Something amazing happened to me during the fall of 2006; I experienced my first taste that is college football. I had been hearing about how exciting it would be to study at Michigan State University during the fall semester, because that was when football season would be played. I really didn’t pay much attention to it when I first arrived as there were so many other new sights, smells and tastes that come along with studying at an American college.
One beautiful afternoon whilst I was looking out my dorm room window at the squirrels chasing each other up and down a tree, I decided that I would buy season football tickets to see the Spartans play; it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. So the first game day rolled around, and I was brimming with excitement. Not only was I going to see my first American football game, but it was on campus with an estimated crowd of 70,000 people in attendance (and this was only for the season opener in which Michigan State played a much weaker Eastern Michigan). Despite the Spartans being heavy favourites, the buzz surrounding this game was like no other.
Let me paint you a picture of what a typical football Saturday at college is like. To begin with, the game can be on as early as 12pm, therefore in order to make the most of it you get up early. So at around 8am the beers are opened and the good times are beginning. If the game is on at 3:30pm or even later, that leaves the whole day to ‘tailgate’. For those who are unaware of tailgating, basically the idea comes from everyone having a bbq (or ‘grilling’) out of the boots (or ‘tailgates’) of their cars; often in the parking lot at sports such as football and baseball.
On game day at Michigan State, families from all over head to campus to set up their tailgates at parking lots all over campus, and make a day of eating and drinking. But for the younger, more party inclined folk; there are tailgate parties that go to another extreme. The same principle applies, but there are tailgate parties with often hundreds even thousands of people in one area. This concept is so big that ESPN goes on the road every Saturday during football season to host a show called College GameDay, often at large football schools such as Florida and Ohio State.
The above pictures are of the third home game that I attended, between Michigan State and Notre Dame - a fierce rivalry. Around 80,000 people crammed into the stadium for that game, and even though I was drunk and couldn’t find any of my friends, I made my way into the stadium and found a seat (I should say position because no-one sits down during the entire game) amongst the students and enjoyed Michigan State head to a 31-14 half time lead over a red-hot Notre Dame side. At half time I miraculously found my comrades, only to watch one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen in any sporting game, with Notre Dame grabbing an interception that led to the winning points, in the dying seconds to win the game 40-37.
Another great aspect of college football that entices me is the passion. When you play professional sports there is certainly plenty of passion involved, however once a player makes the NFL they are often guaranteed million dollar contracts whether they win or lose; so the drive to succeed could be for different reasons altogether. However, athletes in college aren’t paid a dime for playing sport; sure they receive full scholarships, but they also have to go to class like every other student. Therefore when they are out there in front of 80,000 screaming fans, in a stadium that is on the same campus which they take lectures, the desire to win is not for a pay-check; it is for the pride and respect of their peers.
Passion also grows from rivalries amongst teams. Every year teams will pretty much play the same teams during a regular season, and considering there are only a handful of games, each clash is met with so much importance on the win. The way NCAA football works, is that the country is split up into conferences, such as the Big Ten or SEC conferences, and these teams play mainly each other. Before a game is even played the top 25 teams are ranked based on pre-season form and calibre of team. The larger schools such as Florida, Texas, and USC are always going to field better teams than smaller football schools, therefore they are ranked higher. However, if one of these teams loses, it can pretty much say goodbye to the chance of playing in the national title (the BCS Championship game). The only hope would be to play in one of the other 4 national bowl games, namely the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls.
The very fact outlined above is why when the season is in full swing, and teams such as the University of Michigan play Ohio State University (also known as The Game, and ranked by ESPN as the greatest North American sports rivalry), often both teams are either undefeated or have only lost 1-2 games each, the hype and importance of such a game is enormous. Coupled with the actual importance of the result is the history behind college football. The earliest college football games were being played around 1870-80, years before most major international sporting rivalries even begun. You can already imagine the honour players receive when they have the opportunity to play in games such as these, especially when many are still teenagers.
One of coolest things I like about college football is the crowds. You can be guaranteed that for most decent games the stadiums will be full. And even if the two teams that are playing aren’t even from the state in which the stadium is located, a large crowd will turn up. For example, round 1 of the 2009 season saw Oklahoma play BYU (a team from Utah) at a stadium in Texas and it drew a crowd of 70,000+. But the best crowds are home crowds. There are 4 college football stadiums that have capacity for over 100,000 people, and often they are sold out. University of Michigan’s stadium (appropriately nicknamed ‘The Big House’ has a capacity of 106,000 people); incredible really considering the town that the college is in, Ann Arbor only has a population of 114,000.
I wasn’t sure whether my love for college football would whither once I returned to Australia, but you can take the man out of football but you can’t take the football out the man. It does suck in some respects being over here when I can’t go to any games, but having Foxtel is such a beautiful thing when ESPN play all the big college football clashes; and best of all, the big Saturday night games stream live at a leisurely 11 a.m on Sunday mornings.
If you ever get the chance to go and see a college football game in the States, take in the experience because it is something not to be missed.