As foreign as it might sound to me, or to you — a reader of a college football blog — there are football fans out there who only follow the NFL. They might take passing note of the College Football Playoff, or a Notre Dame game on NBC, but by and large, their eyes are on Sunday. (These are the kind of people who travel to the NFL Draft in elaborate Indianapolis Colts-themed body armor, I presume).
It’s bittersweet, then, watching the athletes that we — the Saturday watchers, the self-imagined true appreciators of the sport — have followed, loved and hated for the last 3-4 years walk into those waiting arms, into the world of people who haven’t known them during that time.
Make no mistake, it’s a good thing when a player is drafted, full stop, whether he played out his full eligibility or left as soon as he saw an opening. These are young men who’ve worked their whole lives toward a goal, and they’re getting financially rewarded for it for the first time ever. They’re living out a dream. That’s fantastic.
They’ll never be as magic as they were in college, though.
I’m not endorsing some bullshit notion of amateurism as being purer or nobler or anything like that, mind you. The game wouldn’t be any less thrilling if every player were compensated and given proper health insurance or simply allowed to profit off his own likeness. It’d be unquestionably better, and we could all enjoy it with less of the moral conflict this sport inherently carries today.
I’m talking about the impact a single player can have when the talent pool is spread over this large a sport. There are 53 spots on an NFL roster, and 32 teams. That’s 1,696 players, some of whom might hold down a spot for 10, 15, even 20 years if they’re lucky. Every one of them is extremely good, or used to be.
In FBS and FCS, there are nearly 19,000 scholarship athletes each year, plus walk-ons. Some of them will go on to the NFL; others will go on to be doctors, lawyers, politicians, WWE wrestlers, car dealership owners, or Tim Tebow. If you’re one of the ones who’s good enough to make the NFL, your ability to have an impact is never going to be greater.
Ed Oliver is going to be a tremendous addition to the Buffalo Bills. Now, I’ve been wrong about players before; I’ll be wrong again. (I’m wrong a lot). But if it’s 2023 and you’ve accidentally stumbled across this post, and it’s turned out that Ed Oliver is not a tremendous NFL player, I still defend this statement; clearly you exist in an alternate future where space and time themselves are wrong. I blame Marvel, they got too ambitious and threw something out of whack. Here, in this universe? He’s a star.
Oliver’s a bit undersized for an NFL tackle, entering the league in the mid-280s. He makes up for that in explosiveness, agility, and a boundless energy that should only improve as he hones his technique in the league. He’ll be facing offensive personnel unlike anything he saw in the American Athletic Conference; he’ll have growing to do.
I am confident that he will; I expect him to be a perennial Pro Bowler. I applaud the Buffalo Bills, never an organization I’d leave alone for five minutes with a gun and two feet, for shifting from last year’s draft strategy to pick someone good at playing football in the first round.
Ed Oliver will never be to the Bills what he was to the Houston Cougars.
I don’t root for the Houston Cougars, but as a Cincinnati Bearcats fan, I understand them. They’re in a major media market. They’ve got a nice, smallish stadium. They were once in a power conference and they steadfastly believe they belong back in one. They’ve got a lot of more-well-heeled competition surrounding them. I’m familiar.
Ed Oliver was a legend before he walked on the field at Houston; a five-star recruit from the city of Houston choosing to stay at the local school when he could’ve played nearly anywhere else, with offers from LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and others.
Houston, as a team, didn’t live up to lofty expectations coming off the Tom Herman era; Major Applewhite got fired after only two good-but-not-great seasons. The promise of adding a five-star recruit to a team that finished #8 in the country the year before he arrived was mostly unrealized.
He was dominant. He was disruptive. He was attacking. The team was worse off when he wasn’t on the field; they were better when he was. He made an impact, and he made a team that teeters on the edge between irrelevance and success seem like it mattered even if the Big 12 didn’t want it to. He didn’t turn Houston into a champion. But a player like him choosing a school like that will always mean something. He was the story every time he played, the player you looked for every down he was out there.
Ndamukong Suh at Nebraska. Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina. Josh Allen (the good one) at Kentucky. These are players that have had or will have NFL success. They’re getting handsomely paid in a league that, while it has many problems of its own, treats its personnel better than the NCAA ever did.
The nature of the game is that they’ll never have the sheer impact they did in college. They’ll never stand head and shoulders above everyone on the field, never single-handedly change the balance of a game the way they could in a broader, shallower talent pool.
There are times when it’s a struggle to know what I love about college football. It’s an exploitative sport, one that’s perverted a vision of amateurism into a scam that makes billions off athletes who can’t accept a dime for it. Coaches have looked the other way — or worse — when horrible crimes have been committed. None of these issues are going away, and none of them are resolved by what I’m saying here.
What I do love about the sport, in conflict with all of that, is the structure that allows an individual to rise above the competition so much it seems comical.
I’m sorry they have to go, but I’m glad it makes room for it to happen again.