Midweek Books: The saga of Saturdays in the fall

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author. Today my focus is on the college football season that officially kicks off Thursday. In the coming weeks new books will be featured here about the NFL.

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Michael Weinreb is hardly the only author with a new book on college football. But he has originally, and expertly, blended the contemporary mania for the sport with a deep dive into the past of the game’s fanaticism, and some of its most signature contests, in “Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.”

Weinreb, who grew up in State College and wrote one of the most memorable pieces on the Penn State scandal as it unfolded, makes a compelling case for each of the classics he catalogs — from the very first college game, between Princeton and Rutgers, in 1869, to last year’s stupendous Iron Bowl.

Season of SaturdaysIn between are the 1966 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the 1979 Sugar Bowl win by Alabama over Penn State at the peak of the Bear Bryant era, Texas’ 2006 win over USC in the Rose Bowl, and Boise State’s thrilling Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007.

Those latter games are getting plenty of attention on the Web (excerpts here and here on Grantland and SB Nation, respectively).┬áBut there’s plenty of serious college football history here, as Weinreb references the significance of the Boise State feat to the early days of the game:

“College football has never been very kind to the underdog, and I imagine some of this has to do with the fact that it is, and always has been, an unrepentant oligarchy. It used to be that this oligarchy was centered around geographic regions; now it’s based on rough (and often nonsensical) geographic conflagrations of teams called conferences. . . .

“And yet it still happens that, every so often, a certain determined and enterprising school/coach manages to elevate a wayward program from the lower class. This has been true for decades, and it will remain true for as long as big-time college football offers both money and prestige to the schools that partake of it.”

With a new college football playoff launching this season (see below), the novelty may be coming to an end. While Boise State, cut out of the automatic qualifier ranks due to realignment, plays Ole Miss tonight, Weinreb proclaims in a podcast with Will Leitch of Sports on Earth that college football is “the most political of all sports, because it’s based on complete subjectivity.”

In an excerpt in Rolling Stone, Weinreb tries to understand how the old-school phenomenon of Nick Saban and the blade runner presence of the University of Oregon can co-exist in the same era. It’s all part of his desire to explain the eternally maddening incongruities of a sport with a past like no other:

“In the end, it reverts back to the beginning. This is a pastime that was born as a spontaneous exercise on the grassy courtyards of the Ivy League, the brainchild of restless undergraduates seeking to blow off steam by barking each other’s shins and throwing punches. And even now, 150 years later, as it is industrialized and corporatized and rendered in Technicolor at places like Oregon, as it is commanded and controlled and repressed by scrupulous men like Nick Saban, it is still ultimately untamable. There are those who seek to maintain control over the beast, and there are those who wish to set it free. Eventually, the adults give way to the children, and all we can do is watch.”

Weinreb is interviewed here by Jerry Barca and talks here with Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace.

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Stewart Mandel, formerly of Sports Illustrated and newly hired by Fox Sports, has followed up his 2008 book, “Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls,” with an update on the state of the governance — such as it is — of college football with the new four-team format for determining a national champion.

The games begin Thursday, featuring the SEC showdown between Texas A & M and South Carolina. The season culminates with semifinals in the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl, followed by a championship game that is later than ever, on Jan. 12, at the AT & T Stadium (aka Jerry Dome) near Dallas.

thinking fans guide

“The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff” explores the recent wave of realignment, television contracts and a system to replace the Bowl Championship Series. Mandel is a hotel lobby camper extraordinaire, as he patiently waited for bowl, conference and television officials, administrators and coaches where they met to restructure the end of the season:

“I’m a BCS governance junkie. I have an unquenchable thirst for recusal policies, host bowls and revenue distributions. So over the course of two-plus years I gained a pretty good grasp of the ins and the outs of the system that would eventually be called — wait for it — the College Football Playoff.”

For its simplistic name, the CFP is confusing, hardly clearing up the chaotic organization of the sport he wrote about in his earlier book:

“This being college football, you may find yourself scratching your head at various junctures. You may feel the need to reread a certain passage a couple of times. Don’t feel bad. Even the people that work in college football don’t fully understand this thing yet.”

But do read with a pop quiz in mind, because that’s what Mandel has served up at the end.

Podcast/radio interviews with Mandel are here, here and here.

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