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Analysis | On its way to charmlessness, college football showed it can still charm

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A sport striving with all might to become less interesting just held the first chockablock Saturday of its fresh season, and it seemed more aching than ever to scour that Saturday for the charms it might have yielded. Addled old college football managed to squeeze out at least three, which will figure to take their positions along the path toward superleagues and charmlessness.

Maybe someday, they’ll linger as dilapidated signposts.

All three charms sprang from an old, old college football staple, those games between programs of varying resource levels that might just dissolve once somebodies with big power and small joy decide to root out the Texas States, the Northern Illinoises, the Fresno States and so on, all for the sin of insufficient revenue-grasping. As those three programs traveled to bigger programs and wreaked glumness in those towns, it’s a chic discussion to wonder if they’ll keep having the chance in a sport whose latest summer of realignment makes it seem better suited for CNBC than ESPN.

Such games between haves and have-lesses have always stoked worthy debates. They do unleash a lot of tedium even if tailgate booze can help. The seven top-10 teams who played on Saturday went 7-0 by an average of about 45.3 to about 9.7, and that didn’t even bring in No. 15 Oregon’s 81-7 edging of Portland State. In the dreary mix of romps, No. 3 Ohio State’s 23-3 mastery of Indiana — 153 total yards for the home Hoosiers — comes off as a struggle, such that Buckeyes Coach Ryan Day had to dig into his penchant for ironclad sense and say, “You’ve got to get that first win and anytime you’re dealing with a new quarterback, first game on the road, it’s good to get that one.”

Every so often, though, such apparent mismatches reap such abiding memories, as if all the waiting through all the chalk had some purpose, and as if the upsets lend the sport a fabric that makes it distinguishable. The people who played for, coached and followed Texas State, Northern Illinois and Fresno State on Saturday as they came from the small leagues and won in the big leagues at Baylor, Boston College and Purdue, all lived something worth living even if it might not thaw the coldness of the TV deals.

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The university photo atop the bio of 34-year-old G.J. Kinne, in his sunglasses, his beard and his sweatshirt marked “Bobcats,” suggests a rarefied level of badassery. That guess took on extra mustard after Texas State’s 42-31 win in Waco lent a 1-0 record to the first-year coach, whose only other year as a head coach, last year, produced a nation-best 51.5 points per game and a nation-best 581.2 yards per game at FCS Incarnate Word of San Antonio.

“Yeah, we had the No. 1 offense in the country,” Kinne told reporters in Waco without bombast. “I don’t know why we would change it.”

The former quarterback who began his playing career at the empire of Texas and quickly shifted to the admirable non-empire of Tulsa, who threw for 9,472 yards and 81 touchdowns there, who made pro-ball stops in New York (Jets), Omaha, San Antonio, Philadelphia (Eagles), New York (Giants), Calgary and Saskatchewan, then coaching stops at SMU, Arkansas, Philadelphia (Eagles), Hawaii and UCF, spoke of the pleasure of those written-off.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” he said in his calm voice, “to see, you see ‘Ish’ (Mahdi Ismail) getting a touchdown early, see Donerio [Davenport] getting to make a play [a 27-yard reception], Shawn Holton getting a big interception at the end.” He paused. “Maybe I knew what I was talking about when I was recruitin’ all those guys.”

His quarterback, TJ Finley, the season-opening starter last year at Auburn, sat up there on the interview dais with his polish and his experience and said, “Yeah, you know, we thrive off explosive plays,” sounding like somebody who enrolled at Texas State well before this past June, as he did.

If such non-empires wind up omitted from some superleague someday, what will become of the “Boneyard?” Will it decay to obsolescence out of insufficient TV ratings? Since 1983, Northern Illinois has made a museum-like accounting for what it calls its “Boneyard Wins,” those against teams the resources suggest it should not beat. One such “Boneyard Win” happened in 2003, a 19-16 clipping at Alabama, which joined a string of events that brought about the bringing-on of Nick Saban three years later, so that Alabama fans ought to have sent thank-you notes.

“We’re 2-0 in the ACC the last two years,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said, according to the Associated Press, after a 27-24 overtime win at Boston College on Lombardi’s 1-yard sneak became the 18th “Boneyard Win” since 1983. “Maybe we should just move to the ACC. We’d have better luck there.”

Then: “Obviously, I’m joking.”

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The fifth-season coach, former Northern Illinois running back Thomas Hammock, brought up one of the perils of “Boneyard Win” collecting. Having shepherded his team out to the field for a post-win team photo at Boston College, he recollected how “at Georgia Tech (after a 22-21 win in 2021), they turned the scoreboard off on us.”

Before it all goes cold, Fresno State and that 61-year-old sage in charge, Jeff Tedford, got their win at Purdue with a quarterback with a Mark Twain name: Mikey Keene. He’s been to Chandler High (suburban Phoenix), to UCF and now all the way back across the land to the San Joaquin Valley. On Saturday he went to the Midwest and went to the Boilermakers’ 22-yard line to take a snap trailing 35-32 in the final minutes, then lofted a pass up the left toward someone who knew what to do with it.

Erik Brooks, a captain, a player Keene hailed as “like having another quarterback on the field,” juked back from his run near the goal line to snare the thing, and Fresno State had upheld its tradition of toughness by 39-35. “I was really happy,” Tedford told reporters, “with the fact we didn’t really have any mistakes as far as missed assignments, wrong routes, wrong formations or illegal procedures, especially in a hostile environment.”

They, after all, had gotten a chance to test themselves in a faraway cauldron unfamiliar to them, not a bad experience for a life experience, and with linebacker Levelle Bailey saying, “When I looked around [while trailing], everyone was still confident,” and with Keene saying, “They tell us when the moment gets big, fall back to the level of your training. So that’s what we try to simulate.” That level went 79 yards in nine plays to win the thing, facing only one third down on the trail.

Thereby did the Bulldogs, alongside the Huskies and the Bobcats, join the day of the Buffaloes in college football, a day headlined by Colorado’s 45-42 win at TCU that made Coach Deion Sanders 28-6 as a midlife college head coach at Jackson State and Colorado after years of coaching younger youths. The Buffaloes, of course, play in the Pac-12 but head next year for the Big 12, part of the frantic money-chasing that has stirred such wondering about the distant futures of all the Bulldogs, Huskies and Bobcats. On Saturday, they grabbed the kind of place in the sport that makes people endure the buffet of routs, and might even wind up lamented if it goes.



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