September 1, 2007. One of the first college football games I ever attended with my dad and some of his college buddies. One of them mentioned that the opponent Michigan was facing had won the I-AA national championship last year, so it might take a half for the Wolverines to put them away. Instead, Appalachian State beat Michigan in one of the biggest upsets in college football history. 9-year-old Nolan was openly sobbing as he left the stadium along with 100,000 other stunned people in maize and blue.

This kicked off a decline of Michigan as a national brand. Lloyd Carr retired, and the Wolverines replaced him externally with Rich Rodriguez, who promptly went 3-9 with a home loss to Toledo. Then, right at it seemed like RichRod was on the cusp of turning things around (at least offensively), they fired him and went to Brady Hoke. Hoke looked like he was the answer in Year 1 with RichRod’s players before making it very, very clear that he wasn’t the answer. By the time Shane Morris reentered a game in 2014 despite being obviously concussed, it was clear: Michigan was no longer a national power.

October 17, 2015. Year 1 under Jim Harbaugh. The return to their rightful place in the college football universe. After an opening loss to Utah, the Wolverines had played stifling defense and were clearly on track to make some noise in the Big Ten. They were well on their way to acing their first major test in conference play, a home win over undefeated Michigan State. In fact, all they needed to do was run out the final few seconds on 4th down. I was at a party with cross country teammates, watching the game upstairs in the game room, praying Harbaugh would just have Jabrill Peppers run backwards for a safety and kill the clock. Instead, Michigan lined up to punt, and all of a sudden an explosion of yells and cheers came from downstairs. The TV must have been ahead down there. I ran downstairs just in time to see what has become a moment in college football lore – the Trouble With The Snap. My brain shut down.

2016. 2018. Both years Harbaugh had what was probably the best roster in the Big Ten, and a clear path to the playoff if they could just slay the dragon down in Columbus. And both times, Urban Meyer pantsed him. (JT Barrett was short). The 2018 one in particular, coming as it did with what looked like a truly elite Michigan roster against a Buckeye team that had needed a minor OT miracle to beat Maryland the previous week, was enough to short-circuit my brain. Especially now that I had grown up and gone to college and seen 3 straight Big 12 titles and back-t0-back Heisman winners at OU, it seemed easier to just accept that Michigan was a fun second team to watch when they were pasting Indiana and to avoid getting emotionally involved anytime Harbaugh faced a top-10 opponent. Michigan-Ohio State in 2019? I’d much rather watch Jalen Hurts win Bedlam. That horrible, monstrous 2-4 covid season that Michigan had? Who cares, Spencer Rattler was winning the Sooners their 6th straight Big 12 title and dumpstering Florida in the Cotton Bowl! I entered 2021 no longer really caring about Harbaugh’s long-term career at Michigan. I highly doubted anyone was up to the task of bringing the Wolverines to the level of the Buckeyes, and as long as he won most of the rest of the games it was whatever.

November 27, 2021. A day that changed how I view college athletics forever. Elizabeth and I were in Michigan for Taylor and Kyle’s (second) wedding the day before, and they invited a bunch of people over the next day to watch the Michigan-Ohio State game. I’d actually watched quite a bit of Michigan’s season, which had largely played out in enjoyable fashion. They’d beaten Washington, destroyed Wisconsin in Camp Randall, hung around to beat Nebraska in a situation that previous Michigan teams would not have, and managed to overcome a late Penn State comeback to win in Happy Valley. They were 10-1, and if it weren’t for a massive blown lead in classic Harbaugh fashion against Michigan State in late October, you’d fool yourself into thinking they had a chance against Ohio State. But that Buckeye team was also 10-1 and had CJ Stroud, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jackson Smith-Njigba, and much more. Plus, it was Harbaugh against Ohio State. He was 0-5 against the Buckeyes for a reason. I’d fooled myself into thinking Michigan would win in the past. Not again. I’d watch the game, play flip cup in their garage at halftime, console the Michigan alum friends of theirs afterwards, and then go back to my parents house to watch OU rip out Oklahoma State’s hearts in Bedlam one more time.

Sometime around the time Hassan Haskins scored his third touchdown to give Michigan a 28-13 lead, I turned to Elizabeth and said “Well, here we go.” I was all in, believing again. Which made it that much sweeter when he tacked on TDs 4 and 5 to make it a resounding 42-27 win that was even less close than it sounded. Gathered with friends, family, and at least a dozen Michigan alums, it was pandemonium. At one point during a big play I found myself completely out of my folding chair, pounding the Taylor and Kyle’s living room floor and screaming “Let’s gooooooo!” As the seconds ticked down, and Cade McNamara took the final knee, it began to sink in – Michigan had just beaten Ohio State. In front of the world. They were going to play Iowa in the Big Ten title game, and they were going to win. They were going to the college football playoff. All of those things that I’d just assumed about college football were out the window, as much a part of history as Kyle’s comment to Taylor when she found him laying against the garage door: “I’m sorry I didn’t cry yesterday at our wedding but I’m crying now”.

2021 for me was all about realizing that nothing in college football lasts forever, just like life. Clemson had won 6 straight ACC titles – until they lost early games to NC State and Pitt and let Wake Forest win the division in their place. Michigan upended Ohio State’s stranglehold on the Big Ten. Georgia (eventually) upended Alabama’s run at the top of the SEC in the national title game. And Oklahoma State proved that OU couldn’t just waltz to a Big 12 championship every year. Lincoln Riley proved that nobody, not even Oklahoma, could expect their name alone to prevent a coach from leaving for more money. The sport as I knew it, static in its grip on power, was actually more fluid than I could have ever realized.

In 2022, Oklahoma went 6-7. It was a shocking thing to a bunch of Sooner fans who had only known success after success after success. To me, born and bred on the days of RichRod going 3-9 and Shane Morris playing with a concussion, it wasn’t as much of a shock to see mediocrity. Besides, the whole 2022 season really felt like a year-long coronation of Georgia as back-to-back champs, and the undercard felt like the lead-up to the Michigan/Ohio State rematch in Columbus. Both sides went rather easy 11-0s on the way to the game and sort of felt like they were saving all of their tricks for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. When Blake Corum got hurt the week before and Michigan suddenly couldn’t lean on their Heisman-caliber running back, all looked lost for a while. But JJ McCarthy, Donovan Edwards, and Jim Harbaugh were not to be denied. The Wolverines won 45-23 in a win that was less about stunned disbelief and more about the joy of ripping a rival’s hearts out.

Through all of this, one constant remained. 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022. All of those years, either Oklahoma (the first four) or Michigan (the latter two) made the college football playoff, whose four-team era spanned the 2014-2023 seasons. Basically, in 6 of the first 9 CFPs I had one of my favorite teams in it with a (theoretical) shot to win it all. And they went 0-6 in CFP semifinals. Sometimes it was a foregone conclusion (the 2019 Peach Bowl, the 2021 Orange Bowl) and a couple of times it was an absolute gut-punch (the 2018 Rose Bowl, the 2022 Fiesta Bowl). But each time I found myself thinking that the sport’s elusive grand prize was unattainable to the “next” tier of schools like Oklahoma, Michigan, etc, and only reachable to the true powers like Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State.

That brings us to 2023. It was a time of transition in college football, and in many ways the 2023 season was the last that we’ll ever be able to associate with the “old” era of college football. The four-team playoff may have been a groundbreaking shift from the old BCS era, but it pales in comparison to the massive professionalization that will come from the 12-team playoff starting in 2024. And while the transfer portal has largely gotten out of control, there was still just enough continuity on 2023 rosters and just enough of a semblance of NCAA control to still feel mostly like it was college football. It was the last year of the PAC-12, the last year of OU and Texas in the Big 12, the last year of many things. And coincidentally, everyone in the world knew it was the one-year window for Harbaugh and Michigan to chase a national title.

Look at the facts. Bryce Young was gone from Alabama. Stetson Bennett and the whole defense were gone from Georgia. CJ Stroud and JSN were gone from Ohio State. OU and Clemson were no longer considered premier powers in the sport. People were giving serious preseason looks toward resurgent powers like Florida State, Texas, USC, and Penn State to make serious CFP pushes. A one-year void seemed plausible at the very top of the sport.

Meanwhile, in an era where college teams were becoming more and more faceless with player movement, the 2021-2023 Michigan run was full of legendary players and legendary personalities – nearly all of whom were back. Sure, Aidan Hutchinson was off destroying QBs in the NFL instead of in the maize and blue. But otherwise, there was a host of colorful characters on this team. There was JJ McCarthy, once the freshman phenom pushing McNamara for the QB job but now the entrenched junior who would be focal point of the offense. There was Blake Corum, the one-time Heisman RB who was back after knee surgery for one reason – to win a national title. There was Will Johnson, the sophomore star CB who would spend the entire year preparing for his date with Marvin Harrison Jr. and Ohio State. There was Mike Sainristil, the converted WR who showed up one day and was told there was no room for him on the offense anymore, so he turned himself into a DB on the fly and had come up with one of the biggest defensive plays in program history the year before against Ohio State’s Cade Stover. There were these guys and so many more – Donovan Edwards, Roman Wilson, Colston Loveland, Cornelius Johnson, Zak Zinter, Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham, Mike Barrett, Rod Moore – the list went on and on. And it’s not the usual program where so many fans know the name of the starting right guard – but this is Michigan.

For me, 2023 began with a Week 0 watch party at Sam and Stephen’s apartment with a big old pitcher of Rehoboth Beach’s finest key lime crushes and a nailbiter between Jacksonville State and UTEP. After a long, hot summer of 2023, we were finally back into God’s Annointed Season – college football.

In Week 1, I had the distinct privilege of going to Stillwater with Mark and Vivek to provide event support of OSU’s home opener against Central Arkansas. It was a completely sunny evening – there was no need for any of us there – but Mark introduced me to OSU’s famed chili dog with cream cheese entitled the “Dirty Curtie” and I got to watch a game for free from OSU’s command post.

In the process, I missed most of OU’s 73-0 pasting of Arkansas State (Elizabeth went with Nicole and commented almost exclusively on how hot the stadium was rather than how the game played out) and Michigan’s humdrum 30-3 win over East Carolina, most notable because it was the first of three games the Wolverines were playing without Harbaugh while he served a three-game suspension for some trumped-up recruiting violations. My fondest memories of the day came from the frozen shaved ice I got at Boone Pickens, and making it home just in time to watch Wyoming stun Texas Tech in Lubbock from bed with Elizabeth.

The next week, I ended up working from 7:00-3:00 on Saturday. This was perfect in a way: it let me go straight from the Weather Center to the Lloyd Noble parking lot, chug a couple of drinks, then go to the OU/SMU game.

There wasn’t a whole lot noteworthy from the OU game. They led in a low-scoring game most of the way, struggled for a bit and looked like they were in trouble, and then managed to pull away for a 28-11 win.

The day was most noteworthy from my perspective for the glitched game lines on Fliff that let me live bet on Colorado to beat Nebraska when they were already up multiple scores, and to bet on Miami to beat Texas A&M as they were wrapping up their beatdown. It certainly wasn’t noteworthy for Michigan’s 35-7 win over UNLV – I didn’t even watch a snap.

And that set a pattern for most of the first half of the season. Michigan was playing a cupcake nonconference schedule and I couldn’t be bothered to watch their games. They weren’t necessarily doing anything to disprove the thought that they were maybe the best team in the country – but they were also clearly apathetic about the competition in front of them. Elizabeth and I hosted a tailgate at our house for OU’s week 3 road game at Tulsa. We got way more turnout for it than I could have ever guessed (including turnout from 3 different states, thanks James and Gianna!) –

And a couple of memorable moments: when the Fat Kicker hit the 62-yard field goal for Missouri to beat K State, when Jonah absolutely crushed Trey with an elbow in a game of backyard football, Nicole’s smoked chicken wings – but none of those memorable moments involved OU’s 66-17 shellacking of Tulsa, nor did I ever even bother to turn on Michigan’s 31-6 win over Bowling Green while we all sat out on the deck. Ho hum.

Sometimes, there *are* more important things to do on a Saturday in the fall. Not often, but sometimes. A cousin’s wedding easily qualifies, as Grace and Jacob’s did on September 22nd.

Please note that this didn’t stop me from watching most of OU’s 20-6 win at Cincinnati before Rich, Elizabeth, and I had to leave for the venue. That window was also my chance to see some of my first Michigan snaps of the year as they beat Rutgers by a familiar-sounding score of 31-7. Oh, and maybe I snuck an iPad into the reception so I could see the end of the Notre Dame/Ohio State game. But OTHER THAN THAT, being with my family was way more important than football. Yeah.

All of a sudden, we were already nearing the halfway point of the college football regular season. Week 5 – Elizabeth and I enjoyed Nicole’s amazing season tickets to see OU crush Iowa State 50-20. I got the chance to watch the first half of Michigan/Nebraska, the most of one of their games I’d seen all year to this point. Week 6 – Red River week. Hoo boy, Red River week.

First of all, I was on midnight shifts the week of Red River. That meant that I got into the office at 11:00 pm on Friday night, worked all night, and dragged my butt home to take a nap at 7:00 am on Saturday morning. OU and Texas play at 11:00 am every Saturday, so I had to be up and at Tatiana’s house by then. Because there was no chance I was going to miss 5-0, 12th-ranked Oklahoma against 5-0, 3rd-ranked Texas. In fact, I was up and at it by 9:30 on 2 hours of sleep.

The game lived up to the hype. It was one of the best football games I’ve ever watched. There was wackiness, there were weird turnovers, there was a lot of hate between the teams. OU took a lead early, blew it, then had a chance to build their lead into the second half. They did the classic thing where they had a chance to put the game away and failed to do so, and Quinn Ewers and the Longhorns made a frantic comeback to tie the game at 27 in the 4th quarter. Then, all of a sudden, Texas had the ball and a chance to win. OU finally bowed up in field goal range with a minute to go, but Texas kicked the go-ahead field goal to make it 30-27. All felt like it was lost to everyone in crimson and cream. Everyone, that is, except for Dillon Gabriel.

It was the stuff of legends. It was the sort of drive you will never, ever forget if you watched it live. After a year of being hung out to dry, Oklahoma was 6-0, in the driver’s seat in the Big 12, and all of a sudden on a glide path to the College Football Playoff. And everyone who we watched the game with was so fired up that they all went out to Applebee’s, refusing me a chance to get any more sleep before my next midnight shift. But I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.

After such an emotional week, it was probably good for me to take a weekend away from college football. Thankfully, the Sooners had a bye, which gave me the perfect chance to go to Oregon with my parents without any regret for missed games (go check out that blog series here): I came back to Oklahoma in mid-October, with the playoff chase in full swing, reinvigorated for what came next.

Little-watched by me were Michigan’s two games during weeks 6 and 7: shellackings of Minnesota and Indiana, respectively. They were now 7-0.

To this point, I had cause to think myself as the happiest college football fan alive. Already, we were down to just a dozen or so undefeated teams, and the Playoff picture had narrowed down. Michigan and Ohio State were on an ultimate collision course in the Big Ten with 6-0 Penn State poised as a potential spoiler to one or both teams. Oklahoma sat atop the Big 12; surely it would be tough to deal with another shot from Texas in the conference title game, but that seemed like a win-and-in for the CFP. Elsewhere, some teams had clearly separated from their conferences; Florida State was the class of the ACC, Oregon and Washington seemed like the class of a loaded PAC-12, and Georgia looked like a more human version of themselves with Alabama maybe being the only team that could stop them. My enemies were seething – Clemson in the dumpster, USC fresh off of a crushing defeat against Notre Dame, Texas doing classic Texas things. My favorite teams were 13-0. And I’d even found multiple extremely broken ways to bet on college football that were yielding hundreds, then thousands of dollars in profit.

Is it any wonder, then, that I thought this was the most enjoyable college football season of my life to date? There’d already been memorable wins – Red River came to find – there’d been legendary tailgates, and there had been legendary games to watch as a neutral observer. Truthfully it doesn’t get much better than all of that combined.

Little did I know that the memories of 2023’s college football season were just beginning. This coming week, the world was about to learn the name of a now-obscure Michigan assistant named Connor Stalions. Oklahoma was going to learn the meaning of adversity the hard way, and I was going to get to say good-bye to some of the players I’d watched in Sooner red for years. November would be a month of non-stop money flow from my betting strategies. And the Wolverines, coach-less once more, would embark on a historic string of wins that would leave their 2023 season in the history books.

The Greatest Season was halfway done, and yet it hadn’t even begun.

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