by Keith Aksel
At the beginning of this college football season, plenty of observers expected Alabama and Ohio State to be in contention for the national championship. Far fewer expected the Colorado Buffaloes to win ten games, much less challenge for the Pac-12 title. But, Colorado’s rather surprising “rise” (an allusion only CU fans will understand) revealed a great deal about how fan bases at different levels of the sport’s power hierarchy treat success.
Fans of elite programs see the world differently than the rest of college football’s fan bases. Simply put, Alabama and Ohio State fans, for example, view each season as a zero-sum situation between winning and not winning the national championship. The expectations fans and media place on these teams each season consistently reflect that reality. Each team’s loss in the last ten years is easily recalled by ardent fans of elite programs, not only because of the massive pain the losses inflicted, but because the losses are so few that die-hards remember them off of the top of their heads.
The result of being a fan of an elite program is that the college football season typically boils down to a few key games that generate excitement in the fan base. For Alabama fans, an early high-profile out of conference matchup may bring out the faithful, but the LSU and Auburn games are the ones with usually the most on the line. How excited do Bama fans honestly get for the Mississippi State matchup? Even the SEC title game has proven to be nothing but a boring formality since Nick Saban took over as head coach. For Ohio State, its number of truly intriguing games each year is greater than Alabama’s tally, but not by a lot. Outside of matchups with Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, OSU plays a bunch of contests that Buckeye fans expect to dominate. The same can be said for a number of other high profile programs.
Consequently, the fan of an elite program in the 21st century has come to devalue the individual contest for the sake of the big picture each year. Few Alabama fans find real satisfaction in running over an overmatched Arkansas team each season, and OSU fans find little joy in beating Indiana for the 63rd time in a row. Certainly, the fervor surrounding elite football teams is unmatched and the spirit is palpable across their respective geographic regions. But there is a plane on which elite program’s operate, that non-elites have a hard time understanding. For fans of Alabama, Ohio State, and any number of elite teams over the sport’s illustrious past, the focus of each season often centers on the single game that is invariably lost each year instead of the truckload of wins that surrounded it. This creates a kind of myopia for most fans, who have a hard time refocusing away from a loss. There is a sense of entitlement among elite program fans that losses simply shouldn’t happen to elite teams. In this sense, there is an angst that surrounds elite fans that is only likely shared by a handful of other elite programs, an angst that is satisfied by championships alone. The cost of this angst is the individual moments of joy along the way.
In contrast to the story of the elite is the fan base of the Colorado Buffaloes. The 2016 season so far has proven to be one of the most exciting in CU football history. After reaching the depths of the sport with a one-win season in 2012, this year the Buffs began to look like their 1980s and 1990s selves again. For the first time in over a decade, Colorado contended for a league championship, and will play in a halfway decent bowl game at the end of December. In this, Colorado fans were taken on a wild ride that, although not as successful as Alabama’s, has produced arguably more joy and excitement. The fervor for CU football has long been two steps behind those of the elite. Colorado students before this season were mostly interested only in skiing by the time November rolled around, and when pressed to talk sports at all, leaned on the Denver Broncos as their main rooting interest.
The 2016 season changed that. Over the course of the year, tangible excitement built in response to the Buffaloes’ season. Students came out in droves to Folsom Field, a stadium whose student section was usually 1/3 empty as recently as last year. No matter the opponent, the joy surrounding the program grew with every win. For the first time in a long time, one could hear students voluntarily discussing CU football in their free time. Buffs football mattered, but on a scale more precise than that of elite programs. Every game brought genuine happiness, and perspective remained focused on the smaller, weekly victories, rather than a single end of season triumph.
At the Utah game to end the regular season, Colorado fans collectively released a cathartic shout once the final seconds ticked off the clock to send the Buffs to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship Game. There was no angst in Folsom Field that night, no sense that CU had something to lose in the tight closing moments of that game. The joy in that sense seemed more pure, more reflective of a fan base simply living in an adrenaline-fueled moment of triumph than a quick stop on the way to a national championship.
The argument I am trying to make is that it seems clear to me that there is something genuinely valuable in existing in the middle tier of college football. Of course, CU fans would love to be in the College Football Playoff contending for the national championship, but they are reaping a different sort of reward by not competing on the same level at the sport’s elite. The elite preoccupation with the big picture reduces the season down to a few select contests in which only wins bring any enjoyment for fans. In contrast, living in the middle of the pack, Colorado fans cannot afford to overlook any one opponent while thinking about league or national championships every year. Fans can then genuinely draw enjoyment from beating Massachusetts or Oregon State, or even Oklahoma State in the coming Alamo Bowl. It can be safely assumed that even with CFP semifinal wins, Alabama and Ohio State fans will dwell little on their triumph, choosing instead to prepare themselves for the championship game in Tampa.
Indeed, anything less than a national championship will lead fans of elite programs to focus on the right hand side of the win-loss tally. Whether they win or lose in San Antonio, CU fans will undoubtedly continue to zero in on the left side of the tally, a privilege taken for granted by all those in the sport’s elite tier.