The 2016 college football season is barely past the halfway point, but it has already framed the 2017 season in one very evident way.
If anyone had been told before the season began that Maryland would limit Michigan State to three second-half points and beat the Spartans by double figures (28-17) in Week 8, that person very likely would have been shocked. Mild surprise wouldn’t have adequately described a fan’s or pundit’s reaction to such a scenario in late August.
At the end of October? The result was met without a shrug. Moreover, within the context of Week 8 and the stories it presented, Maryland’s 11-point win over Sparta registered as a non-event outside of College Park and — if one is generous — the Big Ten. With Rutgers still on the schedule, Maryland will attain bowl eligibility in coach D.J. Durkin’s first season. The year is certainly a triumph for him and the Terps. Maryland players and coaches deserve the praise that’s coming their way.
Yet, let’s simply acknowledge that the win over Mark Dantonio’s team on Saturday was not one of the top 15 stories of the day. (The 15 stories that were definitely bigger, with room for others: Penn State, Alabama, Ohio State, Houston, Auburn, Wisconsin, Arkansas, SMU, Utah, West Virginia, Oklahoma-Texas Tech, Leonard Fournette, Navy, Lamar Jackson, Colorado.) This isn’t any knock against Maryland, merely a reflection of how far Michigan State had fallen, and therefore how (surprisingly) unremarkable Maryland’s victory was.
This is the year of the fallen college football brand name. Notre Dame, Stanford, Oregon, TCU join Michigan State as programs which made strong runs at the national title in one or both of the past two years and will likely win no more than seven games this season. Notre Dame, Oregon and Michigan State will likely fail to make a bowl. These are headline-grabbing developments on a macro level, and naturally, they’ll be major points of focus in the coming offseason, but on a micro level, the collapses of these programs mean that their games rate as television non-events on the Saturdays left in the season.
Most fans won’t care about Notre Dame-Miami this Saturday. Most members of the college football community expected to care about this game, given the expectations surrounding the Irish and Mark Richt in 2016, but now that the event is upon us, no, it’s not going to command much attention. Washington-Utah, a game which figured — in late August — to be moderately interesting at worst and an intriguing curiosity object at best, has become a centerpiece game in the 3:30 p.m. Eastern time window in Week 9. That’s the game fans will care about.
Because these teams — Notre Dame, Oregon, and the others mentioned above — have become completely irrelevant in the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six derbies, what they do in the next month holds comparatively little value. Accordingly, beating them simply won’t carry the heft or significance it would if the Irish or Ducks (or others) had lived up to preseason expectations.
The fates of fallen college football powers (either Old Money schools such as Notre Dame or Nouveau Riche schools such as TCU) will obviously form one large set of highly-discussed questions in the lead-up to the 2017 season. However, while acknowledging that reality, it is important to consider the other side of the equation: What about the teams which took advantage of these tailspins from big-name opponents?
Will Maryland consolidate the gains it has made by beating Michigan State? Even though the Spartans are down, will the Terrapins gain a level of confidence from Saturday’s conquest which will prove to be transformative in the subsequent years of the D.J. Durkin era?
Will a similar dynamic unfold for California, a team for which the idea of beating Oregon was laughable in recent years?
North Carolina State beat Notre Dame in the year of the Irish’s breakdown, and also in a hurricane. The Wolfpack haven’t quite figured it all out, but will that victory nevertheless become an event the program uses to great effect in 2017?
It’s all so fascinating for one reason: Certain accomplishments might not mean much in the present moment, but the reality of an accomplishment can change the way a solo athlete or a team thinks about itself, thereby paving the way for future growth and development.
Allow me to use an example from the sport of tennis.
Karolina Pliskova had never won a tournament of considerable significance heading into August of this year. She won several lower-level tournaments, but never a Premier 5 event (the second-highest tier of tournaments for the Women’s Tennis Association) or a Grand Slam event (the highest tier).
However, while other players played at the Summer Olympics in Rio, Pliskova worked on her game. She came to the Cincinnati Premier 5 tournament — held mere days after the end of the Olympic tennis tournament — rested and unaffected by jet lag. She powered through the field and blew away Olympic silver medalist Angelique Kerber in the final to capture the biggest championship of her career.
Being brutally honest, if the Olympics had not interrupted the flow of the tennis calendar, Pliskova probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the same level of success. She played players who were comparatively more tired. On a narrow analytical level, the win — while significant and fully earned — probably meant less than it would have meant in conditions when opponents were physically fresher.
However, one important thing happened: Pliskova — regardless of how her opponents felt or how anyone reacted to her championship — gained internal belief in her game during that week in Ohio.
It didn’t matter if her opponents were down. SHE became stronger and more confident.
She promptly survived a match point in the fourth round of the U.S. Open against Venus Williams. She then beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals. She reached the third and final set of the U.S. Open final, losing to Kerber by a small margin. Pliskova, after years lost at sea in big tournaments, has suddenly become a formidable big-match player.
She achieved the transformation by taking advantage of depleted opponents and building up her confidence.
This is precisely what could be the gateway for Maryland and California and North Carolina State, and the other programs which have taken advantage of the downslides in East Lansing and Eugene and South Bend.
The direction of the brand-name programs and recent national title contenders in 2017 will be something to watch.
Don’t forget the programs which have defeated them. Whether they use these wins as building moments — or squander their value — will also form a central drama of the 2017 season.