Four-and-a-half feet: For the moment, that is the measure of the college football season, the difference between a playoff berth and a lack of one. Four-and-a-half feet: On Saturday night, in the final minutes of a 31-28 road loss to Michigan State, Oregon’s newly minted quarterback, an FCS transfer from Eastern Washington named Vernon Adams, hurled a pass to a wide-open receiver streaking toward the end zone, and overshot him by a yard and a half.
“You know,” Adams admitted afterward, “I can’t stop thinking about that. He was wide-open and you got to make that throw and the game is different.”
This is ostensibly true: If Adams completes that pass, Oregon is in a different position today. If Adams completes that pass, the Ducks are in a more dominant spot heading into the Pac-12 season; as it is, Michigan State could potentially lose to Ohio State later this season, and if the Spartans otherwise go undefeated, they could wind up in the College Football Playoff anyway. For the moment, that’s the Play/Non-Play of the Year.
But can I make a presumption about that narrative? My guess is that it almost certainly won’t come to pass – at least not in the facile way we’re currently imagining it might. Because it never does. Because this is college football, and the narrative is never static, and what matters in Week 2 is rarely what matters in Week 14; this is college football, and even as every game matters, everything is also in constant flux.
As proof of that, I point you to Vernon Adams, who, as the ESPN commentators repeatedly noted on Saturday night, has only been with the Oregon program for four weeks after passing a final exam that permitted him to transfer from his former school. Who knows how Adams will develop over the course of a season? Who knows if it was realistic to imagine Oregon sustaining its position at the top of the Pac-12 anyway? Beyond that, I would also point you in the direction of several other results from Week 2, including Auburn’s near-defeat at the hands of FCS Jacksonville State, and Toledo’s upset win over Arkansas. Both of those teams were potential preseason favorites in the cement-mixer that is the seven-team SEC West; both of those teams now seem riddled with weaknesses, but that’s the beauty of college football: Every team is riddled with potential weaknesses.
Take Michigan State, for instance: The Spartans are clearly, at the very least, the second-best team in a ridiculously top-heavy Big Ten conference. But what happens if Oregon does run the table, and the Spartans lose at Michigan (Oct. 17) or Nebraska (Nov. 7), and then beat Ohio State? I refer you to the absurdist TCU-Baylor debate of last season to reinforce the fact that we have no idea how the playoff committee will view anything, in large part because college football doesn’t adhere to any sort of consistent principles for evaluation. It’s always a toss-up, by virtue of the fact that conferences and schedules are generally incomparable, and sample sizes are so small.
So enjoy this moment while you can. Relish the notion that in Week 2, we still don’t know much of anything, and that the possibilities are near infinite. Enjoy the debate over Ohio State’s weak schedule, while recognizing that its entirely possible that some far-inferior Big Ten team could potentially find a way to upend the Buckeyes while they’re looking ahead to that season-ending duo of games against Michigan State and Michigan. Enjoy the notion of a potentially lopsided Iron Bowl, given Auburn’s apparent weakness, while recognizing that the Tigers could still find a way to pull it together and win a wide-open SEC West.
“I have to make those throws and give us a chance to win the game,” Adams said, in reliving the overthrow that would have won the game for Oregon. “That could have changed everything if I would have put it right on him.”
It’s an understandable lament; it puts Oregon in a far more difficult position. But this is the thing about college football: Everything changes regardless. By the end of the season, the game will be completely different, and those four-and-a-half feet will likely give way to an entirely divergent narrative.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb