There’s nothing quite as unsettling as that moment when you bump into an ex.
At the grocery store. The airport. Wherever. Especially if your breakup was dramatic. A soap opera-worthy split that involved name calling and shouts of “I wish we’d never met!” and wound up with lawyers involved. A schism so sensational that people still gossip about it every time you enter a room. What was it that Cady Heron said in “Mean Girls”? “Have you walked up to people and realized they were just talking about you? Have you ever had it happen 60 times in a row?”
Well, what if it happened 80,000 times in a row? What if that uncomfortable encounter with your former loved one, that person whom you so publicly skewered then immediately returned the favor, was nationally televised? With a trophy as a backdrop?
Welcome to college football’s Championship Weekend 2023, the apex of awkwardness. The final, unavoidable culmination at the end of a season when everyone has, for the most part, been able to ignore the pigskin-covered elephant in the room.
Starting Friday night in Las Vegas, there will be 24 consecutive hours of conference championships won, College Football Playoff berths earned and more uncomfortable handshakes than a Roy family reunion on “Succession.”
Let’s start right there, in the world’s largest Roomba, located adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip. Allegiant Stadium is where Oregon and Washington will fight for the final Pac-12 championship. No matter where the conference goes from here, it will never be the same, as this will most definitely be the last night of the league as we’ve always known it, anchored by the big box schools of Los Angeles, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest.
The loser of that game will immediately start preparing for its next phase of life as a member of the Big Ten. The winner will more than likely get to work on a CFP semifinal matchup.
But first, that champ will have to stand on stage and receive its trophy from the man whom it has openly blamed for its decision to bolt because of its lack of confidence in his inability to ink a lucrative media rights deal: commissioner George Kliavkoff. Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington are also both currently on the other side of a lingering lawsuit to determine control and the cash of the Pac-12 as it moves forward, sitting across the table from archrivals Oregon State and Washington State, while those remaining “2Pac” schools are working with Kliavkoff to figure who and where they might play next season.
This will all make posing for those trophy photos feel like taking your Christmas card photo right after everyone in the family just had a huge fight over what sweaters you should wear.
Now let’s take it 1,200 miles east, to Jerry World in Arlington, Texas. AT&T Stadium is where Texas is favored to defeat Oklahoma State in Saturday’s Big 12 title game. This will also be the Longhorns’ final contest under their conference’s banner, as they will depart next summer, along with fellow current conference headliner Oklahoma, for the SEC. It was their 2021 decision to move deeper south that ignited this current era of conference realignment. It’s all been a Texas-sized multiyear countdown, marching through this season with all sorts of four-letter fare-thee-wells, from an endless sea of Horns Down gestures to Oklahoma State’s Bedlam Bye-Bye win over the Sooners one month ago.
It all peaked — or cratered, depending upon your point of view — last weekend, as Texas crushed Texas Tech in its Big 12 regular-season swan song. That’s when the image and voice of commissioner Brett Yormark appeared on the big screen at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, a clip from his preseason speech to the Red Raider Club kickoff luncheon when he charged Tech to “take care of business” when it came to keeping Texas out of the Big 12 title game.
That sound bite, met with boos and boot scootin’, was followed by a gigantic “SEE Y’ALL IN ARLINGTON” graphic.
The Texas video board is playing the hits for Brett Yormark in their last Big 12 home game. pic.twitter.com/DWjMs7mThY
— Dave Wilson (@dwil) November 25, 2023
If Texas beats Oklahoma State — and the Horns are currently a 15.5-point favorite — then tradition states that Yormark will be the man to hand Texas its fourth and final Big 12 championship trophy.
Cue that emoji of the smiley face showing all its teeth, pressed together like it’s trying to crush a walnut after a root canal.
OK, now let’s travel even further east, to the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s where fourth-ranked Florida State is also favored, albeit by only 2.5 points, over upstart No. 14 Louisville in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium. Now this feud you might have forgotten about, lost amid the much higher profile throwdowns we’ve already mentioned. But it was just last summer, like a scant few months ago, that the folks down in Tallahassee began raising a flame-tipped spear of a stink about their membership in the #goacc, a league that was undoubtedly losing ground to its Power 5 cohorts when it came to all the deck reshuffling and money recounting.
There was an Aug. 15 deadline that came and went while Florida State hired a PR firm to work on its very loud “We hate it here” message and a private equity firm to see if it could come up with the $120 million to break free of Tobacco Road. University president Richard McCullough told ESPN, “I’m not that optimistic that we’ll be able to stay,” as his Seminoles colleagues said they should get a bigger slice of the football TV money pie chart because, well, the rest of the league wasn’t in their league when it comes to gridiron greatness. An angry fellow ACC member said, “It’s so great being in meetings with a school who just spent all summer telling everyone that the rest of us aren’t worthy to be in the same room with them.”
The main focus of FSU’s ire was commissioner Jim Phillips — the same man who will hand the Noles their trophy should they clinch their 16th ACC title on Saturday night.
Someone dial up one of those gifs of Britney Spears looking around like “How awkward is this?”
And finally, let’s take it up to Indianapolis for Michigan vs. Iowa. Do we even need to go over this one? Because it is still so going on. A maize-and-blue mess of such immediacy that it has seemingly dominated the headlines since Halloween. Jim Harbaugh, coach of the Wolverines, will return from punishment purgatory just in time to lead his team to perhaps its third consecutive Big Ten championship and third straight CFP appearance. He has been absent from the sidelines because of a sign-stealing scandal allegedly devised by a since-departed employee.
Harbaugh’s three-game suspension was not handed down by the NCAA but rather the conference office, a decision fueled in no small part by the B1G cries of foul from the other league members. There was legal wrangling, marking the first time anyone can recall that a football team in the midst of winning a conference was also in the midst of suing that conference. Ultimately, the suit was dropped. But the Jim Halpert expression of “Is this really happening right now?” remains.
Speaking of faces, the faces of the Michigan vs. Big Ten fight have always been Harbaugh, naturally, and commissioner Tony Petitti, who has been on the job for all of six months. Now, if ESPN Analytics is to be believed, there is a 92.6% chance Petitti and Harbaugh will be standing shoulder to shoulder on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday evening, one greeted with cheers and the other with middle fingers by the fans of the newly crowned “Victors” of the conference. We’ll let you guess which is which.
In the meantime, the rest of us, from the other six conferences (including the quietly drama-free SEC) to our collective couches and recliners, can sit back and watch the football awkwardness unfurl like an angry complaint email accidentally sent to the person you’re angrily complaining about. The same couches and recliners we were in last week, watching our drunk uncles wake up on Black Friday and look over their coffee at the silent faces of everyone in the family, thinking, “Oh damn, what did I say last night when we were watching the Egg Bowl?”
That will be us all this weekend, eyes instinctively shifting left and right as if seeking an escape route and lips and teeth pulled back like we’re suffering brain freeze, so thankful we aren’t on those four stages in those four cities, handing over giant trophies and well-wishes to our would-be and soon-to-be exes.