Why Can't College Football Embrace the 'Cinderella' Team?

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Why Can't College Football Embrace the 'Cinderella' Team?

At this time of the year, the term ‘Cinderella’ surfaces as we anxiously root for unforeseen underdogs to make a magical run in college basketball’s annual postseason. And although we’ll gladly embrace all dramatic underdog run-ups until the very moment they fall short, college football does exactly the opposite.

In college football, Cinderella is an unwelcomed outlier, a sign that something went wrong along the way.

After spending a week in Las Vegas for March Madness—which is about five days longer than one should ever spend in Vegas—I am still alive (barely), sober (I think) and officially March Madness-ed out.

Of all the things that I observed while enjoying the sights, scenes and smells (this, unfortunately, applies) of the various sportsbooks situated around the strip, one overwhelming theme stayed constant.

People really love the underdog.

In many instances, there was a financial intrigue for those who were bellowing wildly at Florida Gulf Coast’s magical run on a television the size of a condominium. Yes, some were “invested” in the success of these teams, although many simply wanted to embrace the chaos and the little guy making a stand.

Although it was obviously prevalent in Sin City, it wasn’t just Vegas. The sweltering overflow of Florida Gulf Coast support was everywhere, and the Eagles had company.

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Florida Gulf Coast playing the role of Cinderella in this year's tournament

Wichita State was viewed as a welcomed giant killer when it took out Gonzaga, while the likes of La Salle, Harvard and others also brought brackets and more qualified opponents to their demise. The masses were happy to witness it all unravel, cheering as they ripped their sheet of scribbled teams in two. 

This Cinderella sentiment, this backing of the underdog, is something we’re comfortable getting behind, at least in this forum. It’s easy to root for someone or something that shouldn’t stand a chance—whether it’s basketball or life—and we as a society revel in tales of Davids beating their Goliaths.

In college football, however, we gravitate toward the opposite. Not only do underdogs go underappreciated often—especially in the BCS era—Davids highlight a system that is inherently flawed.

The little guy isn’t welcome, especially in the big-boy pool.

It reminds us of the frustration, of the computers, formulas, disinterested voters, and instead of backing the little guy of the moment, we cry for dramatic change. We circle scheduling differences, point out various stats that might apply and feel bad for the familiar powers left that may have a more “qualified” résumé.

I wrote about this very topic late last year when Northern Illinois budged its way into a BCS bowl late, thanks to a handful of losses from teams ahead of them in the BCS standings and a dramatic win over Kent State in the MAC Championship Game. 

At the time, the Huskies were viewed as undeserving, the latest little guy to sneak its way past the tired BCS walls. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit made his criticism of IU’s BCS inclusion crystal clear shortly after it became official, and his sentiment was felt by many in the weeks leading up to its Orange Bowl clash against Florida State.

The game itself proved to be, well, not much of a game at all. Although Northern Illinois showed some signs of life early in the second half, there was a clear separation in talent and skill. Florida State was unable to turn this into the true blowout that everyone expected, although the 31-10 score wasn’t exactly a nail-biter.

It went as planned, and the underdog’s run fell short as anticipated. The haters felt vindicated (again), and Northern Illinois’ impressive season—yes, even with a very manageable schedule—was unfortunately overshadowed by the loss.

They’re not alone, either. Teams situated outside power conferences are not given the love they deserve when they surpass expectations. It was almost Kent State in 2012, Houston in 2011, Boise State at various times, of course, and others have stated their case.

When they come close to really throwing things into a tizzy, many hope it doesn't get to that point.

Forget about Cinderellas, these are "Busters."

Why is it that college football can’t connect with teams whose athletic budgets are a small drop in the bucket compared with the schools they’re up against? Why can’t we back the team whose roster—to steal some of the NCAA’s favorite slogan—“will go pro in something other than sports?”

Perhaps it is the current postseason format and even the slightly expanded version on the horizon. Unlike college basketball’s postseason, only a handful of teams have a chance at winning a national championship as the season progresses. Well, two to be exact, once the dust has settled. 

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl

There are levels of success, certainly, and accomplishments that will make fans of all schools content, but crystal football privileges are typically reserved for only a handful of worthy teams. To some, those outside of this discussion are a nuisance or irrelevant.

Even being present in that discussion is a challenge, and most teams outside marquee conferences have to be absolutely perfect (and also lucky) to earn a place in the conversation during the second half of the season. Just look at Northern Illinois.

For everyone else with the qualifications, a bowl game will have to suffice. The problem, however, is that this bowl game boils down to a televised exhibition. There might be a trophy, significant dollars involved and a wonderful experience for the players, but in the end it doesn’t mean much once it has come and gone.

In college basketball, all 64 (or nowadays, 68) teams “technically” have a shot at being there until the very end. Although the No. 16 seeds don’t exactly ignite confidence, there’s still an open road. There’s also the possibility that we will treated to more than one game to watch it unfold.

USA TODAY Sports

In the end, our disdain for the underdog in college football likely centers around the BCS and what it has become. Better yet, what it hasn't.

It doesn’t take Northern Illinois to remind us that the nation’s “best” teams don't always compete in college football’s perceived yearly showcase lineup, but their presence gives us a reason to voice our frustration once again.

I’d love to think that this will change in 2014, but the new playoff system is starting to look a lot like BCS 2.0.

Perhaps it’ll just take one team. One Florida Gulf Coast football translation that conquers a manageable schedule, is perfect in every shape and form and culminates a Cinderella run by taking down two powerhouse programs in college football’s playoff en route to the crystal football.

Just one for the little guy that changes our perception for good.

Maybe then we’ll be able to appreciate the underdog in college football, after it has been done. Although even then, the masses would probably wonder how a fluke this large could occur and if the current system can be fixed.

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