The most magical part of returning to my home state for Thanksgiving last year was not the turkey (although it’s a pretty close second), but spending my Saturday night in 30-degree weather jumping around in the stands under the bright stadium lights, screaming at the top of my lungs, and high-fiving everyone around me. I was back at my alma mater for the annual big game against our hated in-state rival. My beloved South Carolina Gamecocks easily beat the Clemson Tigers for the fifth straight year—creating our longest winning streak ever in the history of our 111-year rivalry, and holding the longest home game winning streak in the country (18 consecutive wins and counting!).
I lived almost five years in the heart of Big Ten country after college (as much as my SEC compatriots will attack me for it, go Buckeyes – I’ll always have a soft spot for y’all!). However, my home is in South Carolina, where it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that college football is a religion. Here, you’re either a Gamecock or a Tiger—no fence-riding allowed. Both teams have excellent programs that have churned out huge rosters of stellar players in the last few years and hefty national accolades that are somewhat unusual for a relatively small state like ours. Outside of our ridiculous state politics, Carolina-Clemson rivalry is the root of much of the trash talking in an otherwise kind state that was recently ranked as the most polite in the country.
Football is dramatic, physically demanding, and meaningful. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a display of unfettered athleticism and coordination. On any given play, there is a litany of strategy with about a dozen different mini-plays going on. Each first down sets a tune. Each sack, turnover, and penalty has important ramifications and could potentially become outcome-determinative. Unlike many other sports, a single loss could determine the fate of your entire season, such as whether you make it to your conference championship or an important bowl game. It’s a true team sport. In basketball, a single player could easily rise to stardom. In football, you could possess great technical skill as a quarterback but still be nothing if you don’t exercise effective leadership over your team.
And while the NFL certainly contains more talent and much better execution, the superior quality of the game ain’t got nothin’ on the excitement, drama, passion, pageantry, unpredictability, memories, tradition, and unwavering loyalties found at the collegiate level. If you’ve ever experienced a longstanding and bitter rivalry—the Iron Bowl (Auburn-Alabama), Ohio State-Michigan, the Civil War (Oregon-Oregon State), to name a few—you know that nothing compares to it. Sometimes they get out-of-hand. Like crazed Bama fan Harvey Updyke poisoning the historic Toomer’s Oaks at Auburn, getting convicted and sent to prison, offering to do a charity event shortly after his release, and then canceling it because too many Auburn fans were sending him death threats. Sometimes they’re just plain wild and admirable. Like Ohio State kids jumping into a freezing cold lake in late-November to mark Beat M*ch*g*n Week. But most of the time, it’s a lot of smack-talking and good laughs.
The surprises and compelling stories in college football are plentiful, and last season was no exception. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about Auburn’s “kick-six,” which sent Bama’s national championship expectations down the drain. In fact, Auburn’s story of going from a 3-9 season with no SEC victories to winning the conference championship and making it to the National Championship within one year was, in my opinion, the feel-good fairy tale of the season. There were the signs of trouble surrounding the legendary Texas football program, the drama over whether their beloved coach Mack Brown would resign, his eventual resignation, and the hoopla over who would replace him. Heisman winner Jameis Winston’s sexual assault scandal was a dark cloud over Florida State’s otherwise phenomenal season. But his decision to steal crab legs from a Tallahassee Publix provided plenty of light-hearted fodder. And, of course, the end of the BCS Era went out with a bang last year, with entertaining BCS Bowl Games and a National Championship game where the SEC’s seven-year National Championship reign finally fell.
Cheering for my football team is about much more than just watching the game, which is of course highly entertaining in and of itself. It also keeps me connected to my alma mater, where I made life-long friends, awkwardly stumbled through growing pains, made bad decisions, and made even more fond memories. It’s a means of asserting the pride, love, and nostalgia I feel for a sacred place on a national scale. It’s a magnification of everything I love about the region I’m from—the passion, the tradition, the little black dresses on game day, the food, and the strong sense of community.
So, here’s to you, college football. I am positive that the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff will provide plenty of excitement to last me through the winter.