Now that students have returned home for the holidays and stadiums have shut down for the winter, I find myself looking back at my season in college football. In 16 weeks, I went to 19 games across 15 different states and 10 different conferences. Along the way, I met bricklayers and farmers, school teachers and CEOs, soldiers and local politicians. I sat in on radio shows, attended campus rallies, ate countless dining hall meals, and spent many a night in the back of my car. My goal was to explore college football’s place in America, to understand the game’s impact on our culture, and to, in turn, understand our culture’s impact on the game. In many ways you could look at my journey as a search to answer a simple question: why do people care about college football?
Each week, I wrote articles about the communities I visited, relating stories about the people I’d met and the culture I’d witnessed. Focused as I was on the present, I rarely had an opportunity to write about the places I’d left behind. But, as I traveled, I started to feel connections for these places. On Saturday afternoons, I’d find myself searching d3football.com for St. John’s score updates or scrolling through ESPN for previews on South Carolina, Texas, or Iowa.
In this article, I’m offering a week-by-week look back at trip – a summary of my destinations followed by a discussion of what happened to the team after I left. I hope you enjoy!
Week 1 – #21 Texas A&M 52, #9 South Carolina 28: The college football season began for me on a balmy Thursday night in Columbia, South Carolina. Coming off of three-straight 11-win seasons, the Gamecock faithful entered Williams-Brice stadium that night expecting big things. Folks I met talked about a berth in the SEC championship game as a minimum for success. Most were focused on a trip to the inaugural playoffs.
That night, I sat with a pair of freshmen – Sean and Deonte. They had each decided to come to South Carolina in part because of the opportunity to be a part of SEC football. They had grown up watching big games and had planned their visits to campus around football weekends. Before kickoff, they were as excited as I imagine they’ve ever been in their lives. They had to pinch themselves to believe their eyes – 82,000 screaming people, a top-10 ranked team, a nationally televised game – and they were a part of it. Unfortunately for my seatmates, their feelings of triumph were short-lived. Upstart Aggie Quarterback Kenny Hill ripped the South Carolina defense apart, throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns en route to a resounding 52-28 victory.
As Sean and Deonte left that night, I wondered whether their visions of grandeur would ever come to fruition. South Carolina has never been a consistent national power. Maybe the Texas A&M game was a sign of things to come – a new normal of mediocrity.
As it turned out, the loss to Texas A&M was the first in a series of disappointments for the Gamecocks. After three straight wins, including a thrilling 38-35 victory over then-number 6 Georgia, South Carolina lost four of their next five games. An overtime win over a subpar Florida team and a victory over South Alabama made the Gamecocks bowl eligible, but a season-ending defeat at rival Clemson solidified a sense that this was a down year in Columbia.
#12 Georgia 45, #16 Clemson 21: Two days after my trip to South Carolina, I drove to Athens to watch Georgia take on Clemson. The game was billed as one of the highlights of the opening weekend – a pair of national contenders meeting in a game that most thought would have playoff implications. Clemson kept the game close through the first three quarters, but Georgia running back Todd Gurley was too much for the Tigers. Gurley scored two fourth quarter touchdowns and finished the day with 198 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, and a 100-yard touchdown on a kickoff return. Around the stadium, the Gurley for Heisman campaign was in full swing.
Through the first five weeks of the season, Gurley continued his dominance. But on October 9th, the star running back was suspended indefinitely for accepting money in exchange of autographs. Gurley missed four games, including Georgia’s soul-crushing 38-20 loss to rival Florida. In his first game back, Gurley ran for 138 yards and a touchdown against #3 Auburn, but left the game late in the fourth quarter with a knee injury. The next day it was announced that Gurley had torn his ACL and would miss the remainder of the season. A month later, Gurley stated that he would declare for the NFL draft and forego his senior season.
It’s hard to call a 9-3 season a disappointment, especially when you finish the year ranked #13, but on that Saturday night at the end of August, most Georgia fans had their sights on bigger things. One of the men I met buys a new gameday outfit every year – think red pants, shoes, and polos. When Georgia wins a national championship, he told me, he plans on framing that year’s outfit and hanging it prominently in his home. He’ll have to wait another year.
In addition to the intensity of SEC football, that first weekend was also my first encounter with hardcore racism on the trip. While stopping at a rest area in rural South Carolina, a store clerk warned me not to go to Columbia because, “there are a lot of n***gers there.” His father concurred, adding that I should avoid walking at night because the “n***gers are dangerous.” In Georgia, I found similar sentiments. I heard “that’s my n**ga” from many in the almost exclusively white crowd as they cheered for black athletes like Gurley. This was three weeks removed from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and six weeks removed from Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island. Two and a half months later, the grand juries in both cases ruled in favor of the police officers, sparking a wave of protests across the nation and triggering a national debate about on-going racism in America.
Week 2 – #16 Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0: As a lifelong Michigan fan, this was a game I had circled on my calendar when the idea for this trip first began. For fans at Michigan and Notre Dame, the rivalry has always been intense. Traditionally played during one of the first few weekends of the season, the game has set the tone for each team. Win, and you’re likely to leave the month of September with a perfect record. Lose, and you’re already looking towards next year.
This year’s game was the last scheduled matchup between the teams, and anticipation for the rivalry’s conclusion was high. Both teams cruised past inferior opponents in week one, paving the way for what everyone expected to be a good game.
Instead, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner tossed three interceptions, and Notre Dame handed the Wolverines their worst defeat in series history. I watched the second half from the Notre Dame student section, struggling to hide my anguish as the game wore on.
It was a sign of things to come for Michigan. After struggling to beat lowly Miami of Ohio, the Wolverines lost three straight games, including a 30-14 loss to Minnesota in which quarterback Shane Morris remained in the game after receiving a concussion. The uproar in Ann Arbor became deafening, and when I visited Michigan two months later, the mood was downright bleak. It all started with the September thumping in South Bend.
The Notre Dame faithful, always confident that the Irish are the best team in the country, rejoiced that night, optimistic about their team’s chances the rest of the way. Walking around campus, I watched as Notre Dame students started dancing in a central fountain next to the student center – a tradition after big wins. The celebration lasted another six weeks. Then, on a trip to #2 Florida State, the Irish scored what looked like a game-winning touchdown in the game’s final seconds only to have the play called back for offensive pass interference. The Irish failed to score on the next play and ended up dropping their first game of the year. They would go on to lose four of their next five games, including an overtime loss at home to Northwestern and a pair of road blowouts to Arizona State and USC. The season that started with so much promise ended in frustration.
Week 3 – Iowa State 20, Iowa 17: No one in Iowa City was expecting Iowa or Iowa State to contend for a national championship this year, but that didn’t lessen the intensity of their annual rivalry. Iowa controlled much of the game but surrendered a pair of second half touchdowns and ended up losing on Iowa State’s last second field goal.
Far from the anguish that such a loss would have caused elsewhere, Iowa City that night was a pleasant place to be. Hawkeye fans were disappointed but quickly moved on to other things. Part of the Iowans ability to put losses in perspective is based on Iowa’s tendency towards losing big games, but an equally important part is the Midwest character. The kindness and humility of the people in Iowa impressed me immensely. Strangers smiled at me as I past them on the street. After the game, Iowa fans congratulated Iowa State fans. When I pressed students about what made Iowa different from other schools, they told me why they liked Iowa but were careful to qualify their statements with, “I’m sure other places are great too.”
After regrouping from the loss to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes emerged as a serious contender in the Big Ten West division. They won four of their next five games before being blown out at Minnesota and dropping a pair of close contests to Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Iowa State, meanwhile, headed in the opposite direction. The win over Iowa was the highpoint in an otherwise awful season. The Cyclones won two weeks later against Toledo, but lost the remainder of their games, finishing the season with a 55-3 drubbing at TCU.
Week 4 – Concordia 23, St. John’s (MN) 14: From Iowa, I drove north to Minnesota. Impressed with the Midwestern kindness I’d encountered in Iowa City, I was blown away by my time in the land of 10,000 lakes. As one man put it, “If you cut someone off in your car here, the other driver is likely going to roll down his window and apologize for not stopping sooner and startling you.”
I arrived in Minnesota at a time when a series of controversies were sweeping across the football landscape. That week, a video of Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée was posted on TMZ, Adrian Peterson was suspended indefinitely for whipping his two-year-old son, and Jameis Winston was suspended for yelling “F**k her in the p**sy” in a Florida State dining hall. It was a tough time to be a football fan and an even tougher time to be someone who was dedicating their fall to complete emersion in the sport.
I spent my week in Collegeville, a tiny town an hour and a half northwest of Minneapolis. The college there, St. John’s has emerged as one of the preeminent powers in division 3 football – winning four national championships and boasting the winningest coach in collegiate history.
Far from any football accolades, the hospitality of the people and the purity of their fandom made St. John’s a welcome respite from the broader football world. At St. John’s the players can be found hours before kickoff setting up blankets in the stands for their families. The hillsides surrounding the stadium are filled with onlookers, and the area beyond the north endzone is the site of touch-football games among the youngsters.
In recent years, St. John’s has struggled to make the playoffs – a foregone conclusion during the John Gagliardi heyday. The 23-14 loss to Concordia suggested that this year’s team might slip closer towards mediocrity.
The week after my visit, however, St. John’s downed rival St. Thomas 24-14 for the first of eight straight victories. The Johnnies claimed their 32nd MIAC conference title and advanced to the national tournament for the 25th time. St. John’s won their opening game of the tournament 35-7 at home over the College of Scholastica before falling 21-10 in the round of 16.