Only a few teams can win the national title, but college football’s about so much more

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The certainty at the top can seem pretty boring. The same teams win the title all the time. Imagine if the same 10 percent of NFL, MLB, or NBA teams kept winning over a 30-year period.

Over the last quarter century, Alabama has won five times; Florida, Florida State, and Nebraska thrice each; Ohio State and LSU twice; and Auburn, Clemson, Miami, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and USC each took home a BCS and/or Coaches Poll title.

It’s been 22 seasons since Florida became the last team to win its first national title. There are no realistic candidates to do it this year. In fact, only 10 teams meet the recruiting threshold that recent history says is necessary to win a title.

And yet college football remains one of the country’s most popular sports.

Of course, these powers can still be fun. 2014 Ohio State was fun, winning a title with a third-string QB. 2012 Alabama became fun, dispatching an Irish team that much of the country was sick of.

There’s also a challenge in it, even for the elite teams. Unlike pro sports teams, there are no long-term contracts. Teams must cycle through their roster every few years as yesterday’s freshman walk across the stage, be it at graduation or the NFL draft.

As a Netflix society, we binge for 14 hours each Saturday. Despite the spoiler that the champ will be one of a small handful of teams, there are no week-to-week spoilers, which makes the game so unpredictable and addictive.

Fans of the 120 FBS teams with little or no shot still show up.

  • We watch because we say we. Because of the degree on the wall, and the laundry. It’s tribalism. (This is the big one.) If college football removed college affiliations, it would be some form of minor league football. And nobody watches minor league sports, not in comparison to college football’s numbers.
  • Much in the way countries come alive to support Olympic athletes in sports they would otherwise not watch, fans come alive each Saturday to watch football that is a step below the highest level, all because of our school colors.
  • Many of us grow up on it, going to games as kids with our parents, alums of our future schools. Yet still more are first-generation fans, having gone to their first games as college students. Saturdays make us feel young again.
  • Some have no formal affiliations with schools at all, liking them because of locations, jerseys, logos, mascots, star players, style of plays, or their ratings in a now-defunct video game.
  • For many, the social culture becomes a way of life. In certain areas, there are no vacations or weddings during the season. The butts are in the seats and under the tailgate tents, regardless of the team’s record.
  • We watch because of the unpredictable nature of youth. Week-to-week, college football is crazy, dumb, and exhilarating. Professional players have a level of polish that reduce the sheer number of wild plays. It lends college football fans to the appreciation of the unusual.
  • We watch because we love the underdog. A country founded on a massive upset victory over a traditional power loves to watch 41-point underdog Stanford take down USC or FCS Appalachian State topple Michigan. Knowing the odds and watching them be thrown out the window, is great fun on a Saturday. Or even better, a Thursday night.
  • We watch because every game matters so much. It’s almost impossible to win the whole enchilada with more than one loss — almost — and sometimes even a single loss will keep a team from the dance. So the role of spoiler can be especially fun.
  • We watch because we invest in the process and the sale of hope. That freshman QB who should have redshirted if not for injury to the starter might not be any good now, but there is a real chance he could be by the time he becomes a senior. There’s a chance that if my team wins eight games, perhaps it can impress some better recruits and then get to nine and start winning 10 and maybe contend for a title this decade. And once we get there, there is no competitive balance like in the pros, to knock my squad down again. (Of course, it’s almost always a false hope, but believing makes fans feel alive.)
  • We watch because of the rivalries. Because we get to the office early after a win, go to the break room an extra time or two, and take a lap by the desk of the fan of Rival State U, just to rub it in, assuming he or she didn’t call in sick.
  • We watch because of superstars like Lamar Jackson.
  • We watch because of the scheme diversity. They say styles make fights, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than college football. There are no matchups like hyperspeed Ole Miss vs. deliberate Arkansas in the NFL. The NBA cannot give the contrast of styles that triple-option Navy vs. full-spread Houston can provide.
  • We watch because we like to be first, and for many people, college football is their first exposure to the players who will play at an elite level for the next decade.
  • We watch because we know crazy can happen, like 2007.
  • We watch because no other sport has the traditions. From Bill Connelly’s "Why we love college football"

In Lincoln, Nebraska, 85,000 people make an incomprehensible amount of noise watching on an enormous jumbotron as 100 young men walk through a hallway.

In Columbia, South Carolina, old Southern men yell and wave towels to the pulsating beat of a nearly 20-year old song by Finnish trance DJ Darude.

In Blacksburg, Virginia, engineering majors make an equal amount of noise following the opening notes to a classic rock song from Los Angeles-based Metallica.

In Madison, Wisconsin, after 45 minutes of play, the home crowd jumps along in disturbing unison to a decades-old song from faux-Irish rap group House of Pain. It is so fun you can occasionally catch members of the visiting team joining in on the sideline.

In Auburn, Alabama, a town of 53,000, up to 87,000 people show up to watch an eagle fly around a stadium. A retired eagle still hangs out on campus. (The team's nickname is the Tigers, by the way.) In Tallahassee, Florida, a student is given a scholarship to dress up as a Seminole chief, ride into Doak Campbell Stadium on a horse named Renegade, and plant a spear into the ground.

In Starkville, Mississippi, home fans clang cowbells incessantly, and they are the only fans in the country allowed to do so. This is a big deal. In Stillwater, Oklahoma, the Cowboy Marching Band plays "The Waving Song" after the home team scores. The fans don't clap along, of course; they wave.

In Clemson, South Carolina, the home team pats a rock and runs down a hill to thunderous applause. In College Station, Texas, proud Aggies cheer along with male yell leaders dressed like milkmen, repeating chants that you don't understand and nodding quietly to the collie graveyard on the north end of the stadium.2

In Shreveport, Louisiana, local Louisiana State fans show up at the Independence Bowl, a game in which their team isn't playing, just so they can get some tailgating practice. In Boise, Idaho, Utah State beats Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The trophy they receive is basically a crystal bowl of potatoes. Winning this ridiculous trophy is one of the program's finest moments.

In stadiums throughout the country, men wearing different-colored shirts, with perhaps incredibly similar backgrounds, yell at and/or tussle with each other because of the actions of a bunch of 19-year olds wearing similar colors. And in stadiums throughout the country, men wearing the same-colored shirts yell at and/or tussle with each other because of the plays being called by a well-paid man in a box across the stadium from them.

Welcome to college football, where this all makes sense. From the tunnel walk at Nebraska, to "Sandstorm" at South Carolina, to "Enter Sandman" at Virginia Tech, to "Jump Around" at Wisconsin. From War Eagle at Auburn to Chief Osceola at Florida State. From CLANGA CLANGA CLANGA at Mississippi State to silent waving at Oklahoma State. From drunk LSU fans grilling meat for practice to jubilant Utah State fans cheering as their head coach holds a potato bowl over his head.

In the real world, you aren't allowed to dress up like a Native American and throw a spear into the ground. In college football, you can pay for an education doing this.

College football is the world's biggest insiders' club, a sport with too many inane, insanely enjoyable traditions to count. It is off the beaten path. It is messy and absurd. It is nonsensical. It is wonderful. It is always changing, and it never changes.

We watch because the national championship is not the only championship.

There are conference titles, division titles — some schools celebrate the heck out of simply making a bowl game. For the best of the best, those things don’t matter, but if they are all a school can aspire to, you better believe those fans are celebrating in the streets.