Commentary: For a conflicted college football junkie, Saturday’s games were a healing tonic

Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello passes against LSU on Sept. 26, 2020.
Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello, a Stanford transfer who played at Santa Margarita High, passed for an SEC-record 623 yards in a 44-34 upset of No. 6 LSU on Saturday.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

The routine of a fall Saturday morning has been the same for three decades:

Wake up hours earlier than usual out of pure anticipation. Put on ESPN’s “College GameDay,” a habit many of us college football obsessives can’t kick even as the show has lost some magic. Map out the TV schedule for all four viewing slots of the day, deciding which matchup gets the big screen and which fill smaller screens, setting the plan for the next 14 hours.

I’m willing to admit this is my idea of a perfect day only because I’ve already convinced a beautiful, and very accepting, woman to marry me. We moved in together during September five years ago, and within days she encouraged me to install three TVs into the first living room we shared. On Saturday, I had six games going while she took our 3-year-old daughter for a long walk.

Believe me, I know I am lucky that my childhood passion, developed in Shreveport, La., where this behavior was at least a tad more mainstream, has been supported by those who love me well into adulthood.


Skylar Thompson led Kansas State to a comeback win over No. 3 Oklahoma, and K.J. Costello’s 623 yards passing lifted Mississippi State over No. 6 LSU.

But this year, as the start of the season approached and it became clear that some conferences were going to play through this pandemic no matter the effects on players’ health or public health, it has been hard to muster much excitement. And, because of that, a part of me has been missing.

Entering my second year as The Times’ national college football reporter, this feels like a good time to tell you a little more about where I’m coming from in this space. I am a college football junkie. In my teenage years, my dad started a website for me where I would rank my own top 25 every week of the season. As I got older and became a journalist, I began to feel morally conflicted by aspects of the sport — notably, the fact that players were helping to earn schools tens of millions of dollars and yet were unable to freely pursue income for their contributions.

This conflict never dampened my enthusiasm for the games and the pageantry and the frenzied fervor of a fall Saturday. It’s possible my conscience was eased by reporting on the player compensation issue. I was one of the few reporters who covered the entire O’Bannon v. NCAA trial in 2014. It felt like that trial, which determined the NCAA had committed an antitrust violation by setting the price of a player’s worth at the cost of an education, was going to change everything. It did not.

Watching conferences and schools try to stage a season as a pandemic raged throughout the summer was a breaking point. It’s not that I have rooted against college football being played. Rather, I have been cheering for public health, against my self-interest as a reporter who covers the sport and a fan who devours it in unhealthy portions.

After the Big Ten made its decision to play this year, USC players and athletic administrators did their part to get the Pac-12 back on the field.

The first three weeks of the season were duds. More than 20 games have been postponed because of COVID-19 concerns. Yet, the Big Ten wanted back in. This week, the Pac-12 followed, with Oregon President Michael Schill somehow declaring, “This has nothing to do with money.” Now, all four conferences that postponed their seasons have plans for a fall restart.

On Saturday, it was time for me to find myself. With the Southeastern Conference kicking off its 2020 campaign, the day had a real chance to deliver. I was up at 6 (OK, at least in part thanks to my daughter), flipped on “GameDay,” made my game watch selections.

Former USC coach Lane Kiffin got roughed up in his opener at Mississippi by No. 5 Florida, which looks like a national title contender thanks to quarterback Kyle Trask. Once that was out of hand, Kansas State made its move on No. 3 Oklahoma, upsetting the Sooners for the second straight season, 38-35. Maybe we can leave that OU defense out of the playoff this year?

In the afternoon, while the Pac-12 began its six-week countdown to kickoff, former Washington State coach Mike Leach led Mississippi State into Death Valley with former Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello for a date with defending national champion Louisiana State. Four quarters later, Costello, a Rancho Santa Margarita native playing his first game in Leach’s famed “Air Raid” offense, had broken an SEC record with 623 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 44-34 win over No. 6 LSU.

For one week anyway, it paid to leave the Pac.

Quarterback Sam Ehlinger passes downfield under pressure against Texas Tech on Sept. 26, 2020.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, passing under pressure against Texas Tech, helped No. 8 Texas rally for a wild, 63-56 overtime win Saturday.
(Mark Rogers / Associated Press)

And, as the Bulldogs celebrated in Tiger Stadium, No. 8 Texas was in the middle of a comeback for the ages at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders led 56-41 with 3:13 left, but Texas sandwiched two touchdowns and a two-point conversion around a recovered onside kick to send the game to overtime. The Longhorns prevailed, 63-56, keeping slight hope alive for the Big 12 to keep a team in the top 10.

There may not have been packed stadiums or festive tailgates or a full slate of games that spread across the entire nation. But this was a college football Saturday after all, and I’m hooked once again.