In the vagaries of college football, perception is reality. The AP named Alabama a top-ten team this week, and also populated half of the top ten with teams from the same conference.
By the transitive property of football then, tomorrow’s match-up with an unranked Arkansas team that has barely held on to beat two lower-tier opponents and is in the pre-vestigial stages of building up a glitzy pass offense X-1 out of Houston Nutt’s leftover Sherman tank parts now becomes the biggest game on the schedule to date. Bigger even than the opening defeat of Clemson, which seems almost a decade past by this time.
The dirty little secret in college football is that the top ten, even the top 25, list is damn near meaningless today. Less hay is made about the inconsistencies of the voters’ choices, not to mention the impossibilities of their actually making informed ones, because we all know it’s a scam.
Spots three through twenty-five might as well not exist in today’s game, so there’s little use in getting overly excited or raising a ruckus. The blessed illogic of it all becomes clearer once the BCS poll is released, which initiates a feedback loop between the rankings—a self-correcting parabola that invariably gets it mostly right half the time, or not.
Which brings us back to tomorrow’s game against Arkansas: on paper, a top-ten team that leads the nation in a number of defensive categories should have little problem against a young team acclimating itself to a new coach’s system on the opposite end of the pendulum from the last decade of its history.
However, this is an “SEC Road Game” ™, and a win here is valued like gasoline in a Mad Max movie. Furthermore, it’s a division game, and with either Auburn or LSU guaranteed a loss tomorrow, a keep-up-with-the-Joneses one at that, because the winner of tomorrow’s game in Auburn will be perceived as having the inside track to Atlanta.
But perception is all preamble; in reality, we have a scoreboard.
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1. Any obit you read will list Wallace’s cause of death as suicide, which, like much reporting, offers datum instead of context and is tantamount to saying a cancer patient dies due to being a picky eater. And though sadness was a recurrent theme in Wallace’s work, his depression, which he’d been treating more or less successfully for two decades, killed him as sure as the rope.
After the initial announcement, follow-up reports and interviews and grievings pieced together a little more to the story. His father said he’d been taken off his medication after noticing unwelcome new side effects, perhaps due to the body’s natural rebalancing of hormones and such as we age. Wallace’s work was often built around careful observation. His sports writing displayed the beauty of the human body free from the pseudo-pedophiliac or narcissistic impulses of the advertising age.
Most of his memorials include admissions of not having finished his most famous work. It is a behemoth, in weight and in concept.
When he dipped his toe into shallower waters—sports writing, political reporting, travelogues, general science—he was accused of never taking a stand, of scattering everything all over. I’d say he was just being thorough.
He was accused of being a cynic. Nonsense. He was just a moralist with very high standards—just how you’d want one to be.
Oddly, though, I can’t say that his name was first on my lips were I pressed to offer the writers I most look forward to reading, most curious to keep up with. Yet, now that he’s gone, I find I am missing him, regretful that his body of work is complete.
How is it that I came to be counting on him, to take for granted that his monsters and his monster of a book would always be there? One is never so self-aware as to avoid surprises. Right about here is where Wallace would insert a joke that would be funny and true, but too sad to retell.
Then he would just end the damn thing.