Rewriting the Past with NCAA Football 2004

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I am not the hippest gamer out there. My latest console is a PlayStation 2, and it will probably continue to be a PlayStation 2 until they finally perfect the greatest sports video game of the twenty-first century: EA Sports’ NCAA Football 2004.

We may not be seeing EA Sports’ NCAA Football series for a long time, a victim of legitimate concerns over player royalties and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s obstinance in maintaining a facade of amateurism. That said, NCAA Football is a great time capsule for a frustrating yet exciting period of college football, before we realized just how flawed the Bowl Championship Series was, or how problematic Joe Paterno and the game itself really were. We can still play as Alabama without feeling the dickishness of Nick Saban pulse through our very being. Players retire and perish, but Houston QB #4 will remain unscathed in ways the real Kevin Kolb could not achieve.

While I have enjoyed several versions of the NCAA series, I hang onto 2004 as the platonic ideal of a college football game: easy to control, fun to play, and devoid of any of the disciplinary points and show trials they would add later on to give some credibility to the “student athlete” lie. 2004’s Dynasty Mode extrapolates the successes and failures of the 2002 FBS season, to the point where you can will a then-lousy Baylor to an undefeated season, only to watch as Louisville faces Colorado State for the national championship. This is the NCAA Football I knew and loved, where Tyrone Willingham was going to be remembered fondly in Notre Dame lore, and where Fresno State, Air Force and the New Mexico State Aggies became national powerhouses instead of Boise State. #MACtion was something you did at an ATM, unless you misspelled WACtion and added a superfluous octothorpe.

The “College Classics” mode is another reason I prefer 2004 to later models. It only appeared twice, but the same exact games are used without any added challenge and annoying Pontiac sponsorship the following year. You could either try to replicate The Play, The Kick, The Hail Flutie and other legendary and semi-legendary moments, or you could just put on Easy Mode, block the frigging field goal, and rob John Elway of a bowl appearance that way. I often wonder what games would be featured on a modern-day equivalent to this section, and how I would reenact the Kick Six from the 2013 Iron Bowl, or prevent Appalachian State from upsetting Michigan in 2007.

There are moments inherent throughout the series that make me smile or cringe. The clockwise turn of the camera after the failure to convert on fourth down. The smug satisfaction that you are smarter than Lee Corso when you decide to go for two when down eight. The legitimate sense of accomplishment when you modify the settings and the A.I. enough to pull off a three-touchdown comeback in two minutes, and the true shame you experience when your team loses against cupcake 1AA West. NCAA Football elicits genuine emotions from the player, no matter how petty they are.

Then there are the moments, like what happened mere seconds before I wrote this paragraph, when a mediocre Oklahoma State ruins your undefeated season, and when you try to rage quit you save your dynasty, dooming your wire-to-wire #1 season, ending your umpteen game winning streak, and forcing you to settle with a measly Fiesta or (shudder) a Rose Bowl appearance. Maybe it is a sign from God himself, telling you that your fictional team that you spent way too much time on was never meant to be national champion, or a big “screw you” from Satan, blaring P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy For Life” as he flips you the bird for five minutes straight.

And so you give up the dream of leading Baylor to a national title before Art Briles. You might retire for a while, do some color commentary for ESPN, or better yet sleep, work, actually live again for a couple of days. But the dream remains. You waited the better part of five years yearning to play NCAA Football 2004, having to slog through the inferior NCAA 06 and 07 before finding your copy among the DVDs of an earlier age. You have grown as a person since you last led Hofstra to a BCS title, but as you and college sports evolve, the singular experience that is NCAA Football 2004 remains as good as ever.

Tom Keiser lives and writes outside of Philadelphia, but his heart lies inside of Philadelphia.

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