If Week 1 of the 2020 season takes place as planned, it will include a non-conference match-up between two brands I’d want you to believe are iconic. But this game has no Playoff implications, and that postseason irrelevance means I might still need to convince you of these schools’ worthiness. That’s why I wish the game wouldn’t be played at all.
ADMISSION OF BIAS, PART 1:
I am a fan of the Georgia Southern Eagles college football team, my parents’ alma mater. Until recent years, this never really interfered with whatever objectivity I’m supposed to hold as a member of the esteemed and accredited college football media. For the majority of my life GSU, or just “Southern,” per my UGA-hating father, was a I-AA and FCS member.
Southern didn’t exist in the landscape I came of age in. I-AA football wasn’t on national television. As my family moved around the country, the Eagles certainly weren’t mentioned in a newspaper or on sports radio. And when I got to college in the SEC there was no room for anything football that wasn’t native to that conference or an imminent threat to it. At least that’s what we were made to believe.
In the 80s and 90s, the Eagles were a deep cut to most college football fans not in Georgia. They won a lot of I-AA national titles and earned a tremendous amount of respect in the industry for building something from nothing, and quickly: The Eagles won their first national title in 1984, just their second year of full varsity football. In ‘85 they repeated, and in ‘89 they were the first college football program to go 15-0 in the twentieth century. In coaching circles they were your favorite band’s favorite band, if your favorite band was just a single bass drum played at inappropriate times.
Then in 2013, in their last game as a FCS program, “Southern” beat Florida in Gainesville without completing a pass. Seemingly at once the nation discovered a nobody teacher’s school too poor to put logos on their helmets bang on a BCS title winner like ball bearings in a dryer. They did this thanks mostly to their beloved adherence to the triple option, a blunt cudgel of an offense that loves you only as much as you’re willing to love it. More so than even the service academies (who imported the offense from former Eagles head coach Paul Johnson and his assistants), Southern proves that the triple is more an ideology than a scheme. When former head coach Brian VanGorder insisted the program transition out of the triple for a modern offense in 2006, the Eagles finished 3-8 and BVG was promptly run the fuck out of town. The Eagles run the triple today, but you knew that.
ADMISSION OF BIAS, PART 2:
I hold a great amount of preference for Boise State University’s football team. I have no affiliation with the state of Idaho, but I have been a sportswriter in the South for a good portion of my life. During this time, I have found that even the mere mention of Boise State as any kind of respectable, viable football entity infuriates SEC fans. Since discovering this in the mid-’00s — I suspect it was when BSU beat Oklahoma in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl with a crooked deck of trick plays, formation and motion shifts, and general chicanery — I have made it a point to commit this annoyance as often as possible.
I commit this annoyance because it’s fun, and because I spend a good amount of time around fans of SEC schools who often find themselves as lesser than Alabama and thus scraping for an argument to belong in the postseason. As they reckon with the futility of a 10-2 or even 11-1 campaign, they give no quarter to the idea an undefeated Boise deserves a playoff bid.
To date this hasn’t happened, but the prospect looms every year. I make it my business to incorporate Boise (or Houston or Western Michigan or Cincinnati, any Group of Five program running undefeated and looking alarming) into the playoff conversation. This isn’t (just) to troll. This isn’t even primarily to argue for G5 inclusion in a four-team playoff format. It’s to reaffirm the existence of the programs, and moreover, their fans. College football, at its strongest, is a universally accessible form of worship. I don’t care so much about Boise’s FPI as I do the effect a total rejection of a program’s merits has on its fan base. The idea that 130-odd teams have a shot at a national title is a joke. It’s also inherently and purposefully cruel to so many fans.
I love that Boise is considered gaudy. Twenty years ago they showed up at College Football Cotillion with an excess of handsome charm and a blue neck tattoo crawling up their ear: the famous turf, the trick plays, the kamikaze out of conference scheduling, the Oregon uniform aesthetic. This bothers fans of Serious, Established Brands in a way I can’t process but magnetically, desperately need to needle them about.
It’s likely that I support a trashy neon Boise crashing every party possible because I grew up cheering for that anonymous, tiny triple option school in gnat country. They’re outsiders culturally and outliers on the field . And almost every season, teams like Boise and Georgia Southern can draw attention away from sleepy cornerstone brands and force us to pay attention to college football things that are weird and fun.
Which is why I don’t want them to play each other this season.
THE CASE AGAINST MEETING
I understand the reasoning for this non-conference series (there is a return game in Statesboro in 2024). It will be a wonderful mash of cultures and fan bases and most certainly actual football styles — in that way it will be absolutely wonderful to watch for three hours. There is good and real football value in two quality G5s playing each other. It’s getting harder for these programs to lock in P5 non-conference deals that make sense (especially triple option Southern, considered cut-blocking boogeymen).
But someone will lose, and in doing so, we’ll bid farewell to one potential outlier for an entire season. Ask Broncos fans: The moment a G5 drops a game, their platform diminishes almost instantly. The school that loses this game will no longer be a fly buzzing around the P5 hegemony.
It’s possible (although incredibly unlikely) the losing team could run the table and, with a bunch of help and weird circumstances, go as far as securing the G5 auto-bid to the New Year’s Day partner bowl. But… who cares? That spot has done little to change the fortunes of these programs or the perception of outsiders, even when schools like Houston or UCF win.
The most valuable currency a G5 can have is an unblemished record (preferably with one or two P5 wins). That means mandatory insertion into the playoff conversation. Even if it’s forced — hell, especially when it’s forced — it provides those schools high value exposure and it gives media, fans, and the greater collective something different to discuss.
I’m reluctant to shut my brain off to enjoy this series; to ignore the fact that neither program, nor any other in the Group of Five, will ever be legitimately considered for a playoff spot. No Sun Belt team has ever appeared in a NY6 bowl, let alone the Playoff. And only once (App State in 2019) has a school from the conference finished in the AP Top 25, so it’s unlikely Southern could turn wins over Boise and Ole Miss (their only P5) into something. Boise could go undefeated, sweep the Mountain West, Florida State and three potentially top-tier G5s (Southern, Marshall and BYU) and still easily be brushed aside.
This is not an invective against good scheduling: In the Power 5 these games often help build playoff resumes, and losses can be survived (Ohio State losing to Virginia Tech in 2014). That luxury isn’t afforded to G5 programs at all. Worse than being a rigged game, it’s also a lie: The Playoff preaches strong scheduling, meaning that schools like Boise and Georgia Southern and Houston and Cincinnati have to scramble to make the best case possible by cannibalizing each other.
You’d much rather both these teams cause as much hell in as high a profile manner as possible for as long as the season allows, be it without completing a pass or making an SEC fan clutch pearls over blue FieldTurf. Two beloved underdogs isn’t an appealing fight, it’s a voluntary culling.
It’s probably best to just enjoy the series for what it is. But it’s hard to do that if you’re as invested in one of these teams as any Alabama or Notre Dame fan. There’s no celebration in being considered automatically lesser-than.