- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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College football wears its lack of a playoff as a badge of honor. The sport sells the BCS with an ingenious argument: Every Game Counts. The opener in September is as important as the last game in December.
The idea that Every Game Counts is effective spin. But there is a corollary to that spin that is also true: If the early-season games count more, then the late-season games count less. The schedule is a zero-sum affair. College football might have the best regular season in sports. But for a team that doesn't begin to find itself until Halloween, college football provides the worst return on that success.
In a sport with a playoff -- which is to say, every other team sport played in this country, not to mention every other level of college football -- late bloomers blossom at just the right time. They would be the Colorado Rockies, riding a 21-1 stretch at the end of the season that took them from third place in the National League West to the 2007 World Series. They would be the 2006 George Mason Patriots, who went 14-2 down the stretch, squeezed into the Big Dance as an at-large No. 11 seed, then went to the Final Four.
But big college football has no playoff. Texas A&M found a new quarterback six games into the season. The Aggies (6-3, 3-2) have won three consecutive games and returned to contention in the Big 12 South. This is familiar territory for coach Mike Sherman. In 2004, his Green Bay Packers began the season 1-4. They won their next six games, finished 10-6 and won the NFC North.
Six years later, Sherman is coaching another late-blooming team. The Aggies won't make the playoffs. There are no playoffs to make.
"The biggest thing between the NFL and college is the length of the season," Sherman said. "You can turn things around in the National Football League easier than you can in college. That's the biggest challenge. You have to give them a new reason every week why we have to win. They don't really know. If you're not careful, it just becomes another game."
Florida began the season at No. 4, pretty much equivalent to starting on the front row at Daytona. After extensive time in the pits, the No. 22 Gators are 6-3 and two big wins removed from a three-game losing streak. They will play No. 23 South Carolina on Saturday for the SEC East title. But the opportunity to play for a third national championship in five seasons is long gone.
"If you had told me," Florida coach Urban Meyer said at his news conference Monday, "that we'd have been five or six games without [slot receiver Chris] Rainey or [running back Jeff] Demps, you'd be down to your third kicker and some other issues we're dealing with, and you get a chance to play in the best stadium in America in front of the best fans for a shot at the SEC championship, we'd take it."
Without a playoff, Meyer can only spin. He's not the only one. Virginia Tech, saddled with an 0-2 start, has won seven straight games and climbed only to No. 20. Would anyone want to play the Hokies right now?
Penn State, like Texas A&M, is 6-3. The Nittany Lions, like the Aggies, have won three straight with an offense that has come to life with a new quarterback. If college football had a playoff, you would want to keep an eye on either team.
"In the NFL," Sherman said, "you know what they say, 'They remember what happens in December.' The players would see, 'This is what we have to do.' Even more so, professional players are fighting for jobs. Every week, they don't want to get cut.
"This is a little different. You have to remind them: 'We're not going to Baylor to play. We're going to Baylor to win. This is why.' Every week, you put on a motivational hat and give them another reason to play."
Sherman arrived in College Station three years ago thinking he knew how to make the transition from coaching in the NFL to coaching college football. He had been an assistant coach at five schools in 16 seasons, including seven at Texas A&M under R.C. Slocum. It turns out he had no idea.
"It's hard to be a college football player," Sherman said. "They get worn down. In the NFL, you're there from 8 to 5. You go home, watch TV, go out with your friends, go out with your wife. You get away from it. The college players wake up, get a workout in, go to class, practice, go to study hall, go back and do it again the next day."
In Sherman's first season, 2008, he believes he wore his players down. After going 4-8, he adjusted his practice schedule. He cut back on meetings. Whatever he's doing, it's working. The Aggies are one victory from his first winning record. The 33-19 upset of No. 8 Oklahoma sucked the Big 12 South race into a maelstrom.
Sherman primed the pump for his players last week.
"We have a lot of stuff in front of us," Sherman said. "The night before the Oklahoma game, I told them, 'When we beat Oklahoma, there will be a new challenge when we come in Monday.' On Monday, I said, 'OK, I told you. Things are different. We're bowl-eligible today. But expectations are different. We have to play at a new level.'"
Texas A&M, with a little help from its friends who play Oklahoma State, can win its first division title and Big 12 championship since 1998. From there, the sky is not the limit. Late-season momentum will take a team only so far. In the NFL, they might remember what happens in December. In college football, they remember all too well what happens in September.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
Late-season momentum can transform a college football team the same way it transforms a team in any other sport. But with no playoff, the payoff for getting things right late in the season just isn't the same.