The joy, hope and enduring appeal of bad college football

JERRY KILL CONSIDERS himself something of a Mr. Fix-It for programs in need of a serious overhaul, the college football equivalent of an HGTV host who must convince an overwhelmed couple that the crumbling mess they just took out a mortgage to buy can, with a little hard work and the right crew of contractors, become a dream home. He's renovated places like Northern Illinois and Minnesota before, and he likes the reputation.

Still, when Kill took the job of head coach at woeful New Mexico State last year, it didn't seem like a renovation job. More like a dare.

"I had coaches tell me I was crazy," Kill said.

The concern was well-founded. In the previous 60 years, the Aggies made it to exactly one bowl game. The budget, facilities and fan engagement were abysmal. The team was bad -- going 3-9 or worse nine times since 2008 -- and recruiting to New Mexico was difficult. There were plans to join Conference USA, but at the moment, New Mexico State was muddling through as an independent.

"I was told there's no way to win there, and this was the worst program in the country," Kill said. "I thought, 'Hey, those are the kinds of challenges I like.'"

The funny thing is, Kill isn't alone. In college football, perhaps more than any other sport, there's something inexorably alluring about the truly awful. Sure, most fans wouldn't invest their careers in restoring New Mexico State the way Kill has, but every week, thousands of them invest a few hours into watching -- dare we say, enjoying? -- truly bad football in the hopes of seeing a miracle unfold or, at the very least, witnessing failure in the most interesting way possible.

Call it bad football, ugly football, sickos football -- whatever the name, its charm is undeniable in a way that simply isn't true of nearly any other form of entertainment. Yes, the cultural zeitgeist might occasionally stumble upon William Hung or Right Said Fred, but those are enjoyed with a measure of ironic detachment. And sure, sports fans have their butt fumbles and, well, pretty much the entire history of the Detroit Lions, but those are as sad as they are funny.

Bad college football, however, is something akin to cult classic movies of the "so bad they're good" variety, enjoyable on their own merits once you buy into the central conceit. Whether it's Patrick Swayze earnestly insisting "pain don't hurt" in "Roadhouse" or Butch Jones announcing his awful 2017 Tennessee Volunteers won the "championship of life," the line between ridiculous and sublime is effectively nonexistent.

At its heart, the joy of watching bad college football is rooted in the same passion that drove Kill to take the New Mexico State job. For Kill, turning abject failure into something approaching coherence is actually fun. That's more or less the same reason so many fans tune in for Tuesday night MAC-tion or Pac-12 After Dark. There's joy in finding something awful and sticking with it long enough to see what happens next because, particularly in college football, the possibilities seem endless. And if, against all odds, something magical does happen, we can say we knew it all along.

Kill's dream home is still in the early stages of construction, but the job has been unquestionably rewarding. Walls are starting to go up. The foundation has been laid, and he's starting the frame. He can see the progress.

"Everybody wants to see an underdog get going," Kill said. "And they'll watch to see if it can be sustained. You know, it takes a little time to build a house, and we're planning to build a big one."

FOR CONNOISSEURS OF bad college football, 2022 has been a revelation.

Think back to the opening week of the season, when Iowa defeated South Dakota State 7-3 on the strength of a field goal, two safeties and an unwavering commitment to avoiding forward progress. It was riveting. At nearly the exact same time, North Carolina and Appalachian State combined to score 62 points in the fourth quarter of their game. Every series was more ridiculous than the last. It was can't-miss TV because of so many can-miss tackle attempts.

We watched Texas A&M collapse under the weight of Jimbo Fisher's playbook, Iowa punt its way into the hearts of a nation and Nebraska play so horribly the Huskers even cursed the teams who beat them. We watched TCU keep its bowl hopes alive in what amounted to a game of chicken against the play clock. And those were just the name brands who rewarded us with sicko football performance art.

On the flip side, we had some truly amazing Cinderella stories, too. Three of the four worst teams during the decade from 2012 to 2021 made a bowl this year. The worst team in four of the Power 5 leagues over the previous decade made bowls. Duke, Southern Miss, Rice, Bowling Green and Georgia Southern (combined 14-34 last year) are all in bowls, too. Tulane (2-10 last year) is playing in a New Year's Six game. It's been a truly incredible run from utter despair to, well, the upper end of mediocrity, at least.

So why is this all so oddly exciting?

Matthew Stohl is a professor at the University of Montana who explored the paradox of enjoying bad films in his book, "Why It's OK to Like Bad Movies," and he sees similar logic in the appreciation of bad football.

First, Stohl said, there's a critical formula involved in the process, whereby the cost of production must far outweigh the cost of consumption. Movies -- even the really bad ones -- require a lot of resources to produce. The creators put real effort into making them, even if they turned out horribly. But watching a bad movie? That's a mere 90 minutes of time for the viewer. It's a low-cost form of entertainment. The same is true in college football. The games have genuine stakes for the programs involved, but for the fans, it can be a harmless guilty pleasure. If UConn wins or loses by 50, it costs the fan nothing more than a few hours of time.

The second necessary ingredient is the opportunity for chaos. This is where college football truly shines. Why does a movie so utterly incoherent as "The Room" have such a wide audience? Because every scene is somehow a non sequitur. Go back and watch the fourth quarter of that UNC-App State game. It's the same thing -- utter ridiculousness and zero continuity.

"Even the worst NFL isn't really that bad," Stohl said. "In college football, there's so much more chaos and variance."

Indeed, the best NFL team of all time (say, the 2007 New England Patriots) was only about 36 points per game better than the worst NFL team of all time (say, the 1990 Patriots). This year, Georgia was at least 36 points per game better than 18 college teams. Guys with NFL aspirations play on the same field as guys hoping to start a hedge fund in a few years. The opportunity for chaos is limitless.

From there, Stohl said, we can split "so bad it's good" into two categories.

The first is the point-and-laugh group, which typically sees a once-powerful figure stripped of its cache. Think of the movie "Cats," which was based on a long-running Broadway musical, had a massive budget and an all-star cast and yet, it was horrendous. In college football parlance, it was this year's Texas A&M team.

The second is the lovable underdog story, the misfit auteur working on a shoestring budget, trying and often failing miserably, but at least doing it in a memorable way. Think "Plan Nine From Outer Space" or UMass' entire FBS history.

And tying it all together is a sense of community. Why do fans line up for midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or quote lines from "Point Break" in casual conversation? The same reason the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl was arguably the pinnacle of college football Twitter. It says we're all in on the same joke -- a joke that has long since ceased to be funny and, instead, evolved into a sort of personal identity. Bad football brings us together.

Think of it in those terms -- applauding sincere effort, craving the unexpected, reveling in upended power dynamics, bonding over shared misery -- and bad college football is something more than just sport. It's the very heart of being an American.

Or, maybe it's just funny to see how many times Iowa can punt in one game.

JORDAN EDMONSON AND George Smith have never met in real life, but they've become something like the dynamic duo of bad football over the past two seasons.

The two first crossed paths in 2020 on the social media app Discord, where groups of fans would chat about games during the course of a Saturday slate. Edmonson went to Dartmouth and, for grad school, North Texas, while Smith once considered himself "the internet's only ULM fan," and since they were so familiar with relatively bad football programs, they actually loved watching smaller schools and bad games.

"We found ourselves watching things like UTEP and New Mexico State and we were having so much fun with those games," Edmonson said.

From there, the Sickos Committee was born.

The name comes from the popular meme, in which a man wearing a shirt reading "Sickos" peers through a window, while chanting, "Yes ... Ha ha ha ... Yes!" It's an avatar for Edmonson, Smith and their now nearly 80,000 Twitter followers' obsession with bad football -- or, as Smith calls it, "unconventionally appealing football."

Yes, Smith knows this makes him sound like a hipster, but there's nothing ironic about the Sickos, he said. The goal is to give a little shine to the teams that never quite muscle their way into the spotlight on their own.

"Our motto here is all football is good football," Smith said. "This is not something to punch down. We do the meme thing when someone does something silly, but we're trying to find joy in [the ridiculous] and -- like the Iowa fans really embraced us."

Ah, yes, Iowa -- a team that found new ways to not score points on a weekly basis. The Hawkeyes were an absolute delight.

To say there is genuine excitement for Iowa's date with Kentucky in this year's TransPerfect Music City Bowl would be a massive understatement. The Hawkeyes' hapless offense will face off against a Kentucky team that was held to 21 points or less in six of its past eight games -- and both teams will play without their starting quarterbacks. The over/under is currently 31, and even that seems like a long shot.

Of course, any true fan of sickos football can tell you the Music City Bowl has a long way to go to eclipse the biggest train wreck in bowl history.

Jason Benetti called the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl for ESPN and he struggles to decide his favorite moment. On one hand, TCU's sports information director got called for a penalty, "and that should be the most ridiculous thing that happens in a game," Benetti said. But then how can he overlook the fact that two -- two! -- interceptions were overturned because the quarterback was beyond the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass?

Oh, and the game still had nine interceptions.

At the end of regulation, Cal and TCU were tied at 7. Of course this game needed overtime.

Benetti said he's used to getting texts from a few friends during games, "but by the end of this one, like half my phonebook had texted me asking, 'What the hell was that?'"

Benetti chalked it up to a thesis he once heard on an episode of "This American Life" titled "Fiasco." It states that at the beginning of a performance, the audience is rooting for the performers. They want a good show. But as more and more things go wrong, a Rubicon is crossed, and soon, the audience is simply rooting for more chaos.

The Onion didn't design the Sickos meme for this game, but it fits perfectly.

And here's the thing Benetti has realized about that game -- and about the genuine love of bad football. It's a contradiction that feels natural on a college campus. When we're young, we can thumb our noses at authority and defy the tropes of everyday life and do something dumb just for laughs and never give a second thought to the larger repercussions. After college, the real world narrows our focus and insists we strive toward success.

Bad college football, Benetti said, isn't just bad. It's subversive, and it offers a small taste of a time when we were too.

SOMEWHERE DEEP WITHIN the bowels of Bottom 10 Headquarters, past the cardboard cutout of Charlie Weis, the shattered remnants of the Civil ConFLiCT trophy and the boxes of Florida State's unused turnover backpacks, Ryan McGee has been studying awful college football for -- well, it's hard to keep track of time after sifting through UMass game tape. It's been a while though.

McGee authors ESPN's weekly Bottom 10 rankings, which rewards -- is that the right word? -- the worst 10 teams in the country for their ongoing efforts to escape their miserable lots in life. It is, he swears, an act of love.

Well, maybe not for places like Nebraska or Texas A&M. They're more like the jocks who are forced to play Dungeons & Dragons with the AV Club kids. They'll learn to love it, but those initial weeks are uncomfortable, to say the least.

For everyone else, however, there's a strange honor in being part of the Bottom 10. Anyone can have a bad season, after all, but 4-8 is forgettable, while 1-11 is an all-out, hair-on-fire joyride. There's a real logic in the notion that, if you're going to be bad, at least be bad enough to be interesting.

Cam Warner has been a Kansas fan his entire life, and he's all too familiar with the Bottom 10. For more than a decade, it was home. Was he happy about it? It's complicated.

"Even just seeing Kansas on a list for being bad was better than not being on anything," Warner said, "because it's recognition. It's seeing what you identify with out in the public, and I think that's always cool -- like, I identify with that, with being one of the Forgotten Ones. I mean, I think about Bowling Green more than I think about Wake Forest."

(Note to Dave Clawson, who coached at both of those schools: Warner's examples are purely his own, and any and all complaints should be directed to him.)

To be truly at the bottom -- rock bottom -- offers a lot of freedom to accept failure and find joy in even the smallest success.

Once, in the 2015 opener against South Dakota State, Kansas flubbed an attempt to spike the ball and stop the clock on a potential game-tying drive because the center snapped the ball over the quarterback's head, and the QB's knee touched the ground as he recovered the errant snap.

It was misery -- but it was memorable.

Twice during Kansas' decade of misery, the Jayhawks managed to knock off big, bad Texas.

Those wins were memorable because of all the misery that preceded them.

The enjoyment of college football isn't measured linearly. It's actually a circle, whereby the distance between abject failure and transcendent joy can be covered by just one small step.

McGee remembers watching New Mexico State play Idaho in 2015, when the Aggies were riding a 17-game losing streak -- the nation's longest at the time. New Mexico State, leading 55-48, survived a final Idaho drive when a Vandals pass was deflected by one defender then intercepted by another, who used his feet to corral the pick. It was sheer lunacy.

After the game, at nearly 2 a.m. on the East Coast, McGee's phone rang. It was the Aggies' sports information director with a message.

"You need to know," the SID said, "that as we were celebrating in the locker room, I had a player ask me, 'Do you think this gets us out of the Bottom 10?'"

WARNER GAINED FAME when a camera caught him in the stands during another ugly Kansas loss in 2017. He was holding a sign -- white paper with three words printed on it: I am sad.

This is the part of bad football no one likes to talk about. It may be fun or exciting or hilarious for the casual observer, but for those who live with it week after week, year after year, it is also a little sad. It is sad because, for some small group of die-hards, Stohl's formula is off. The cost of consumption is actually quite high. They're bought in. They have hope. They're Charlie Brown thinking maybe this time, Lucy won't pull the ball away at the last second.

Warner's moment of infamy only told half the story, after all. He had a second sign, too, on which he'd printed a different message: I am happy. He planned to hold that one up when Kansas made a big play. Poor fool.

If that's the burden for fans, it can feel like an absolutely crushing weight for the coaches and players, UConn athletics director David Benedict said.

"[Head coach] Jim [Mora] came in and changed the mindset of our student-athletes and instilled a confidence and an expectation on how they have to work to be successful," Benedict said. "That's one of the most difficult things to do in coaching. When you come into a program that hasn't won for a decade, it's tough. It's really tough."

And yet, sometimes the hope is rewarded. Sometimes, the stars align. Sometimes bad football is just the long, grueling precursor to something better.

This season, ESPN's College Gameday came to Lawrence, Kansas.

This season, Tulane is headed to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.

This season, UConn won six games -- a total Benedict fully believed could happen, "even if it might've seemed delusional." He now views this as just a starting point.

"It's easy for people on the outside to crush your program when you're not having success," Benedict said. "But the bottom line is it was a hard program to root for over the past decade, but that's what's so fun right now."

At New Mexico State, Kill was more subdued in his optimism. Six wins never crossed his mind. In fact, he set eight goals for his team -- things like reliability, accountability and respect for authority that he had displayed on the video board during every practice. None mentioned winning.

Still, on his first day at New Mexico State, Kill told his players to practice celebrating. It must have sounded like dialogue from "The Room," completely detached from the plot. But for Kill, it was the only way to start a new story.

"The first day I took the job, I made them take a victory lap," Kill said. "Because every time we win, you're going to take a victory lap and thank the fans. So we practice it."

A funny thing happened after that. New Mexico State started winning -- six of its last eight games to end the 2022 season. The Aggies will play in a bowl, just their second since 1960. And their fans -- the ones in Las Cruces and the ones who'd watched out of morbid curiosity -- can finally take a victory lap, too.