pre-snap running around is about trying to get a numbers advantage on the left or right. It also might be about seeing if the defense tips its hand. It also might just be confusion for confusion’s sake. If this seems complicated, it is. Now imagine trying to deal with it on the field in real time.

TL;DR: Notice where the beef is stacked, because that’s where the herd’s going Unless! That’s where the herd wants you to think it’s going, man [exploding brain noises].

WHEN THINGS ARE HAPPENING

Study players rather than plays. The tall guys get the ball passed to them in the end zone. The little guys get it across the middle and in all that blank space in the middle of the defense. And the fattest, fastest, meanest linemen lead the way when teams must run the ball.

It is good to sort of know what is happening on a play. It’s more important to see which players are used from down to down. Football isn’t any different than basketball. If there are seconds left on the clock and a team needs points or a stop, then the best player on the team will be a focal point.

First, try watching the big dudes, not the ball. The big dudes will tell you where the play is going or why it didn’t work. Almost everything — good, bad, or comical — starts there, right down to each team’s attitude. If big men are doing their jobs, then everyone behind them is going to be happy.

Watch the way the offensive line leans. After a while, anyone can start to tell whether a team is going to run or pass based on the stance of the linemen — or at least notice who’s not hiding it really well.

And watch some different matchups from play to play. If one lineman is beating another consistently, it will start to show up everywhere. A lot of the time, a quarterback or running back doesn’t go cold — they’re just being harried by the same rusher over and over.

There is also the thrill of watching a different sumo match every play.

Know your Big Dude varieties:

  • If they’re named something super formal, they’re 30% more powerful. This includes but is not limited to: Herman, George, Ronald, Edward (not Ed), Harold, Trent, Maxwell, Jonathan, Stephen (not Steve), Eugene, Leonard, Walter, Henry, James, or D’Brickashaw. (That’s a formal name in college football, and you will respect that.)
  • Ditto for guys with extinct names like Vince, Carl, Douglas (not Doug), Larry, Bob, Frank, Gary, Bruce, Don, or Harry. Any 2020s college students with these names can bend skillets into metal tacos.
  • The more knee braces, athletic tape, hair, and tattoos the better.
  • Unless! They go into games wearing pads on nothing but their shoulders, which is actually more terrifying.
  • A big dude getting the ball in his hands is the funniest occasion in college football.
  • A big dude getting the ball in his hands is the most beautiful occasion in college football.

Watch for blitzes right up the middle. There’s something called the double A-gap blitz, in which two fast and strong people run on either side of the center just after he snaps the ball. Does it always work? No. Is it always like the moment in a cartoon when someone drops a bee hive on an enemy’s head? Yes, and just as glorious.

Wheel routes are always open. They work every time. Any team that calls them on every play will win every game.

Some notes on not-big players:

Cornerbacks are the smaller defenders on the left and right edges of the defense. Here is how to know if the ones you’re watching are good:

  • Good cornerback: Will talk smack 80% of the time he is on the field.
  • Elite cornerback: Will talk smack 100% of the time he is on the field.
  • Legendary cornerback: Will talk smack, get torched for a 75-yard touchdown, and continue talking smack.

As for running backs, the guys who line up behind the quarterback:

  • Good running backs: Gets yardage. Scores touchdowns.
  • Elite running backs: Picks up yardage, jukes people into going pro in something other than football, and loses shoes mid-play due to intense stress their power places on their equipment.
  • Legendary running backs: Runs clean out of their clothing three times a game. Scores five TDs wearing only jock strap, shoulder pads, and cleats. Embarrasses same player multiple times on the same play.

Don’t be startled by the option. Football’s most college football tactic, the option looks like a freestyle rugby match or someone playing three-card monte in the middle of a jailbreak.

It is easy to go down the world’s deepest rabbit hole on exactly how to run the option. The shortest explanation for me is: the option is a run play designed to lead toward two offensive skill players facing one defender in the open field. The poor defender has to choose which one to pursue. The ballcarrier must read the defender, then either pitch the ball or keep it and run upfield.

It still exists in decades-old forms, especially at schools with smaller players looking for a strategic edge. If a team can run the option, the other team is in such deep trouble. It might not look like much in the early stages, yet will be fatal by the fourth quarter.

But the option has also evolved in a thousand directions, including the run-pass option swamping defenses at the high school and pro levels.

What someone watching college football for fun and not profit needs to know is that the option is all over the place, happens in a thousand forms, and — when in the right hands, like those of Colorado legend Darian Hagan — is a god thing.

THROUGHOUT THE GAME

Know one player can absolutely dominate a game. Like, in ways not even the most depraved mismatches of the NFL can deliver. Reggie Bush won a Super Bowl ring and made All-Pro once, sure. But at USC in one night, that same Reggie Bush had 513 all-purpose yards.

Superheroics aren’t that rare in college football, even with players who end up having brief careers. The record holder for passing yards in a season isn’t NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, but a different Texas Tech Red Raider. B.J. Symons, now a banker in Houston, threw for 5,833 yards, including 661 in one game against Ole Miss.

During some plays, try keeping your eye on that dominant player, not the ball. Thanks to college football’s widely varied talent pool, they should be pretty easy to find. Sometimes opposing players even point at them and yell out their numbers, because they’re looking for them on every play too.

Know upsets don’t for real start until the third quarter. Plenty of teams can get a lead over a better team early. The talent differential will kick in, usually with a vengeance once the other team wakes up and gets mad. The record books are filled with adorable, 10-0 baby upsets that became fully grown, 66-10 wins by the favorite.

Watch for players moving slowly or gingerly after the play. It is a cruel game, but if you notice a player is struggling, guess who else noticed? The coaches up in the pressbox. The next play’s getting called right at that guy until it stops working.

If a team looks really tired, that team is probably really tired. When a defense is visibly huffing and puffing while facing the 12th play of a march to the end zone, well, they’re probably not going to stop that march.

Notice how fast or slow each team is doing things. Pace matters a lot tactically and can tell a story.

Army’s offense can be the slowest, for a reason: they run a clock-burning option offense. Their roster of smaller players would prefer for the game to be decided based on a few key moments, rather than a long match of size and speed. So Army and Navy hold onto the ball for as long as possible, keeping the other team’s offense off the field and thus off the scoreboard.

Smaller, run-heavy teams stroll to the line, take a deep breath, and appreciate the gentle fall breeze before settling in to snap the ball.

On the other extreme, teams try to snap quickly in order to get as many chances to move the ball as possible and exhaust defensive linemen. Teams like Baylor and Marshall have topped 90 offensive plays per game across full seasons.

There is also a petty reason to notice pace. A team determined to slow the game down or speed it up against the wishes of their opposition drives said opposition insane. Watch Nick Saban boil himself alive with barely contained rage, even if his defense is holding up. It’s free theater.

COLLEGE SPECIAL TEAMS

What to know about field goals, the plays when the offense doesn’t want to try for too many points:

  • If it feels bad from the start, it’s going to be bad. Bad field goal attempts look bad before they even snap the ball. Coaches acknowledge this superstition is true.
  • In college football, they regularly feel bad. College kickers aren’t unreliable, but they are also not the three-point guarantee many NFL kickers can be. They miss, and at the worst possible moments.
  • Fake field goals are awesome. All of them. The outcome is irrelevant. The fake field goal is its own purpose, come success or failure. A team that tries a fake field goal could have just used its offense, but the point isn’t doing the logical thing. It’s doing the underhanded thing that makes you look stupid.

And then there’s punting, when the offense doesn’t want to try for any points:

  • No. Punts are bad. Your team shouldn’t do them. This is only half-joking. Most teams don’t go for it on fourth down as often as they should, meaning a lot of punts are just the result of not knowing math.
  • Unless! You have an Australian. They’re the best punters thanks to childhoods spent playing Aussie rules football, a sport dependent on directional kicking. Try to sign one who looks like a 35-year-old DJ on his second marriage and third tour with Diplo.
  • Watch the rugby punt. It’s when the punter runs sideways to kick the ball toward the sidelines, but sort of looks like they’re going to take off and run. (Which they can do, if they’re feeling froggy.)
  • Fake punts are even funnier than fake field goals.

MULTISENSUAL AWARENESS

Use your ears. College football fans have strong opinions about which places are loudest, and with reason. A lot of the stadiums have tiny sidelines and fans within spitting distance, making these places where the volume hits 130 decibels at close range. Offense false starting five times in the first half on the road? That’s noise working the way it should.

The loudest place by measure is the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, though I think LSU’s is the worst/best. It’s a hot volume, and no, I can’t explain it. LSU is a loud hot.

If watching live, mind your arms.

BE AWARE AND AVOID BEING CAPTURED BY THE SURRENDER COBRA

Do not be tomorrow’s great reaction GIF! The Surrender Cobra (trademark: Holly Anderson) waits for us all. Yet with some situational awareness, becoming its latest victim can be a menacing possibility and not the embarrassing present.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, KNOW THIS

It’s not that serious. This is an ostensibly amateur sport played in places like Tuscaloosa, Madison, Eugene, and Blacksburg. It’s a family thing and an excuse to eat under a tent for a weekend, see friends, and drink something out of plastic party cups before sitting in a stadium for three hours of mostly competent-to-good football. Games are supposed to be fun.

Unless! It is. Then again, the Iron Bowl exists for a reason, and fun ain’t exactly the right word, is it? Maybe it’s fun 364 days a year, and then for three hours becomes the most overly determined and pressurized thing in the world. Time expires, the clock strikes midnight, and the world returns for 364 normal days.

It’s fun, but the hair on your neck doesn’t stand during mere fun. Fun doesn’t elicit goosebumps years later. Fun isn’t gonna win the football game.

On a single snap, fun can slip into theater of the highest order. The genre varies. The Kick Six is a horror movie for Alabama, a heroic saga for Auburn, and for anyone just watching? It’s frenzied drama, underlined by the one thing college football delivers like little else can: unbridled and unexpected emotion. In the end, just let your eye follow that.