Playoff won't change NCF loyalty

No matter what happens, though, as far as the national championship picture goes, it will happen in the shadow of Jerry Jones' AT&T Taj Mahal. It will be the first national title game to ever be bid on, not tied to tradition. And some fans will be sad about that, especially the older ones, who used to hang on every second of the revered Rose, or the beloved Sugar, long before either was sponsored by an insurance company.

But it doesn't really matter what structure they use to decide it all. Whether your heart bleeds garnet and gold or green and yellow, if your team is winning in it, then it is the right one.

TOMMY LEWIS COULD have hidden from the game all those tortured years. But, Helen told me, it was his life. A lot of people say that, but she believes, especially as a young man, it was true for him. He never stopped going to the games in Tuscaloosa, never stopped sticking out his jaw to let the whole world take a swing; only his failing health finally kept him away.

Before Tommy fell ill, he and Helen went to see the cemetery plot where they would one day rest, side by side. Something made her ask: "What would you do if I had to be buried on a Saturday," on a day Alabama played?

"I'd get the kids to tape it," he said.

"You mean tape the game?" she asked.

"No," he said deadpan.

"And then he grabbed me up and hugged me," Helen said, "and slung me around."

IF ANYTHING IS lost in the playoff era, it may be the drama of the regular season, a drama I enjoyed. I will miss it. The early-season rankings, which meant absolutely nothing and will mean even less, were still a hoot. Expert football minds touted teams that played no defense and no competition at all, and imbued their blowout victories with great significance.

I lounged down here in the 100 percent humidity and giggled myself sore. But it gave those teams a shining moment in the sun -- and the polls -- in the same way a department store mannequin can look good in a hat.

I used to think that the voters, while not as gilded as the playoff panel, would surely see the silliness. And dadgum if I wasn't right; they did see it, and voted the best teams to the top of the poll, just like the computers did, most of the time. Auburn fans, I can tell you, will never forget, or forgive them for '04.

Now the No. 3 team will get its chance. But more cynical fans know the third-ranked team will merely be replaced in the new narrative by the fifth-best team, or the sixth, and cries of injustice will ring anew.

At least Notre Dame will receive no more special treatment, something many fans have griped about since the leather helmet. The smaller conferences will probably be the ones that ultimately suffer. If Boise State is to be in consideration, it must convince the teams that will earn it respect to play on that blue turf. And how long before fans are screaming again, of the inhumanity of it all? If you ask me, it's the blue turf that just ain't right.

But at the end of the day, it hardly matters. The bruisers, the big dogs, as the great Keith Jackson called them, will hunt again. Roll Tide.

Although, I'll admit, nothing is ever, ever certain. This game, Helen Lewis told me, "will break your heart." And still, for as many times as it does, for as many times as they tear it apart and put it back together, we keep on loving it.

Helen, though, has not seen a Tide football game, up close, since her Tommy fell ill. "I don't go without him," she said.

Imagine that, something more important.

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