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In a more intelligent era, the college football season didn't begin until the third Saturday in September. Before their openers, most schools scrimmaged against other schools. These scrimmages were conducted under game conditions, but weren't included in their season records.

For instance, Syracuse, then trying to climb from a low point in its football history, had scrimmages, I think in 1950, with Army and Bucknell. The scrimmages gave players a taste of real competition and helped teams correct mistakes before the season began.

Back then, teams played no more than ten games a season, often nine, sometimes eight. A handful of successful teams would be rewarded with bids to a bowl game. There were only a few bowl games, so none had to invite a team that won only half of its games.

THINGS HAVE changed. Some colleges begin their seasons in late August, and many early season match-ups are so one-sided that no admission should be charged.

This season, for example, Oklahoma State played Arkansas State and won, 73-0. Mississippi beat Mercer by the same score, and Oregon's opener was the biggest farce as the Ducks beat Portland State, 81-0.

August remains too early for the college football season, but money talks, and what drives sports these days is television revenue, the main reason big-time football schools play twelves games per season, with conference championships adding a thirteenth game for the lucky participants, who then play yet again in a bowl game.

IN THAT more intelligent era, there were no polls until late October, and teams were ranked on the basis of performance, not hype. Now we have pre-season polls that mostly are used by television to publicize certain season-opening games that feature teams ranked in the Top 25. It must be stated, however, that no matter when these polls are conducted, they should be taken with a grain of salt. The real purpose of these polls is to encourage lively arguments that lead to foolish bets.

That was especially true for teams in two games played over the Labor Day weekend — Colorado versus Texas Christian and Duke versus Clemson. The only thing we knew for certain is each team entered the game undefeated — and winless.

Colorado and TCU were strongly affected by another recent change in college athletics — the so-called transfer portal which has turned college athletes into free agents. Truer now than ever is the old adage, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard."

Colorado is coached by Deion Sanders, who took the job earlier this year and cleaned house. The Buffaloes' 2023 roster bears no resemblance to the one it had a year ago. Colorado versus TCU was the best game of week one, with the Buffaloes winning, 45-42. Sanders' son, Shedeur, looked like an All-American quarterback, but had plenty of support.

Announcers and odds-makers regarded this as a big upset because TCU played in last season's national championship game and was ranked 17th in the pointless pre-season poll. But TCU lost that national championship game — to Georgia — by the score of 65-7, the most lopsided bowl game in history, and an indication maybe TCU didn't deserve to be there. (The team had been beaten by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, which opens up discussion about the point of having conference championships, but that's one for another day.)

In any event, it will be several weeks before we know how good Colorado and TCU are this season.

DUKE'S 28-7 win over Clemson was considered week one's biggest upset, but, again, we didn't really know how good either team was. Clemson went into the game ranked number nine, largely on the basis of its recent impressive history, while Duke was ... well, Duke was Duke, a school that hasn't been a football power since the 1930s.

Clemson has become one of those teams most of us love to hate. Some of the others are Alabama, Georgia, Miami of Florida, Florida State, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Millions of people enjoy seeing them lose.

So naturally I loved it when Duke beat Clemson, though, to a large extent, the Clemson players beat themselves by making ridiculous mistakes at crucial times, twice failing to score when they were inches from the Duke goal line.

WHAT WAS especially funny was one of the announcers proclaiming this was the first time Duke had beaten a nationally ranked team in its first game of the season. The announcer was oblivious to what an oxymoron he'd just uttered, the key phrases being "nationally ranked" and "first game of the season." (I won't identify the announcer because I didn't bother to learn his name; nothing he said was of much interest.)

Whatever, Clemson's performance against Duke is reason number one for likening pre-season polls to "The Emperor's New Clothes." On September 4, Dabo Swinney's team was guilty of indecent exposure.

Mind you, Clemson might well win most of its remaining games and prove they deserve to be highly rated. That's why teams are required to play games, rather than have results determined by Las Vegas odds-makers or announcers and "expert" commentators who delight in projecting team records and telling us which players will some day play on Sundays — in the NFL, not on a neighborhood sandlot.

On the other hand, maybe Clemson will lose a few more games and be lucky to wind up in a mid-December bowl game in the Bahamas. We simply have to wait to find out how good Clemson really is, so be patient.

AH, BOWL GAMES. The proliferation of meaningless games in December and January is another thing that demonstrates the dumbing down of college football fans and the people who cover the sport. Some newspaper and sports websites begin a bowl watch on the first weekend of the season.

These bowls bear such names as Hometown Lenders Bahamas Bowl,
Cricket Celebration Bowl, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl, Scooer's Coffee Frisco Bowl, Roofclaim.com Boca Raton Bowl, Duke's Mayo Bowl, Wasabi Fenway Bowl, Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl, Pop-Tarts Bowl, Transperfect Music City Bowl, Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl, and my favorite, Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl.

Much has been said about the foolishness of organized children's sports in which scores aren't kept, or leagues that hand out trophies to everyone who participates.

These bowl games are the grown-up equivalent. To be considered "special," all you have to do is win half of your games. You can't set the bar much lower than that.

POSTSCRIPT: On October 7, the University of Louisville football team beat Notre Dame, 33-20 in a game that wasn' nearly as close as that score indicates. Throughout the second half, announcer Joe Tesitore repeatedly expressed astonishment that Louisville was beating "top ten Notre Dame", because Tesitore apparently believed the most recent ratings were carved in stone. He also seemed to think that until that very evening, Louisville had been a Biddy League football team.

Louisville entered the game undefeated in five games and ranked 25th in the country; Notre Dame had five wins and one loss and was ranked 10th. After that game, Louisville was ranked 14th and Notre Dame 21st. It's certain those rankings will change by December, which is a strong argument for waiting until the end of the season to take a poll.

In any event, a week later, the University of Southern California, undefeated and the new number ten team in the country, went to South Bend, Indiana, and lost to Notre Dame, 48-20. Meanwhile, Louisville went to Pittsburgh and lost, 38-21, to a team that entered the game with a record of one win, four losses. (My favorite game of that weekend, however, was in Colorado where the hometown Buffaloes built a 29-0 lead at halftime, then lost, 46-43, to Stanford, which also had entered the game with one win and four losses, including a defeat at the hands of Sacramento State.)

THE UNCERTAIN nature of the game is why announcers frequently gush, "You gotta love college football!" But all is not well with the game, and eventually Americans will lose interest. I think one of the reasons will be summed up in three words: breaking the plane. College's tie-breaking system also will be a factor.

One of the season's most exciting game was the October 7 battle between Arizona and the University of Southern California. The game was settled in the third overtime period when USC quarterback (and last year's Heisman Trophy winner) Caleb Williams was credited with scoring because he broke the plane of the goal line on a play that had him run out of bounds without actually going into the end zone. Officials ruled Williams had scored because along the way he waved the ball over the end zone. "Abracadabra! Give me two points!"

That's not the way football is meant to be played. In this particular game, a tie would have been more appropriate. (If a winner had to be decided, flipping a coin would have been fairer.) I felt particularly bad for quarterback Noah Fifita, a Los Angeles-area native who played brilliantly for the upstart Arizona team.

There are several asinine rules in football. The finish of the Arizona-USC game demonstrated two of them.



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