The way I see it, the 2017 college football season resembles an existentialist French play — something like Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.”
The season, like the play, features three characters — Alabama, Ohio State and a team to be determined. Maybe it will be Southern California, maybe Florida State or Clemson, or perhaps an outlier will pull a stunner. Regardless, they will be locked in a room together, driving each other insane. If not hell itself, the setting is a fair facsimile.
The plot goes like this: Ohio State and Alabama pledge admiration for one other but share no trust, resulting in a kind of emotional game of tag, in which the two contestants keep circling a table, across from each other, neither ever gaining the upper hand. It is a maddening and stressful stalemate if you are either of the two teams, but thoroughly enjoyable to watch from outside. Like Game of Thrones.
Alabama is alone in having played in each of the first three College Football Playoffs, and won the 2015 national title, but the Tide lost to Ohio State in the 2014 playoff semifinals, when the Buckeyes went on to win the championship. See? Stalemate.
The third team occasionally sneaks into the mix, taunting the other two with a quick tap but mostly just making life miserable for the main protagonists. Ohio State and Alabama can never completely concentrate on each other because this third irritant inserts itself into the equation.
It is like a scenario involving three college roommates, in which the triangular relationship becomes two against one on Tuesday, then flips to a different two against one on Wednesday, then all three go against each other on Thursday.
Ohio State and Alabama strut with confidence, each trying to impress the other with their recruiting prowess and history. Most give an advantage to the Crimson Tide. Likewise, Bama coach Nick Saban edges Ohio State coach Urban Meyer atop the list of best coaches.
But it is close enough that anyone else — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney? Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher? Michigan coach … er, never mind — is a clear third.
Numero tres, meanwhile, suffers from a kind of anxiety disorder, because few take it seriously; No. 3 is really good, but certainly no Alabama or Ohio State. Evidence suggests otherwise — Clemson last season, Florida State in 2013 — but still the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes receive most of the attention as they vie for college football supremacy.
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One could even argue that Clemson has Ohio State’s number, having defeated the Big Ten behemoth in both the 2017 Fiesta Bowl and 2014 Orange Bowl. The Tigers also took down mighty Alabama in last season’s national championship game.
But there is too much perception among the reality for Clemson to claim itself king of the hill. The way the majority of fans, TV networks and media pollsters see it, the proper order is Alabama No. 1 and Ohio State No. 2. The cream of the Southeastern Conference crop vs. the big man among Big Ten campuses.
So what happens next? In Sartre’s play, none of the three characters can get comfortable, because so much drama and dark intentions exist in the windowless room. I’m thinking the same goes for the upcoming season.
Alabama opens against Florida State in Atlanta on Saturday, which means Bama will have its hands full while the Buckeyes sit home — having opened on Thursday night at Indiana — watching Saban squirm.
Of course, Ohio State first must get past the Hoosiers, which normally would not be a concern except that IU has a recent history of scaring the breath from Buckeye Nation. Plus, Indiana will be extra motivated against its former head coach, Kevin Wilson, who now runs the OSU offense.
This much is certain: If Ohio State and Alabama are to meet across the table in January, each must take care of business before then. Otherwise, the name of the play switches to “Early Exit.”