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Keith Strudler: Playing Up To Your Competition

Maybe the worst college football play last weekend – and there were a bunch – came with South Carolina State already down 14-0 mid-way through the first quarter to national juggernaut Clemson, which shares state boundaries and nothing more. Catching the ball in the end zone on a kickoff, State return man Ahmaad Harris threw the ball towards the ref before he took a knee. Which meant it was a live football, and wouldn’t automatically be put at the 20 yard line like Harris thought. Clemson defenders dove on the ball, and like that it was 21-0. It continued through the first half, which mercifully came to a conclusion with Clemson up 45-0. That led the officials to ask both head coaches if they could shorten the second half just a bit, which both agreed to. So instead of 15 minute quarters, they got 12 minute ones. Even that was probably too long. The second and third stringers only scored two touchdowns in the shortened second stanza, making it 59-0 in a game that oddly wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

This was a payoff game. That’s the common practice of weaker, underfunded college football teams playing the big boys – teams like Clemson and Alabama and Ohio State – for a handsome paycheck and an and equally robust share of humility. This is like having the PTO bake sale parents go on Iron Chef. Their cupcakes might be delicious, but it’s up against Baked Alaska. Clemson and the like get an easy win, a home game with no return visit required, and a chance to rest up for next week – which for Clemson is against Georgia Tech. Early season is littered with these kinds of games. Just last week, Washington beat Portland State 41-3, Arkansas trounced Texas State 42-3, and Kanas State beat Florida Atlantic 63-7. It was even worse the week before, when six of the top 10 teams won by over 40. You’ll see it again towards the end of the season, when some top teams take a breather from conference play. Like Florida’s November 19 game against Presbyterian College. Or Alabama’s contest with Chattanooga the same day.

The number one goal of most of these Davids – other than getting paid – is to get out alive. Unlike basketball or baseball, mismatches in college football can have human consequence. Top teams are bigger, faster, and stronger. Which means the South Carolina States of the world need good health insurance as much as they need a good game plan. There are the odd cases when the little guy wins. Like North Dakota State did last week against Iowa. But North Dakota State is really good. Most of these other teams aren’t.

Now no one is going to pretend that last week’s South Carolina showdown was good football. If you watched the entire game, you either a) went to Clemson, b) have a broken remote control, or c) have a compulsive sports gambling problem. And the line was 53 and a half, so you had to watch. So if it’s not good football – in fact, it’s so bad they had to shorten the game – the question is this: Is there any value to anyone playing this game, outside of the $300,000 check that came State’s way – none of which goes to the players of course?

This is the same kind of conversation I have with my oldest son, who desperately wants to play travel soccer. I’ve made it very clear we lose just fine right here in our own backyard. There is no need to travel to Long Island to get scored on. See, people always assume you get better by playing better competition. That might be true. But what also can happen is you lose confidence. You hold on for dear life. You basically stop playing a sport and start just trying to keep someone else from succeeding at will. That’s not what most people dreamed about when they first signed up for youth sports. That someday, they can be down by 45 points in the first half. So say what you want about playing up to your competition. If that were always true, my local high school should play the New York Giants.

Which is why South Carolina State, and Portland State, and a bunch of other teams like them shouldn’t play teams like Clemson. Even if they do get a lot of money, and somehow leave the field in buses, not ambulances. They shouldn’t because college sports – which is still supposed to be somewhat instructional – should be that. And unless South Carolina State is trying to teach their kids what it’s like to feel hopeless, last Saturday’s game did none of the sort.

Ahmaad Harris may have had the worst play of week when he cost his team a touchdown against Clemson. But the decision to play in the first place was far, far worse.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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