A satisfying end to the college football season

Oregon tight end Pharoah Brown (85) celebrates a 31-yard touchdown reception with teammate Dwayne Stanford in the second quarter against UCLA at the 2014 Rose Bowl.

By Erik Prado

This is the hardest piece I have had to write in my time at The Daily Illini.

You see, every Thursday column of mine has dealt with the national collegiate football landscape. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded, but it was my intention at the beginning of the year to write about topics that didn’t relate to the Illini football team. Think different, as Apple taught me.

Along the way, I’ve written about everything from my projected playoff teams (I got two right — Florida State and Oregon) to Northern Illinois being the best program in the state to calling for various coaches to be fired (three of the four I thought should be, were — Tim Beckman was the exception).

So why am I having difficulty writing?

Because this is my last ever piece of writing for The Daily Illini and there is so much I want to say, but so little space for the words to do so.

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I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to work for this publication since 2011, when my early days consisted of me powerwalking from Weston Hall to the Arboretum to cover cross-country meets. Clearly it took me a while to learn the Champaign-Urbana bus system.

Here’s a fun tidbit about me: For as big of a collegiate football fan I am, I didn’t go to an Illinois game until 2013, my first season on the football beat. I never bought into the 6-0 start in Ron Zook’s last year, and 2012, was, well, miserable.

And in my three years on campus, I have seen the football team win 19 games. Nineteen football wins from 2011 to November 2014. Urban Meyer led his Buckeyes to more than half that total in his first season alone.

Three years is a small dot on a timeline, yet in terms of what has happened on the college football landscape, three years is an eternity.

Big name coaches have been hired and subsequently fired. Programs have risen and fallen. Alabama established itself as a dynasty. A playoff system was finally implemented. Joe Paterno passed away amidst one of the most of egregious scandals college sports has ever seen.

And at Illinois? There was losing. Lots of it.

Yet despite the mediocrity of the football program, my support for it won’t waver. When the 2015 season starts, you bet I’ll be watching. And if the team is worthy, I’ll make a trip to Memorial Stadium to watch my first-ever game from the stands.

I could get lost in reminiscing, but college football saw a different first this past weekend that deserves our attention.

Sunday was a fascinating day in the history of college football when the first-ever four-team playoff was revealed. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State will go down in history.

Questions about how Ohio State jumped 11-1 TCU were common. Not having a conference title game hurt the Horned Frogs, especially considering they blew out a lowly Iowa State team the same day the Buckeyes manhandled then-No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

The committee chose the right teams. Remember, prior to Sunday, the weekly CFP rankings had no influence whatsoever on the final selection. They merely showed where teams stood.

All four teams are peaking at the right time, and this playoff is shaping up to be a thriller.

Two of the teams averaged 55 points in their conference championship wins, with Alabama falling short at 42. Florida State eked out a win. As the only undefeated team left, and the defending champs, they are two wins away from being the first undefeated national champions in back-to-back years since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.

I have Alabama defeating Ohio “Quarterback U” State in the Sugar Bowl. Wisconsin was a one-dimensional team, allowing the Buckeyes to commit to stopping the run. Alabama is not. Give Nick Saban weeks to gameplan and he will exploit any weaknesses. That weakness may just be third-string QB Cardale Jones.

In the Rose Bowl, Oregon will run away with a victory. Marcus Mariota has the Ducks’ offense playing on another level.

The first championship in a new era will be one many have wanted for years: Alabama vs. Oregon. It’s an exciting matchup no doubt. Though the Crimson Tide boast that Saban defense and Lane Kiffin offense, and the Ducks have Mariota. I’ve been aboard the Mariota-hype train since mid-season. No reason to tumble off now.

So what’s my prediction for the final?

Oregon 48

Alabama 45

Will I be right? I think so. Oregon has been building its program for more than a decade to get to this point. The current Oregon program wasn’t built overnight; in fact, it was a perennial loser before the 2000s.

You know who else is building a program? Illinois.

I truly hope that it’s not too long before someone down the line writes about the prospects of Illinois making the playoff. That will be a fascinating time. The students who get to be in stands for that team may or may not remember the dark days of Illini football.

But I will. It’s why I love college football even though I’ve seen more losses than wins. The satisfaction as a fan is much more gratifying after the years it takes to build a respectable program.

In the 23 years it took me to get to this point, Illinois has had seven winning seasons. The satisfaction of getting a degree is great. But if Illinois has a winning record in the majority of these next 23 years, that will be more satisfying.

After all, millions of people get degrees every year. Illinois doesn’t always have a winning season.

Erik is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @e_prada.