Yes, you read that title correctly. I’m about to uncover biblical truth within college football. Hold on to your hats (or big foam fingers)…
We find ourselves approaching a turning point in college football. This is the first year of a college football playoff system for Division I football, in which a twelve-member committee, composed of current and former university athletic directors, former coaches, administrators, a professional athlete, a reporter, and a former Secretary of State, wields the power to choose four Division I college football teams they believe to be the creme de la creme de la conferences to play for a national championship. Their preliminary selections over the past month have stirred much controversy, as some teams feel their successes and talents have been unfairly ignored by the committee members who seem to reward the almost identical successes and talents of other teams by ranking them in the top four spots.
The committee’s chairperson, Jeff Long, has been pressed to defend the selections by highlighting certain factors the committee believes to be the most impressive qualities of a team. In press conferences, he has gone on about two things in particular: game control and style points. Simply put, game control refers to a team’s ability to maintain a comfortable lead throughout the game, preferably by at least fourteen to twenty-one points. And the second is related to the first. Style points refers to when a team is able (and willing) to run up the score so their win will seem like total domination, because apparently the College Football Playoff selection committee is taking their cues from Sensei Kreese.
And so, that’s what’s being talked about now by game commentators, radio hosts, reporters, and, of course, fiercely loyal fans. It is no longer good enough for the team you root for to win. They must win big, and that big win must never be in doubt. Otherwise, they cannot be considered one of the best teams. It used to be impressive for a team to win the majority of its games, and perhaps even claim their conference championship. But all of a sudden there is a new dimension necessary for those teams angling to be considered the best. Not only must they score more points than the team of talented athletes lining up in front of them week after week. They have to score enough points to effectively gain the praise of twelve specific people.
Don’t look now, folks, but this playoff selection committee has ruined college football as we know it.
That is not hyperbole, and it is not sarcasm. I’m completely serious. I truly believe that the sport so many of us have loved all our lives has taken a turn for the terminal. Not because the committee is corrupt, or their system is illogical, but because they’ve surgically removed nail-biting excitement and edge-of-your-seat tension from games that we used to hope would play out exactly that way. Those were the kinds of games we enjoyed watching the most! The back-and-forth battles in which game control shifted as dramatically as a playground seesaw. The down-to-the-wire finishes in which one set of players triumphantly rushed the field while the other set lowered their heads under the combined weight of exhaustion and defeat.
If I had to choose the most entertaining bowl game I’ve watched in my lifetime up until now, I would easily choose Boise State versus Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but it wouldn’t be because Boise State won and I was rooting for them. It would be because that game was extraordinary: a David-and-Goliath match-up that, unlike the biblical story, went back-and-forth with each team claiming and then losing the lead on incredible, gutsy plays… and that was in the fourth quarter alone! Boise State finally won in overtime, 43-42, on a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play for a two-point conversion (which means rather than easily kicking an extra point, they took the risk of either winning or losing the game on one trick play).
Those games, at least in regard to significance, are quickly going the way of the buffalo.
Oh, sure, we might still see something like it in a bowl game, when there is nothing to be gained from impressing the committee after the regular season is over. But consider the fact that endings like the one I described, as extraordinary as they are, have now been deemed unimpressive, especially when compared to a team that blows out its competition 43-0. Wins that come with great difficulty may be respected, but they are no longer proof of a team’s strength. This is what the College Football Playoff selection committee has already imparted to us, and I don’t like how easily I’ve conformed to their views.
For instance, last Saturday, I watched my favorite team, the Baylor Bears, white-knuckle a 48-46 win against one of their rivals, Texas Tech, who played with such desperate passion the team reminded me of a certain Fiesta Bowl champion from 2007. Baylor never trailed in the game, but ended up having to make two clutch defensive stops to prevent the Red Raiders from pulling off the upset. It was the kind of game I used to love watching, especially if the team I was rooting for ended up on top as Baylor ultimately did. However, for the last quarter and a half, as Tech mounted an improbable comeback, I was aware of a deep-seated anxiety rising within me. Not only had I become angry at my team, but that frustration lingered long after time expired. Baylor was currently ranked #7 by the playoff committee, three spots shy of that privileged top four, and I knew grinding out a two-point win over an inferior team was not going to rouse even one shred of admiration from the newly appointed supreme court of college football. So, despite a wild game that ended with a Baylor victory, I was left feeling disappointed and nervous for how their performance would affect their ranking.
And that was when I knew that college football, as I knew it, was over.
When all you care about is style points, you’ve lost sight of what the game is really about. If a genuine show of vigor from the opposing team is now only evidence of your own team’s mediocrity (rather than natural competitiveness between two forces that transcend statistics and rankings and the opinions of thirteen people in a boardroom), you have been led astray by a sports heresy. This is Neopelagianism on the gridiron.
And this is where God comes in.
If the travesty currently befalling college football has taught me anything, it is that game control and style points have no place within the Christian faith. While Jesus called us in the Sermon on the Mount to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), he left out any condition that said being perfect was the only way to get God’s attention or something you have to do in order to garner acceptance and praise.
For years, I tried to live my life as if game control and style points were what mattered most. I tried to live in such a way that my good behavior, faithful prayer life, regular church attendance, and increasing understanding of the Bible would get God to notice me and, in turn, bless me. I read ridiculous books like The Prayer of Jabez that essentially told me I had to pray for certain things a certain way if I wanted to get the good blessings God had to give. Much like the playoff selection committee, I felt what mattered more than anything (particularly those incremental improvements and small victories) was my “full body of work.” Had I done enough to impress God? Enough to warrant his favor and earn his endorsement?
And when the losses came (as they inevitably do), I was my own worst critic, a diehard fan who boos and jeers his own team. Those away games when I fell short of obedience, and those shocking defeats when the opposition exposed my weaknesses – they cultivated nothing but shame and self-loathing, a reminder that I would never be good enough. I would never be the kind of man I wanted to be.
Sadly, there are a lot of Christians today who are still slaves to style points. They may call God full of grace and love, but, by the way they live their lives, they reflect a belief that he is as capricious and fastidious as a thirteen-member playoff selection committee. For them, grace, mercy and compassion have become nothing more than hollow, ineffectual terms relegated to Sunday School classes and hymn books. They have no place in the “real world.”
But the God I believe in – the God of the Christian faith – is full of those things. He looks upon us with kindness, forgiveness and generosity.
We don’t always live in control of our lives. In fact, most of the time we feel like life is a down-to-the-wire nail-biter, where anything can happen. Style points are a mythical luxury we are incapable of claiming. Praise be to God that grinding out a win is considered as virtuous as blowing out the other team. Even greater praise be to Him for sending his son to be the victor for us – to put the game out of reach and rack up more style points than we will ever need.