It is easy to forget what this is all about. Not the doomsday playoff scenarios or the endless streams of prognostication. Not the Heisman Trophy, the conversations about it or the money that fuels the entire operation.
It’s about the people who produce these moments, which fans can lose sight of this time of year. The euphoria. The heartbreak. The strain. The relief. Things that are not tied to the College Football Playoff or the greater outcome, but the ones who create it.
This weekend was never about the playoff. It will always be for some, but it won’t be what lives on. This was a return to college football’s core: the raw emotions that emerge suddenly, the incredible highs and the desolate lows, no matter the record.
Of all things that will be remembered about Week 12—the penultimate weekend of the regular season—none will be more powerful than the two seconds Charlie Strong paused to gather himself following three-and-a-half hours that will follow him forever.
After Texas fell to Kansas 24-21 in overtime, the program’s first such loss to the Jayhawks since 1938, the Longhorns head coach was asked if he knew how this loss would impact his future.
"No, I don't," Strong told reporters in his postgame presser. "No idea."
The few words Strong could muster didn’t say much. The look of an exhausted man coming to terms with his fate—the sound of his lips nervously smacking together—says everything.
Sure, there's money attached. If this is indeed the end for Strong, he will be given a multimillion dollar parachute to do something else and to coach somewhere else, and he will most certainly have an opportunity to do so. He’s a great coach.
But that fortune seems almost insignificant in the moment. The anguish is not manufactured. It's real. And for Strong, having battled throughout his tenure to keep his job, it all settled in at once.
A little more than 400 miles away, having been thrown into his dream job for the past few months, Ed Orgeron came to grips with a similar fate.
Growing up in Louisiana, it has been Orgeron’s lifelong purpose to eventually coach LSU, which he has in the interim since Les Miles was relived earlier this year.
"I’ve cheered 'Hold That Tiger' since I was about three years old," Orgeron said when he was first hired as the team's defensive line coach. "I’ve been all around the country, but LSU is a place I’ve always respected. It’s just an honor to be coaching here. I understand the tradition."
On the verge of convincing the administrators that he deserved the gig full-time, with an impressive batch of wins positioned around a hard-fought loss to Alabama, Orgeron was, at the bare minimum, in consideration for the job in 2017 and beyond.
But Saturday, LSU was stuffed on fourth down on the 1-yard line as the clock expired, and the Tigers fell 16-10 to the Florida Gators. The final play felt almost doomed from the start.
"The back ran the wrong way," a dejected Orgeron told reporters following the game. His usually upbeat voice had a different twinge, which was understandable given the stakes.
Although there is still a chance the interim tag is removed from Orgeron and he is named permanent coach, it seems unlikely now. When it's decided, he may be left thinking about how things could have been different if his team had picked up a single yard.
Out West, in a game that was not supposed to matter for one team and matter a great deal for the other, Oregon celebrated its fourth win of the year as though it had just locked up a Pac-12 championship.
It has not been an easy season for the Ducks. And the 30-28 victory over Utah does not guarantee that head coach Mark Helfrich will be back next season. No matter where the discussion involving Helfrich turns—the money he's still owed or the time he should be allotted to see this through—it didn’t matter in the moment.
For at least one night, the conversation was more about the magical play wideout Darren Carrington made in the back of the end zone. The play, which was originally ruled incomplete, was eventually overturned and ruled a touchdown.
Helfrich’s expression—one of true bewilderment—was a season's worth of struggles coming out at once.
Houston has not endured a season's worth of struggles. The Cougars, by comparison to many others, have had a successful year. They've won nine games.
After beating Oklahoma to open the season, Tom Herman's team felt like one that could push for a playoff spot. It had its eyes on something else. Losses to Navy and then SMU ultimately derailed that.
A ceiling-less season hit a wall in a three-week span, and it felt like this would be a downward spiral. The team's Week 12 matchup with Louisville, which had so much promise earlier back in late September, lost a lot of shine.
But then the game happened. And Houston, behind the injured arm of its quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., dismantled Louisville's own playoff hopes in a single evening. Having spent the season answering questions about his future, Herman hugged Ward as fans engulfed the field.
"It was really emotional for me," Herman said of Ward. "A lot of people don’t realize he’s playing with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and every time he throws the football, it hurts. Every time he gets hit on his shoulder, it hurts. His ankle still isn’t at 100 percent. We would not be in the position we are as a program without him leading our team."
Houston still won’t make the playoff. Oregon likely won’t make a bowl. Texas and LSU, in all likelihood, will be looking for new head coaches soon—perhaps the same one, according to ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy.
Rivalry week will provide one final industrial-sized serving of emotion. Even then, with so much history in play, many of these games will have a greater purpose attached. Not to the games themselves but to what the results will mean.
Football conversations will again consume the discussion. The heartbreak will fade, and the euphoria will wash away, just like it always does. We won’t even remember it was there.
The playoff will become the primary talking point. The Heisman will come along for the ride. All other personalities will return to being chess pieces on this elaborate board.
Our focus will shift naturally to what has been deemed most important—what happens next—rather than exactly how we got there.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.