What makes college football so great? Is it watching a 4th year sousaphone player dot the "I" in front of 105,000 screaming Buckeye fans in Columbus, Ohio? Or is it Nebraska fans applauding the opposition for a game well played in Lincoln? Maybe it's the glamour and visibility schools like USC and Notre Dame bring to the sport for a nationwide audience. Or it might be the SEC showing the world what passion for the sport is all about.
Whatever it is, it's something a little different for everyone.
Some have ideas that it's the BCS, and meaningful regular season games. Others would say it's the amateur spirit, dedication to fair play, traditions, passionate fans, and long standing, fierce rivalries.
There's also the history. Dating back to the mid- to late-19th century, college football has been a popular staple of the American sports landscape. So popular, in fact, that in 1905, then-President Theodore Roosevelt summoned various college athletics leaders to two White House conferences to encourage reforms in the game's rough and tumble rules. In the following year (1906), the same group of men would go on to found the NCAA as we know it. Since then, college football has grown exponentially and remained one of the most popular - and lucrative - sports in America.
And then there are the legends. College football has produced great gridiron heroes in every corner of this great country. It has given its fans games and classic rivalries almost too captivating for words, and controversies and debates too compelling to ever end. Miami Hurricane fans will still contend that Glenn Sharpe didn't interfere with Chris Gamble in that great overtime classic at the Fiesta Bowl in 2002. And Auburn fans are still wondering "what if" after the Tigers' amazing 2005 season went without a loss, or recognition as National Champion.
Maybe it's simply being there...
To some, game day on a college campus is an experience never to be missed. The Grove at Ole Miss, Howard's Rock at Clemson, Hail to the Victors in Ann Arbor, Chief Osceola in Tallahassee, the 12th Man in College Station, Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, "Jump Around" in Madison, The Volunteer Navy in Knoxville, Song Girls in Los Angeles, "Hook'em Horns!" in Austin, The Sooner Schooner in Norman, The Iron Bowl in Alabama, and Ohio State v. Michigan in front of more than 100,000 people on the third Saturday of November. For those of us fortunate enough to take part in the goings-on of our Alma Mater's and favorite college program's games, these unique experiences on game day Saturdays are the essence of what college football is all about.
But for those of us unable to attend games on a regular basis, for whatever reason, college football provides a much different experience, an experience shared by millions of other college football fans from Los Angeles to Maine, and all points in between.
For many of us, college football Saturdays have become a personal, home ritual with its own particular observances and traditions. Whereas college football ticket-holders and tail-gaiters are the personification of partying, peacocking, and pom-poms, the typical remote control-wielding, lay-z-boy-reclining, weekend warrior fan is a case study in vegetation, and a test of the human body's ability to maintain one specific spot on the couch for the bulk of an entire day.
Because during the week we are forced to do all types of things we don't want to do. Whether it's forcing pleasant smiles as a Wal-Mart greeter for 40 hours, keeping on top of a gazillion different classes in pursuit of a double degree in physics and linguistics at one of the country's many colleges and universities, or attempting to educate someone else's ignorant, ornery, and misbehaving offspring for seven hours a day at Folsom Elementary School, there needs to be a time when we can sit on our favorite couch or recliner, space out, and do absolutely nothing for an entire day. And seeing that college football season starts right around the same time workloads at the office start getting a little heavier, the weather starts turning for the worse, and school begins, it is the perfect tonic for the distractions and horrors post-summer weekdays seem determined on delivering to us, whether we want them or not.
Yes, for some of us, waking up on a late Saturday morning in the fall with nothing to do but plop down on a couch and tune in to the sights and sounds of college football is our little slice of heaven on earth, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
There are many different rituals and practices college fans employ on these most special of Saturdays, and everyone's are different. But, as an amusement, I'll talk about a few of my personal rituals, along with some other college football observations along the way.
Another College Football Saturday...
The day can't start without ESPN Gameday. Hundreds of screaming fans trying their best to be as conspicuous as humanly possible. I grew up with the show and remember when they first went to South Bend, Indiana for the Florida State-Notre Dame #1 vs. #2 matchup in November of 1993. Anyway, my college football Saturday cannot officially start without Kirk Herbstreit downplaying the Buckeyes for some fabricated reason so as to pretend he isn't a homer, and Lee Corso giving his "did I remember my diaper" face at some point during the show - classic!
(The show is also a good time to get some breakfast, and do any chore that might need my attention. If it's a promising day for football [lots of big games], I won't have any other opportunity. I can be that lazy for college football, trust me.)
After Gameday, and breakfast, it's finally time to watch some games. Depending on when my team plays, I'll usually start by watching the noon Big Ten game on ESPN. And if I'm lucky, Chris Spielman will be working as analyst. This is good for a number of reasons: 1.) because these games are usually very boring 2) Spielman is insane about football, and 3) he'll talk over all of Pam Ward's dogged attempts to put me back toward some much-needed sleep with her monotone voice and dreary observations.
(Note: Chris Spielman is the best early Saturday color man, and here's a quick reason why: First, he was one of the most hard-nosed and competitive football players in the history of the game [he once had 29 - yes that's correct folks, 29 - tackles in a loss to Michigan back in 1986.] Second, he absolutely lives for the game of football, as evidenced by his on-point commentary and lively observations. And lastly, he's a certifiable crazy-person. If you've ever heard him do a game - and shame on you if you haven't - you know what I'm talking about. He's a couple poorly-executed tackles away from shirtlessly running amok in the press box and throwing a completely helpless Pam Ward out of the window and onto the unsuspecting crowd below. Ok, well, maybe not. But he does keep the early games interesting enough to keep me awake.)
Usually the Big Ten game will be some kind of snoozer like Michigan vs. Northwestern, or Minnesota playing in that soul-sucking circus tent of a stadium against anybody, and isn't really worth watching. So this is usually a time - if I'm feeling particularly active - to get a quick shower in preparation for the higher visibility mid-afternoon games on ABC and CBS.
The SEC games on CBS are always great, because the SEC is great. The game will probably feature two traditional powerhouses in front of a blood-thirsty crowd trying to help its team into the SEC championship game. Notice I said "help its team" because the one thing that stands out about an SEC crowd is that I get a sense that they truly believe their efforts in the stands will tilt the balance in their team's favor. Of course you can make a case that there are more truly big games played in the SEC, and the fans are piqued for the big occasion the game brings, but I prefer to think they would be as loud if a pee-wee football team was the opponent. The crowd feels they can will their team to victory, or at least make the environment so difficult to function in that the home team sort of wins by default. But more on this later.
Traditionally, the SEC is an ugly beast of a conference, and is anybody's to win. Florida, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, and Alabama usually have a better shot than the rest, but not much separates these teams from each other besides good health and some lucky bounces. All have fabulous coaches (we'll see about Les Miles, though) with outstanding home field advantages, deep-pocketed and devoted alumni, and the talent to be as good as anybody in any given year. A lot of people take issue with the assertion that the SEC is the best overall conference year in and year out, but I surmise these people either don't watch much college football or are unapologetic homers for their respective conferences. Either way, they are wrong; the SEC is second to none. And a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon game featuring two conference titans and the incomparable Verne Lundquist is always a great way to spend three hours of a lazy college football Saturday.
But that isn't to say it's the only way...
If you live in the Midwest, like I do, it's typical to watch the marquee Big Ten game on ABC. If lucky, we'll be treated to either Brad Nessler, who's the best option, or Brent Musburger, who I'm beginning to loathe with a passion. These games will usually feature at least one of the big three: Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State playing each other or some other halfway decent Big Ten team like Iowa or Wisconsin or whoever else is having a good year.
I grew up watching these games and can appreciate the coaching and the strategy involved, even if a lot of the country tends to see a bunch of unathletic teams running the ball up the middle for three tedious hours. The Big Ten is definitely a coaches' conference with one consistently excellent team, Ohio State, and a few others, depending on the year (Michigan, Iowa, Penn State), capable of beating any team in the country.
The top teams are sometimes so well-coached and so technically superior to others that sometimes the Big Ten game can be a foregone conclusion. For example, after Penn State, with its great talent and coaching, lost to Michigan last year, nobody on their remaining schedule was going beat them the rest of the way until the bowl game. But that's the nature of the conference; if a team shows itself to be top-caliber, there's nothing the rest of the conference can really do about it. Unless the team is Ohio State or Michigan, in which case they will inevitably play each other at the end of the year to settle things once and for all.
As a whole, these (Big Ten) games are often case studies for college football: the stronger team almost always wins. Whereas the SEC is much more like the NFL in that on most conference Saturdays anybody can beat anybody because of a parity in talent and the inevitable "let-down" week after a highly anticipated game the Saturday before, the Big Ten usually comes down to a two or three horse race most years, with one of the big two, Ohio State and Michigan, in competition with an experienced second-tier team like Iowa or Wisconsin.
Now these are the times I'm glued to my couch for good. The mid-afternoon games, if intriguing, along with the anticipation of a big SEC night game will have me grabbing the cell phone and ordering food to be delivered. If the games aren't up to par, however, I'll switch back and forth between a number of different ones, and maybe even go in the kitchen and make something to eat. I'll sometimes watch Texas or Oklahoma demolish an unworthy foe from the "Little X Conference" on Fox Sports, or watch Georgia Tech (they're always on television for some reason) stumble against a team they should beat by three touchdowns. It all depends. And if it's a really slow day, I'll even turn to NBC to see what Notre Dame is doing, and watch Weis effortlessly carve-up another unsuspecting defensive coordinator. To each his own, I guess.
But as the afternoon games come to a close, the real fun slowly creeps up. With my belly full, and my mind fixated on football, SEC and ACC night games are the perfect nightcap.
There is nothing better television-wise on a Saturday night than a big Southeastern Conference game between heavyweights. They might not always live up to the top billing status they receive (sloppily played games are pretty normal in the SEC), but the crowds and the passion of the teams almost always does. They're incredible.
In fact, if I had to rank all the crowds in all of the conference throughout America, the list would look something like this: 1a.) SEC East, 1a.) SEC West, 2.) SEC, 3.) Big Ten, 4.) Big XII, and so on. There is no atmosphere like an SEC night game. After all, they get enough practice. And I should also mention that Ron Franklin might be the best college football announcer not named Keith Jackson (in his prime) or Verne Lundquist. He's incredible. The sound of his voice trumpets without saying that you are watching a big college football game, and he seems to always enhance games with his astute observations and flawless play-by-play. Whatever he is making, he should get a raise. The man is that good. And so is the SEC, especially at night.
ACC evening games aren't so bad either, but they don't have the name recognition as their SEC counterparts. The games are usually a little over-hyped, and aren't always compelling matchups to begin with. Although Clemson, NC State, Virginia, and Maryland are decent teams, playing in Doak Campbell against Florida State or in the Orange Bowl against "The U" has too much blowout potential for me to get too excited about watching. Sometimes one of these teams will pull off a huge upset, but it will be more of a result of the two Florida teams playing poorly than it was another team playing the game of its life.
Night games are great, no doubt about it, but the late night PAC 10 games are all together a different animal. Of course, living in the Midwest doesn't afford many opportunities to see the 80-yard touchdown-fest that is PAC 10 football, so I can't comment beyond the fact that whenever I end up watching one, I've yet to go to sleep without being thoroughly entertained. Whether it's the "wow" factor that has become the USC Trojans or a random 52-47 shootout between UCLA and whoever they are playing, the PAC 10 provides an enjoyable nightcap for the truest of college football junkies.
Unfortunately I don't get to see these games enough. A stomach full of food and twelve straight hours of college football is more than I can sometimes handle before making my way to a local hangout and discussing all the day's memorable games. At some point I have to move and do something, anything. But there's always next week, and a new host of games to get lost in after the long week at the office.
Whether you're in the stadium, corn-holing (it's a game) outside of it, or taking in a game on the recliner, college football Saturdays are an experience all its own, however you chose to enjoy it.