Two days before the first mega-ultra-this-time-it’s-for-real national championship game in college football history, they laid out a hundred yards of artificial turf and a set of high school stadium-sized bleachers, all of it inside a labyrinthine Dallas convention center named after a former Republican senator. Because this is Texas, you know, and this is how they roll in these parts: Even a meaningless event is over-adorned.
So they charged $15 for parking and $17 for fan admission to those bleachers for a two-hour long College Football Playoff media day session that was front-loaded with clichés. And to at least a few people, the vague proximity to Tim Tebow made it totally worth it. This is college football we’re talking about, after all, and it wouldn’t be college football without a backdrop of naked hypocrisy. So it only seemed fitting that Oregon’s portion of the media session focused largely on the absence of a wide receiver who, like the remainder of his teammates, wasn’t getting a cut of any of the profits being made today (or any other day), and who had been suspended after reportedly testing positive for a substance that will soon be perfectly legal in the state where he (presumably) consumed it.
The Oregon wide receiver is named Darren Carrington; he had seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl, and he might have been a major factor against Ohio State on Monday night had he not failed an NCAA-mandated random drug test (along with one other Oregon player, Ayele Forde). This led to a series of “no comments” from Ducks players, and a series of short philosophical disquisitions on “distractions” from Oregon’s genial head coach, Mark Helfrich, who insisted that “distractions are distractions if you let them be,” and who noted that media day itself was a distraction, just as defeating Florida State by nearly 40 points in the Rose Bowl might be Oregon’s biggest potential distraction of all.
(There was, of course, no discussion about the paradox of Oregon’s recent vote to legalize marijuana, because this is media day, and the object is to squash those distractions rather than foment them. So it was just repeatedly noted that Carrington exercised “bad judgment,” without any real acknowledgment of the underlying complications.)
There’s something fitting about Oregon being here, a player in the first of these colossal bowls, which will be consummated inside Jerry Jones’ glimmering monument to excessive video boards. In the history of the sport, after all, no program has so successfully elevated itself through marketing in the way Oregon has; no program has so thoroughly bought into the entrepreneurial dream of big-time college football quite like Oregon has. Ask the typical Duck player how they wound up there – say, wide receiver Dwayne Stanford, who hails from Cincinnati – and they mention the uniforms, the glittering running-shoe funded facilities and the sports-science staff that helped calibrate the Ducks’ practices this year in order to compensate for a (potentially) longer season than they’d ever had in the past.
“Oregon is a national brand, really,” Stanford says, which is why perhaps the most paradoxical element about the Ducks heading into this game remains their head coach. There is a bit of a void at this championship game without the presence of a traditional control-freak coach like Nick Saban, and Helfrich has filled that void with unassuming remarks and a wry sense of humor (asked about other schools co-opting Oregon’s fast-and-loose offense, he said, “I hope they’re safe.”)
Helfrich is such a low-key guy that his coaching staff never yells at anyone, and after the Ducks’ loss to Arizona earlier this season, all that touchy-feely millennial energy was seen as a liability. But not anymore. Helfrich is an Oregon kid, born and raised, and unlike with so many other coaches, you get the sense that he’s not casting an eye about for the next job, that he’s actually thrilled to be here coaching his hometown team. Which, at least for now, makes it a hell of a lot easier to root for a program that is as representative of the financial excess of college sports as any school in America.
There is a friendship between Helfrich and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer that appears legitimate, or at least as legitimate as it can get among college coaches. Much has been made this weekend of the fact that Meyer (an Ohio native, who shouted out his hometown of Ashtabula at a press conference Sunday morning) actually studied Oregon’s offense during his year away from coaching, when he worked as a broadcaster at ESPN. This is Meyer’s thing: He is a control freak in his own way, but he is less intimidating than Saban, more of a players’ coach, the kind of guy who seems almost cosmically able to get his entire roster to buy in to his philosophy.
And really, is there any other explanation for Ohio State’s presence in this game other than coaching? The Buckeyes lost their starting quarterback, Braxton Miller, to injury before the season even began; they lost their backup quarterback, J.T. Barrett, during the Michigan game, and Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman (who will become the coach at the University of Houston after this game) turned to a third-stringer named Cardale Jones, a Cleveland kid with a howitzer of an arm who was most famous, up to that point, for what he referred to as a “stupid tweet” that, like Carrington’s suspension, brought up those same uncomfortable questions about college football’s place in society.
Jones didn’t start playing quarterback until the ninth grade. He idolizes Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, can hurl a football 85 yards downfield and until recently, was the sort of immature kid who was once forced to wear a dunce cap during a quarterbacks meeting. But in November, his girlfriend gave birth to a baby daughter, and whether it was that or something else, the light appeared to click on for Jones. He finished off the Michigan game, and led the Buckeyes’ win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and was the unquestioned catalyst in Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. “Everybody was making a big deal,” Jones said, “like I was born the day before the game.”
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Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but then, it’s Texas, and everything down here really does feel deliberately exaggerated. It’s possible that this game will see record ratings, in the same way the semifinals did; either way, this already feels like a huge leap forward for college football, a step up into a new stratosphere of hype. I get the sense that both coaches are as cognizant of this ridiculousness as the rest of us, but they also see the opportunity ahead of them. They are two hometown guys, with a chance to bring home a national championship to their respective states. Such is the paradox of this Big Game, and of college football in general: For all the absurdity and hypocrisy attendant to this new frontier, there remains something sincere at the heart of it all.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb