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November 4, 2011The Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't scheduled to meet in the 2011 NFL regular season - but it wouldn't be the same thing, even if they did.
At the moment, the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat don't even have a functioning league in which to meet - but it wouldn't be the same thing, even if they did.
The North Carolina Tar Heels and the Kentucky Wildcats actually do meet in men's college basketball this season, on Dec. 3 in Lexington, and what a wonderful game it will be. But it won't be the same thing.
The fact is, no other sport could have a regular-season game like Saturday's Alabama-LSU contest at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game - and the attendant hype - could only exist in one world: College Football. No other sport is structured the same way, and thus none could have a regular-season game with the same amount of Importance (the capital "I" is intentional).
I have read lots of fine articles this week by writers from Pat Forde to Mark Schlabach to Nakia Hogan, to name just three fine representatives of the journalistic army that has descended on Tuscaloosa this week. I don't pretend to have read (or watched) even one-tenth of the 10,000 articles, video reports, blogs and tweets that have been generated by this game, but amid all the analysis and Les Miles anecdotes, the intrinsic singularity of the event hasn't been mentioned very frequently. So I will repeat it: Big games can exist in any team sport, and they often do. But only college football can have a day where its two best teams can meet in a regular-season game with profound championship ramifications, a game from which the second-best team in the entire sport can be consigned immediately to inconsequentiality.
There can be regular-season games with postseason elimination ramifications, of course. It happens all the time. But you are talking about a couple of 9-6 NFL teams - let's say the Chargers and the Seahawks - playing for a final playoff berth. You aren't talking about the best team in the league eliminating the second-best before the playoffs even begin. The same thing is true in college basketball. You can occasionally have No. 1 North Carolina playing No. 2 Duke, for instance, with the ACC championship and a top seed in the ACC tournament and Dick Vitale's sanity all on the line. But that game will never keep the loser out of the NCAA Tournament, regardless of the outcome.
This Saturday, though, may literally doom a great team to nothing more than a gaudy record, a consolation bowl and only a slender hope of redemption. The loser might get lucky enough to get a second chance in a rematch scenario in New Orleans, but there is no guarantee of it, and no way the loser can control it, beyond praying for Oklahoma State and Stanford and probably Boise State to lose. Yet, if it is a close, classic game, many people will remain convinced that it really was the two best teams in college football, as it was for Texas-Arkansas in 1969 or Nebraska-Oklahoma in 1971. That's what separates this game from any other comparable game in any other sport.
One reason this point isn't discussed more frequently is that it comes perilously close to the BCS party line about the "value of the regular season," and no one in college football circles these days, except those who make money from the BCS, wants to be seen as a BCS advocate. I'm not one either, if it comes down to it, although I do recognize that there is no perfect playoff plan out there. Whether you have four teams, eight, 16 or 32, every proposed system has its beauty and its flaws. I'd rather have a plus-one than what we have now, but save your e-mails because I know that a plus-one is flawed, too.
But understand this. When the playoff comes, possibly later rather than sooner, the urgent magnitude of this weekend is what gets bartered away. It is hard to imagine any expanded format - even one incorporating just four teams - that would exclude the loser of this game, Alabama or LSU, from playoff participation, should they win out from here. It's a perfectly fair argument to say that the excitement of the playoffs would outweigh the thrill of a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game, a rare juxtaposition that only occurs every four or five years or so at best. One could debate the merits of either side of that in a column that would run far longer than this.
Would there still be meaningful regular-season games? Of course there would, lots of them. But would there ever be another regular-season game in which the stakes would be this high for the two best teams in the nation? Probably not. How could there be?
I think most of Saturday's record audience understands the ramifications of what it will witness when Alabama plays LSU. But it might be more than just a great game, more than just "rare" or "special." It might be endangered, an event that will someday vanish, replaced perhaps by something just as good, but not exactly the same. So, Crimson Tide fans and Tiger fans and college football fans, don't just enjoy the game tomorrow - take a moment to appreciate it. You may never see its like on a college campus again.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0225.