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A Tribute to BYU-Coastal Carolina

Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

For much of the spring and summer, the reality of 2020 put the possibility of a college football season in doubt. Would the season even be able to get off the ground and if it did, would it be able to finish? We aren't out of the woods just yet, but in a year filled with uncertainties it looks like we will be able to crown a National Champion. Nothing about 2020 has been easy, and that holds true for college football, where delayed games and cancellations have become an unfortunate theme. However, on a cool Saturday night in December, 2020 did give us something magical: BYU versus Coastal Carolina. Both teams played a hard-fought, chaotic game that ended up with Coastal Carolina squeaking out a program-defining victory. The game might not even mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things with regards to the National Championship race, but it was a reminder of many of the things that make college sports great, and gives us important lessons about the future of college football.

The most amazing thing about the BYU-Coastal Carolina matchup was the fact it was not supposed to happen. The Chanticleers were previously scheduled against Liberty, a team having a tremendous 2020 season of their own. However, due to COVID issues at Liberty, Coastal acted quickly to set up a matchup with the 9-0 BYU Cougars. Within the span of just a few days, the Chanticleers had switched opponents, and the Cougars were all of the sudden making a trip across the country to the Southeast. Give credit to both these athletic directors for figuring it out, but also having the guts to make the game happen. Many others in their shoes simply might not do it, or work as hard as they did to put it on. BYU in particular would've been fine sitting on the sidelines for another week, but they instead choose to go up against a tremendous Group of Five foe. My hope is that this type of scheduling flexibility and this forward thinking is not just a 2020 thing. Athletic directors and administrators should understand that being flexible is key to putting a good product on the field, and providing matchups fans want to see. Sure, it's more difficult for coaches and players to not necessarily know their opponent far in advance, but such is the reality of the times. 

To even be able to see this one play out was a win for the college football fan, but it was particularly awesome how the sixty minutes played out. The atmosphere in Conway, South Carolina was about as good as you'll see anywhere for a college football game, with many Coastal fans rocking a now legendary "Mormons vs. Mullets" shirt. The fans all seemed to be having the time of their lives, and the players echoed that out on the field. You could tell they fed off that energy, particularly late in the game when things were tight. There's something to be said for how much this was needed for so many people. It has been such a rough year even for the most optimistic of individuals, but this game gave an opportunity for thousands of fans to cheer on the team they love in the biggest game of college football history. There's something magical about that, and I don't think it should be taken for granted. No matter what else is going on in these fans' lives, for a few hours on a Saturday night, all of that was forgotten. The power of sports is a magical thing, and something much needed in the year 2020.

The product on the field wasn't so bad either. BYU is led by a Heisman-contending QB almost sure to go in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and Zach Wilson didn't disappoint. Despite facing down a very underrated Coastal defense, he was sharp and put his team in a position to win the football game. On the other side, the Chanticleers did a tremendous job of feeding off the emotion of the game, but still playing in a controlled matter. This game ended up getting chippy, especially towards the end of the second half. It easily could have gotten out of hand, but credit should be given not only to the referees but also the players. It's possible to play with emotion and passion and not get completely out of hand. Also, if you question how much these players care about these games, this game should've answered it. These two teams have absolutely no history together, and yet it still had the feel of a rivalry game. Again, this game probably won't even make that big of an impact in the National Championship picture but you couldn't tell from the atmosphere on the field. If you didn't know it was simply a non-conference battle between two ranked teams, you'd think it was either a massive rivalry game or some sort of championship game.

To say this game may have an impact on the future of college football may seem hyperbolic to some, but consider this: the possibility of a Group of Five Playoff of its own. The Group of Five has obviously been disenfranchised by a Playoff system that essentially punishes them for being smaller schools or brands. This is especially confusing when we consider that Group of Five schools often have just as rabid fanbases as the Power Five, and that they've held their own in New Year's Six bowls against P5 foes (2014 Boise, 2015 Houston, 2017 UCF all beat Power Five teams). The reality of the current Playoff system is that unless it expands, Group of Five programs may realize they need their own system to create some form of adequate national representation. Ideas of a Group of Five Playoff of its own have been thrown around more as pipe dreams than serious proposals, but this game may help the idea gain more actual traction. The common arguments against the idea are about money, and whether people would actually watch. I understand the concerns about money and labor involved particularly in the world we live in today, but to think people wouldn't watch? This relatively meaningless game between two teams without significant ties to each other captivated the college football universe on ESPNU in the middle of the day. Can you imagine meaningful matchups between teams competing for a championship, strategically placed at relative dead times in the football calendar? The one truth about football is that people will watch it, especially the rabid college football fans that would watch a pair of JUCO teams go up against each other if it was the only football on. I'm not saying this hypothetical GO5 Playoff would be perfect, but momentum seems to be rolling towards it, as the current Playoff system continues to ignore the prospect of expansion. If you don't understand why, simply look at how big of a business college football has become. To think that administrators, athletic directors, and other power-brokers don't see a money-making possibility here is ludicrous. 

Perhaps five years from now, BYU-Coastal Carolina will be forgotten about in the grand narrative of college football. The ideas of a Group of Five Playoff remain mainly just pipe dreams, and even if this game may help develop some momentum and appetite for it, it would be awhile away. But, even if it doesn't materialize into anything substantial, this game should still hold particular reverence for the college football community. These two programs fearlessly set up a matchup in the span of just 24 hours and it worked out perfectly. Coastal Carolina will earn huge money from College GameDay coming to town that will pay huge dividends for the university as a whole, while BYU will never have to wrestle with the "What if?" question of them missing the 2020 CFB Playoff. And while COVID-19 rages on all around the United States and the world, we got the most beautiful distraction for a few fun, wacky hours on Saturday. That's what makes college football and sports so great, and so important to so many of us. 

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