College football these days lives in zero gravity. It's not that the playing rules of the game are changing. It's that the rules of intercollegiate athletics themselves are no longer connected to Mother Earth.
In the last week alone, half of the FBS took flight, ready to start delivering more benefits to its student-athletes; one day later, a federal judge in California ruled in the O'Bannon case that football and men's basketball players should be compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses to the tune of at least $5,000 per year.
The NCAA, like a coach down five touchdowns and unwilling to pull his starters, will appeal the O'Bannon ruling. The changes won't take effect for two years, which is a good thing because, in the immediacy of the ruling, no one is sure about how to implement the most radical change to intercollegiate athletics in recent memory.
Those two events have overshadowed the arrival of the College Football Playoff, otherwise known as the Christmas, Hanukkah and Fourth of July of every college football fan. For the first time in history, the season will conclude with a four-team playoff. That appears to be a cause for public celebration, even if Joe Fan remains unsure of how the College Football Playoff is different from the BCS, or why Condoleezza Rice's opinion of Ohio State is suddenly more important than his.
College football is at a crossroads, and its GPS isn't getting a clear signal about where to go.
"Dean Acheson was secretary of state after the conclusion of World War II," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said. "He witnessed firsthand the immediate postwar political and economic reconstruction that led to the new balance of power -- the Cold War. Mr. Acheson liked to say that he was 'present at creation of the new world order.'
"After the NCAA activity of Thursday and Friday," Luck said. "I feel like Mr. Acheson."
In recent years, offseasons have filled with stories of serial child abuse, illicit tattoos, realignment, vacated Heismans, boosters gone wild and more realignment. In this offseason, we saw a Heisman winner vacate a Publix with some crab legs, and, surely by coincidence, a decision to feed student-athletes three meals a day. We had a unionization vote, and a lament, without supporting evidence, from Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby that cheating has become as easy as second-and-1.
And then, in the space of 24 hours, three weeks before the season began, the Earth moved. With that in mind, let's all take a deep breath, a step back and a long view. The changes are huge, and, if past is prologue, their effect on what happens on the field will be -- hold your breath -- barely noticeable.
At some point in the mid-to-late 1990s, a group of Division I-AA (now FCS) schools proposed that the classification be eliminated and that all of Division I play football under the same umbrella, as happens in every other sport. It appeared to be the smaller programs' method of trying to attach themselves to the money that had begun pouring into the coffers of the larger schools.