We've seen it play out in books, plays, TV shows and movies a thousand times over. The Hero's Journey. The basic storytelling structure by which most of our hero stories play out.
A reluctant hero receives a call to to adventure and, after briefly refusing the call, decides to cross the threshold into the unknown in a quest for "the elixir" that will save...something. He is tested by enemies, gains allies and faces ordeals. Eventually, he receives his reward and makes the journey back to provide the elixir and save the day, but not before a final conflict that tests him beyond his original limits, leading to a temporary defeat, resurrection and final victory and transformation, be it physical, emotional or metaphysical.
Star Wars. Alice in Wonderland. The Matrix. Hamlet. Ender's Game. Rocky. Casablanca.
At their core, they're all the same story. And in a way, the college football fan's journey has felt like this for a long time as well.
For years, we seemed to live in a world where there were specific conferences, specific bowl games, specific teams that were allowed to play for National Titles and specific teams that were not. It was the world we lived in and we mostly accepted it.
At a certain point our grumbles got louder and we began our quest to remove the evil lords in charge of college football and replace them with benevolent creatures that allowed for fair play and a level playing field for all.
We got the BCS. How'd that wok out for everybody?
And so, living under BCS rule for a decade, we once again rose up and said enough is enough. We demand freedom! We demand fairness! We demand compromise!
The ground began to shake as the mighty evil lords began to crumble. The Big 12 was mortally wounded when the "plucky" Pac-10 swooped in a stole a team. The Big Ten took another one, a big one, while the SEC snagged two more. All of a sudden one of the power players was on the ropes.
The ACC continued it's long con of the Big East, the Pac-10 became the Pac-12, the Mountain West kinda-sorta merged with Conference USA and the landscape had shifted.
And, of course, talk of a playoff became real.
The heroes, college football fans, had found their elixir. Or so they thought.
In almost any hero's journey there's a moment, usually towards the end of the 2nd act, when the hero realizes that not only are they not winning, but the they are suddenly losing so badly that it was almost predestined that they would never actually win at all.
In the Matrix Reloaded, it's when Neo find out that this entire sequence of events has played out many times before. In Avatar, it's when the humans destroy the Na'vi home thanks to the information provided by Jake, even though he had come to care about them. In Empire Strikes Back, it's when Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader is his father and watches Han get frozen in carbonite.
All seems lost. If not for the third act heroics, all might have indeed been lost right then and there.
Today, college football fans are watching the bottom drop out beneath them in much the same way. Conference realignment is shifting again, only this time, it's moving at breakneck speed towards the inevitable conclusion...contraction into four super-conferences. It was only a matter of time, really. Whereas the ideal conference realignment would exist to give new opportunities to schools like Boise St. and Central Florida, it's actually just strengthening the control that schools like Texas and Florida have over them.
Six power conferences are already well on their way to becoming five and now the ACC is looking at the possibility that it's in trouble, too. Despite having a seat at the table and making all the right moves, they're about to get taken. Like Mike McDermott says, "If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker." Just the politician in the war movie who thought they were doing the right thing up until the moment they realize they were doing it in the name of a monster.
The other side of this is the playoff system being instituted. The point of a playoff, as we all understand it, is to give all of the worthy teams a relative chance to win the championship. In theory, a playoff will level the playing field that the BCS and bowl system does not.
While it's not set it stone, it's already clear that the new playoff system will do anything but. Actually, it sounds like the new playoff system will limit the playing field even further. Restrictions based on ranking, conference affiliation and conference championships makes it all the more unlikely that a team outside the 4-5 major conferences will ever qualify for this four-team playoff, let alone win it.
Our good intentions are crumpled up on the floor while we watch the pigs sit side-by-side with the farmers, unable to tell which one is which.
As far as I can tell there is no third act for the hero to earn redemption. The rich will get richer. The rest will remain locked outside the city gates, begging for scraps. I don't blame the big conferences or the schools, they're merely doing what they have to do for themselves. But like in so many of those stories, we tried to create a perfect version of our little world and realized in the end that it's an impossible task.
The hero's journey of college football has no happy ending. Unless, of course, you're in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.