The second installment in my look back at the 2014 season. In this section I fly west to Seattle, visit one of the winningest Division 2 programs at a small town in Northern Missouri, watch 4 games in 24 hours in Texas, and tailgate with the Tuohy family (of Blind Side fame) at The Grove. Along the way, I further explore the ways in which money is impacting the college football experience and have my first real encounter with the terrifying reality of concussions.
Week 5 – #16 Stanford 20, Washington 13: After driving south from Minnesota to Nebraska, I flew west to Seattle for what I anticipated would be an intense Pac-12 matchup between two conference contenders. Stanford was looking to get back on track after a close loss to USC two weeks before, while Washington was looking to extend their perfect season.
The game was my first real introduction to the corporate side of college football. Ads flashed on screens around the stadium the entire game. During TV timeouts, the jumbotron featured events like the “Microsoft Dance Cam.” Despite the game’s importance, the fans at Husky Stadium seemed almost ambivalent about the outcome. Thousands of fans filtered out of the stadium before the end of the first half in order to get in line for the halftime tailgate. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that they returned. All in all, the game felt like a minor league equivalent to the NFL – something to do during the Seahawks bye week.
Stanford overcame three turnovers, including a fumble that was returned for a touchdown just before the end of the first half, to win the game. The next week, the Cardinal lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame in South Bend and proceeded to stumble towards .500. They lost their next three games against ranked opponents before rallying on the final game of the regular season to beat UCLA 31-10 and deny the Bruins a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.
Washington followed a similar script, winning the games that they were favored to win and losing the games they were predicted to lose. A 27-26 loss at then-14th ranked Arizona in mid-November demonstrated signs of improvement, and the potential return of two first team All Americans offers promise of increased competitiveness going forward.
Week 6 – Northwest Missouri State 49, Northeastern State 7: If you’re a fan of division 2 football, you probably know a lot about Northwest Missouri State. Since 1996, the Bearcats have qualified for the NCAA tournament 16 times, made the championship game 8 times, and taken home 4 national titles. Last year, every football team in Maryville, MO – the site of Northwest – went undefeated, highlighted by the high school team’s state championship and the Bearcats national crown. The locals began calling the town Title Town USA.
For a remote farming town in Middle America, the presence of successful football programs is not just a source of pride but also an economic lifeline. Before Northwest’s football resurgence, there were plans to close the school. Today, the football team has dramatically increased the school’s exposure and provided a lynchpin for alumni fundraising. Many residents describe the town as similar to towns in West Texas where high school football is a way of life 365 days a year. In Maryville, the football games on Friday night and Saturday are the place to be, and the success or failure of the team has a large impact on the midweek mood of the area.
When I visited in early October, the winning streaks for both teams were still intact and talk around town centered on the teams’ chances at defending their titles. On Friday night, I watched the high school team easily dispose of visiting Smithfield, and, on Saturday afternoon, the Bearcats had no trouble taking care of Northeastern State.
The high school team continued its dominance all the way to the state quarterfinals before falling 69-23 to Oak Grove. Northwest, meanwhile, saw its winning streak snapped at 22 just two weeks after I left. Three Pittsburg State touchdowns in the span of four minutes to start the second quarter left the Bearcats in a 28-0 hole early in the game that they were unable to climb out of as they fell 35-17. Northwest bounced back strong after the loss, winning their final four games to earn a share of the conference title. The Bearcats entered the playoffs confident in their chances, but they surrendered three fourth quarter touchdowns en route to a 25-21 first-round loss to Minnesota-Duluth. Maryville will have to wait another year to reclaim the Title Town USA banner.
The Northwest game was also my first serious encounter with concussion issues. During a routine play sometime in the third quarter, a Northeastern State lineman fell to the turf. He lay motionless for more than ten minutes as paramedics carefully loaded him on a stretcher. In the week prior to my arrival, three high school players died on the football field from brain injuries, and everyone in the crowd feared the worst. Though the player ended up being ok, the event illustrated the terrifying reality of modern football. Concussions and the debate around the future of the game would become a constant theme of the trip as people in areas as diverse as Texas and New England weighed in on the price we should be willing to accept in the name of sport.
I started the day watching the Red River Rivalry from the University of Texas campus in Austin. The Longhorns were firmly in rebuilding mode, and most people around town did not expect big things of newly hired coach Charlie Strong in his first season. The couple I watched the first half with told me that Texas had little hope of covering the spread let alone winning the football game. Despite the Texans’ lack of faith, their team fought Oklahoma to the very end. A pair of late touchdowns cut the Oklahoma lead to five with just under five minutes remaining, but Texas was unable to get any closer.
After the loss, Texas continued to show signs of improvement, winning four of their next five games before a resounding loss to TCU. The Longhorns finished their season with a disappointing 31-7 loss to Arkansas. For a fanbase that is used to national championships, the honeymoon period is likely over for Coach Strong and expectations of success will be high for next season.
#5 Baylor 61, #9 TCU 58: When I planned my trip, the game between Baylor and TCU never even came up for consideration. Despite each team’s recent success, including Baylor’s Big 12 championship last season, neither has really managed to break into the national championship conversation. Ordinarily, a game between two top-10 teams would garner a lot of attention, but even in Texas, the game was largely an after-thought. Fans of both schools told me how they are constantly ignored by the media and not given enough respects in the polls.
I have to admit that even I wrote off the game somewhat as a match between two overrated teams. I figured that each team would lose a handful of games and no one outside of Waco would remember that there was a time when TCU vs. Baylor was the “game of the week.”
I was wrong. After falling behind by 21 with ten minutes remaining, Baylor mounted one of the more remarkable comebacks in the college football history, scoring 24 points and winning the game on a last-second field goal. Far from falling from the spotlight, TCU and Baylor became the focus of the country over the remainder of the season. TCU won the remainder of its games, and Baylor lost just once – a 41-27 defeat by West Virginia. The teams shared the Big 12 championship, finishing three games clear of the perennial powers – Texas and Oklahoma.
In the end, however, no amount of winning could change the Baylor and TCU narrative. Despite winning 55-3 in its final game of the year, the Horned Frogs were snubbed from the college football playoff, dropping from #3 to #6. Baylor finished at #5. Such is life in Waco and Dallas.
On New Years Eve, TCU dismantled Ole Miss 42-3 to finish the season 12-1 – their only blemish the miraculous Baylor comeback. The next day, Baylor suffered a comeback defeat of their own. Leading by 20 points in the fourth quarter, the Bears surrendered three straight scores to Michigan State, the last coming with 17 seconds on the clock.
#3 Ole Miss 35, #14 Texas A&M 20: The final game of my Texas trio was a primetime matchup between Texas A&M and Ole Miss. When I’d last seen the Aggies, they were leaving the field in South Carolina after trouncing the Gamecocks to open the 2014 season. At that point, their quarterback Kenny Hill was a dark horse to win the Heisman, and their Coach Kevin Sumlin was the hottest name in the profession. But a narrow escape against Arkansas in week 4 followed by a crushing defeat at Mississippi State the next week, left many questioning whether the Aggies were for real.
The game was billed as the highlight of the home schedule for Texas A&M fans. The crowd of 109,000-plus was the largest ever to watch a football game in the state of Texas or in the SEC for that matter.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, the excitement quickly turned to dismay. Ole Miss scored twice in the first quarter and added another touchdown early in the second quarter when a Kenny Hill interception was returned 75 yards for a touchdown. Hill somewhat salvaged his statline with a pair of late touchdown passes, but by that point the damage was done: Texas A&M’s hopes of a successful season were ruined. The next week the Aggies were trounced 59-0 at Alabama. Hill was suspended for two games and eventually replaced by freshmen Kyle Allen. Texas A&M did manage a surprising 41-38 victory on the road against Auburn, but they dropped their final two games of the regular season to limp to a 7-5 finish. A 45-37 win over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl did little to change the narrative of a down year in College Station.
For Ole Miss, the victory at College Station was further vindication that they were a force to be reckoned with – proof that their win the previous week against Alabama was not a fluke. The Ole Miss fans that night were giddy with excitement. It had been 50 years since they’d seen a team like this.
Week 8 – #3 Ole Miss 34, Tennessee 3: I had originally planned on going to LSU for week 8, but at this stage in the season the biggest news in college football was the emergence of the state of Mississippi. Two weeks before, Ole Miss had knocked off Alabama and Mississippi State had defeated Texas A&M. That week, the two schools appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Demand for the magazine was so high in the state that book stores limited customers to three magazines each and started handing out tickets denoting what time you could come pick up your magazine. Entering week 8, Ole Miss and Mississippi State were both undefeated and were ranked number three and number one respectively. People were already talking about the intrastate matchup on November 29th as the game of the year.
I arrived in Oxford on Thursday afternoon by which point the campus was already buzzing with anticipation. Signs with directions for would-be tailgaters were placed every few feet. Flyers advertising the homecoming parade were attached to every bulletin board. The next morning, hundreds of people lined up around The Grove – a 10-acre park in the center of campus that houses 80,000-plus people for tailgates on gamedays. At 9 AM, the haphazard collection of students, fans, and hired hands sprinted towards empty spaces on The Grove in a mad dash to claim a portion of the sacred ground for their Saturday tailgates. All day they sat in their small plot of land, guarding it against latecomers. At 8 PM, cars and trolleys flooded the scene, unloading tents, coolers, and chairs. Within a matter of minutes the park was turned into a miniature city.
That Saturday The Grove was packed with tens of thousands of people. For a born and raised New Englander the scene was quite a culture shock. Many of the tents featured rugs, crystal chandeliers, and oil paintings. Many of the men were dressed in shirt and tie and many of the women wore summer dresses. As one woman explained, “We used to dress in our Sunday best when the men left for war. Today, our boys are going to war on the football field.” I emptied the entire contents of my suitcase and managed to find a nice pair of jeans and a classy-looking pullover.
As I wandered through The Grove, I stopped in many of these tailgates. I ate catfish and fried chicken, drank sweet tea and hotty toddies, and talked football with men with such think southern accents that I could barely understand their words. When people learned that I was traveling from Massachusetts, I was not shunned or turned away. I was welcomed even more. “I’ve always wanted to visit Boston,” I heard over and over.
One group that was especially welcoming was the Tuohy’s – the family whose story of adopting Michael Oher was chronicled in Michael Lewis’s best-seller The Blind Side. I bumped into Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy on The Grove when I was trying to find a spot to watch Ole Miss’s famed Walk of Champions – an event where the entire team walks through The Grove two hours before kickoff. I found some open space next to their group and started talking with them. Forty-five minutes later, after I’d been invited back to their tailgate, someone told me that I was talking with the family from The Blind Side. Without that heads-up I never would have known.
That’s one of the best things about college football: at a tailgate or in the crowd, people are equal. Most of the older stadiums don’t have luxury boxes or even upper decks – the crowd is one giant mass of people. You could be a CEO or a schoolteacher during the week, but come Saturday, you’re primary identification is “fan.” College football is a great way to see the country because you meet people at a time when they’re open for real conversation. Tailgates are one of the rare times when people are excited about meeting strangers, when the notion of community trumps the individual.
Ole Miss defeated Tennessee that night in resounding fashion, improving to 7-0 for the first time in over five decades. As I left the stadium, people were dancing in the streets. Twelve hours after I’d arrived at The Grove, people were still partying, soaking in the good vibes that only a Cinderella season can bring.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, the winning ways did not last. Down by 3 late in the fourth quarter the next week, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace chucked a pass to the endzone that was intercepted by LSU’s Ronald Martin. Instead of having the opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal, the interception handed Ole Miss its first loss of the season. The next week, Ole Miss lost in even more heartbreaking fashion. Down 35-31 to then-#3 Auburn, Wallace fumbled the ball on the Auburn six-yard-line with six and half minutes to play. The Rebels got the ball back with 3:22 on the clock at midfield and appeared to have taken the lead on twenty-yard touchdown pass to star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. On his way into the endzone, however, Treadwell was violently pulled backwards in a movement that ended up breaking his tibia and dislocating his ankle. Seized with pain, Treadwell dropped the ball mere inches from the goal line where it was recovered by an Auburn defender. The original call of a touchdown was overturned after a lengthy review during which Treadwell was carried off the field on a stretcher.
Two weeks later, Ole Miss was crushed 30-0 by an Arkansas team that had won its first SEC game in 18 tries the week before. Ole Miss did recover to defeat Mississippi State 31-17 at home to conclude the season, but by the time kickoff rolled around in that game, the stakes were drastically lowered. Ranked in the top-10 at the end of the regular season, Ole Miss ended their year in devastating fashion, losing 42-3 to TCU. As resounding as the defeat was, it’s hard not to think about what could have been. After that Tennessee game, the people in Mississippi had let their dreams grow a little bit larger. Now, a shot at an SEC championship or a national title will have to wait for next year.