“It’s not the destination, It’s the journey.”
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who first conjured up those words that are now printed on countless T-shirts and bumper stickers and pinned to your mom’s Pinterest page atop an artsy photo of an empty road that runs off into the distant horizon.
Well, out there somewhere amid the Great Beyond, ol’ Ralph watched the first full month of the 2021 college football season, chilling atop a transcendental plane of consciousness, and spent the entirety of September grinning sideburn to sideburn. And that’s not just because his alma mater, Harvard, is 3-0 and in first place in the Ivy League. It’s because he’s thinking, “See? I told y’all!”
RWE’s words have never felt more accurate than they have when one looks over the gridiron of the past five weekends. Sure, in the end, the team atop the charts is the same one it has always been and it feels like it might still be that same team when we reach the end of this journey on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. Because Alabama is really, really good. Again. And the team with the best shot to seemingly turn that Tide will be Georgia. Again.
But everything else behind those two SEC broken records is total, delicious chaos. The college football equivalent of “Talladega Nights,” when the entire NASCAR field wrecked itself behind Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard. There’s certainly nothing boring or repetitive about that. So, let’s all take a hint from Mr. Emerson and take in every single step of this autumn road, no matter what the destination might ultimately be. And hey, during this season of a GPS with no satellite service, who knows where we’re going.
Let’s connect with our inner Emerson and allow our hearts to vibrate to the iron strings of a weekend like the one that just unfolded, when nine AP Top 25 teams lost on the same day and brought this year’s five-week total to a record 34 ranked teams who have lost. And to those whose teams have lost — and, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much everyone at this point — find solace in the words of Emerson himself.
“Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”
Or, in the words of another well-known spiritualist, Lane Kiffin, after being defeated 42-21 in Tuscaloosa: “One game does not define your season. It doesn’t define you, it molds you. You can go one way or another.” (OK, I don’t know if Kiff is a transcendentalist or not, but he did tell us he takes hot yoga classes.)
To that point of the scientific value of bad times, let us also rejoice in those former also-ran programs who have figured out how to tap into Emerson’s call for self-reliance. Among the 130 FBS teams, there are only 17 that are still undefeated, as Wake Forest, SMU, Wyoming, Kentucky and Coastal Carolina are among those standing alongside Alabama and Georgia. You don’t have to be very old to remember a time, a very long time ago, when those programs were sure-fire losers — or, in the case of Coastal, didn’t exist at all — and, in the case of SMU, didn’t exist for two seasons. Kentucky was one of those teams that listed its bowl losses as great achievements because it’s all it had to point to since Bear Bryant left in 1953. Now, the Wildcats seemingly win bowl games every winter. They expect to win games like the one they celebrated Saturday night (and were fined $250,000 for that celebration), when they beat 10th-ranked Florida at home for the first time since 1986.
Let us wade into the waters of Emerson’s belief in individualism.
“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
This is, after all, a sport where Coastal Carolina wears mullets on teal turf. This is the sport that runs a bushel full of different offenses; where a Kentucky running back named Kavosiey Smoke becomes a career 1,000-yard rusher, and Auburn has teammates named Tank Bigsby, Smoke Monday and Brodarious Hamm, as well as a former teammate now at UCF named Big Kat Bryant. Where the Appalachian State Mountaineers have a lineman named Baer Hunter, and Arkansas has a linebacker running around in the backfield like bumper pool because his name is Bumper Pool. We should all be rooting for a San Diego State-Wyoming showdown in the Mountain West Championship because it would mean a DB clash between Wyoming’s Buck Coors and the Aztecs’ New Zealand Williams. And in what other sport during what other season would we be able to see a man whoso becoming more nonconformist than Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry signing an NIL deal with Kool-Aid itself?
It was also Emerson who said, “We grant no dukedoms to the few.” That was in 1863, five years before the first college football game. Perhaps it was a warning to the likes of Clemson 158 years later, a team now with two losses, or Texas A&M, the star of everyone’s 2021 preseason “This is finally the year!” stories, now also with two losses. Or could it have been meant as an inspiration to be passed on to the likes of Cincinnati and BYU, lifelong college football outliers who, during their best days, were forced to play little brother to their higher-profile Power 5 neighbors? But now, they are a combined 9-0, both ranked in the AP Top 10 and headed to the Big 12.
Then again, our boy Ralph also said this: “Some will always be above others. Destroy the inequality today, and it will appear again tomorrow.” In other words, yeah, the college football road we are now on might inevitably be headed toward the same old exit ramp, the one that ends in front of a stage where Nick Saban is being showered in confetti.
But the national title game is still nearly four months away, so let’s not let that possible destination prevent us from enjoying the journey. The Pac-12 is in the mix. The Big Ten is about to host its first AP Top 5 regular-season matchup in 59 years and it won’t involve Ohio State, as No. 4 Penn State takes on host No. 3 Iowa. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and his mullet are in position to ruin Oklahoma and Texas’ pre-SEC membership party. Heck, UMass and UConn play Saturday in what might very well be the best worst game in college football history. All while the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs will face the Campbell Fighting Camels in a clash to win a trophy of a pig in a game now titled the East/West Barbecue Bowl.
Autumn has arrived. The fall foliage is changing. The college football landscape is shifting. So, run out into the yard, make a leaf angel and sing to yourself those greatest of words ever by Emerson. Not Ralph Waldo, but Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
“Welcome back, my friends
To the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend
Come inside! Come inside!”