College football's year of goodbyes

The 2023 season sees the end of rivalries, regional conferences and a four-team playoff. Whatever's coming next, it won't look anything like this.

There’s got to be a word out there for missing something even before it’s gone, for feeling nostalgia even before the past is past. Whatever that word is — probably some multisyllabic German monstrosity — go ahead and apply it to this year’s college football season. Take a long last look, because this is one of those end-of-an-era years in college football.

Like the days before you move out of your childhood home or graduate college, the 2023 season will be one of those everything-is-slipping-away-too-fast times, a season when we’ll see longtime rivalries and decades-old traditions take their final bows.

The 2023 season begins Saturday with a “Week Zero” slate that’s only for Notre Dame fans and true college football sickos. (Ohio versus San Diego State! Florida International at Louisiana Tech! Feel the passion!) But starting Labor Day weekend, this chaotic, haphazard, glorious ramshackle sport will begin its final year in its current, vaguely recognizable form.

This time next year, Texas and Oklahoma will be in the SEC. Rutgers and Minnesota and UCLA will be in the same conference. The Pac-12 will — as of this moment — become the Pac-4. Hell, the ACC might even welcome noted Atlantic coast schools Stanford, Cal and SMU.

Conference divisions are in their final year, too. They weren’t anywhere close to perfect — the SEC East is Georgia and a bunch of its guaranteed W's, while the SEC West is a barbed-wire cage match where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would finish third, at best. But conference divisions were yet another source of rivalry fire, the lifeblood of college football.

And speaking of rivalries, get ready to bid farewell to some of the oldest rivalry games in the country. Bedlam, the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry played since 1904? No more. The Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State, which dates to 1900? Vanished. Oregon-Oregon State, which began in 1894? Gone, just like its “Civil War” name disappeared three years ago.

Oh, and then there’s the College Football Playoff. This is the final year of four teams competing for a title; next year, 12 will be in the mix. Each game will draw millions of viewers, and each game will render the on-campus games in September, October and November a little less valuable.

How did we get here? Money, of course. Money and envy and fear. ESPN and Fox are willing to pay tens of millions to individual schools for their television broadcast rights — at least for the moment. College presidents, with the aid of battalions of well-paid attorneys, are doing all they can to jostle their way to the cool kids’ tables, because that’s where the TV money is flowing — again, at least for the moment. Wealthy donors are demanding excellence, wealthy coaches are demanding imperial control and absolute fealty, and non-wealthy athletes are demanding a share of the immense riches this sport is blasting out like an untethered fire hose.

None of this is new, of course. What’s different now is the degree, the wealth in this sport that now grows by orders of magnitude. That kind of money — millions for coaches, tens of millions for top-conference schools, billions from broadcast networks — hasn’t just tilted the sport, it’s knocked college football entirely off its axis, at the cost of longstanding tradition. But then, tradition can’t be monetized, not without neutering it and sanding off all rough edges — Make those students stop cussing during the fight song! We’re live on camera! — for easy packaging and sponsor activation.

Nothing like a college football game. (Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
There's nothing like a college football game. (Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The real irony here is that this is going to be a magnificent season. College football, as a sport, always rises above provincial executives and school officials looking to squeeze it for a quick buck. Georgia playing for a third straight national title; Ohio State looking to reclaim its edge over Michigan; Alabama trying to regain championship relevance; USC and LSU elbowing their way into the title conversation … those are the big storylines, yes, and all of them will be worth watching.

What makes college football a transcendent sport, though, are the moments when players who aren’t just auditioning for Sundays step up; when an Appalachian State stuns a Michigan or a Kick Six turns an entire state inside out; when the joy is spontaneous, not choreographed and branded with a Home Depot logo. Those are the moments that bring college football fans back year after year, long after they’ve graduated, grown and shipped their own kids off to the ol’ alma mater.

If you’ve never been to an on-campus tailgate the morning before a big game, pre-noon drink in your hand and meat on the grill, the sound of a distant college band carrying through the autumn air, you simply must. This season, if at all possible. But be very careful … it’s addictive, the tailgate life, and you’ll spend every year making lists of famous stadiums you need to visit, and counting down the days until fall rolls around again, and college football with it.

Next year, and in the future, college football will still exist, of course. For many schools, it will even continue to thrive. An entire Harvard Business School symposium’s worth of shareholder-obsessed executives, billable-hours attorneys and short-term-horizon consultants couldn’t dim the passion that is Auburn-Alabama or Ohio State-Michigan.

But college football’s regional alliances are gone, and they’re not coming back. A new mercenary framework is upon us, and realignment will only turn uglier and more divisive from here. Schools like Indiana, Northwestern, Kansas State, Vanderbilt and other conference backbenchers ought to pay close attention to how Washington State and Oregon State got abandoned like unpopular kids in a game of hide-n-seek. Clemson and Florida State have complained about not getting their fair share of ACC revenue for years. How long before the remaining major conferences take that one step further and decide that splitting TV money 12 or 14 ways is a lot more profitable than splitting it 18 or 20 ways? The door that leads into the ballroom where the big conferences dance leads right back out of it, too.

Enjoy it all, this 2023 college football season. We won’t see anything quite like it again.