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.

The 2014 season officially begins

The 2014 season officially begins

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.

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It’s a few minutes after 7 o’clock and the snow, which has been swirling around Notre Dame Stadium all day, is at last beginning to accumulate on the field. The stadium lights bounce off the falling snow, creating a warm glow that hovers over the scene below. The Notre Dame marching band, cloaked in long, navy robes, stands proudly on the field in the midst of its final rendition of the “Notre Dame Victory March.”

Twenty minutes ago Notre Dame Quarterback Tommy Rees took a knee to put the finishing touches on the Irish’s 23-13 victory over BYU. This time a year ago, the undefeated Irish and their linebacker sensation Manti Teo were the center of the college football world. But this season, a pair of September losses to Michigan and Oklahoma and a disappointing trip-up at Pitt have confirmed what every Notre Dame Fan has known since the season began: “not last year.”

At this point, the television cameras have been packed away. The attention of the college football world has moved elsewhere – on to Stillwater, Oklahoma or Oxford, Mississippi where the “games of the week” are about to kickoff. Most of the Notre Dame crowd has made their way to the exits as well, intent on finding a hot meal and place to thaw their hands and feet.

One section of the stadium remains. As packed as it was for the opening kick, the student section dedicated to seniors is alive with excitement.

One of the lesser-known traditions in a school known for rituals allows Notre Dame seniors to go onto the field following the team’s final home game. After nearly four hours of cheering and many more hours of tailgating in temperatures that dipped into the low-teens, the class of 2014 is ready for their run at history. Perched one section above the seniors, fighting the urge to retreat to the closest warmth I can find, I watch as the students relish their moment. Songs ring out. Hugs are given. The occasional snowball is tossed towards the sky. Groups of friends who have become like family gather to take pictures that are sure to adorn offices and mantelpieces for decades to come.

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