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“Hey a**hole!” A middle-aged man with a wraparound mustache, a 1994 Iowa Hawkeye sweatshirt, and an “I can kick your ass” expression stood a few rows above me. The subject of his “greeting” was a twenty-something next to me dressed in the cardinal and gold of Iowa State. I tensed, wondering if I should step in between the two. Suddenly, the mustached-man’s face broke into a huge grin. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed, shaking the bewildered Iowa State fan’s hand.

On the field below, sophomore Cole Netten had just connected on a 42-yard field goal to give the Cyclones a 20-17 victory over Iowa, their third in four years.

A loss on a last-second play to your in-state rivals can be tough to take. It can be even tougher when it’s your first loss of the year and to a team that you were heavily favored to beat.

Leaving the stadium, I feared that the evening in Iowa City would be a depressing one. The mustached-man’s smile after his “congratulations,” however, gave me pause. Maybe the famous Midwest kindness extends to football too.

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I spent this week in Iowa, covering the Iowa-Iowa State game. When that game ended Saturday afternoon, I settled into a seat at a local bar to watch the remainder of the games on the college football schedule. I watched South Carolina upset Georgia, LSU pummel Lousiana-Lafayette, and Notre Dame hang on against Purdue. At some point during my viewing, a score update caught my eye: USC 17, Boston College 14. “BC’s only down 3 to the #9 team in the country,” I thought to myself.

I paid my bill and set off to find a television where I could watch the game. Contrary to the popular belief, Iowa City is a happening place on a Saturday night. Even after a last-second loss to their rivals, Hawkeye students and alumni were in full party mode by the time my quest for the BC game began.

Turned aside by block-long lines and unwilling to pay a cover charge, I ended up at a local burrito chain that had the game on a TV in the corner. The place was packed with drunk college kids and out-of-place thirty-somethings, but I didn’t mind. I propped myself against the back wall and turned my attention to the game.

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ND Stadium

I should start by pointing out that despite my best efforts to remain unbiased in the games I visit, unbiased reporting was not an option on Saturday. My grandparents met at Michigan. My Dad and his four brothers went there. My brother and eight of my cousins have gone there. I grew up singing “The Victors” and always assumed I would spend my college days in Ann Arbor. Though I ended up at a small school in Massachusetts, my Michigan fandom remains as strong as ever.

“Wait, do you even go here?” a senior girl who I’d been standing next to for the entirety of the fourth quarter asked me. My cover was blown. For the past two hours I’d endured a fan’s worst nightmare; standing in your rival’s student section while your team absolutely implodes. All in all, I thought I had done a pretty good job of hiding my misery. As the game wore on, the students around me got rowdier and rowdier. The fourth quarter was basically the pre-game to the night’s festivities. The Notre Dame band moved away from their traditional marches and began playing sing-a-longs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Every Time We Touch” by Cascada. The students posed for pictures during plays on the field. They danced and hugged and discussed plans for the evening. Throughout, I had managed a few smiles and even croaked out a few lines of song.

Now, I couldn’t bear it any longer. One of the greatest traditions at Notre Dame occurs after the game. Win or lose, after shaking hands with their opponent, the team walks to the Northwest corner of the field to the student section. Together, 100 or so players and 10,000 or so students put their arms around one another and sing the Alma Mater. Around the stadium, the vast majority of the 80,000+ crowd joins in as well.

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South Carolina

“We’re taking off – I’ve got three classes and a paper due tomorrow.” Sean, a heavyset 18-year-old freshman told me. Eyes downcast, he hoisted himself to his feet and trudged down the steps of section 302 towards the exit. Managing to muster a bit more enthusiasm, Deonte, a fellow freshman wished me well and followed his new friend.

Below, Texas A&M was putting the finishing touches on a 52-28 beat down of ninth-ranked South Carolina. The loss snapped an 18-game home win streak for the Gamecocks and spoiled hope of an undefeated season.

Despite the departure of several key starters from last year’s team, including JaDaveon Clowney the first overall pick of the NFL Draft, Gamecock fans went into Thursday’s game convinced that 2014 was their year. Three straight 11-2 seasons had raised the bar in Columbia. “We’ll see – I mean we lost a lot of players, but Dylan [Thompson, the South Carolina quarterback] has led us to big victories before,” one student told me when I asked about his team’s chances of winning the SEC title.

Sean and Deonte believed in the hype. A few minutes before kickoff, I asked Sean why he chose South Carolina despite its relative distance from his home in Virginia. Without hesitation he replied: “For this,” gesturing to the field below. Deonte smiled and nodded his agreement.

No one could deny the energy of “this.” By 6 o’clock, the stadium had filled to a capacity crowd of 80,000 plus, and the noise was near deafening. Everyone was on their feet, white towels waving, teeth clenched. Eight months of anticipation was finally over. Football was back.

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IMG_0902By 10:30 PM, a small crowd had begun to form on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse. Groups of older Texas A&M alums milled about, smoking cigars, laughing, swapping stories of their 1000+ mile journey from East Texas. By 11, this group was joined by others – A&M students who had made the trip, a few South Carolina fans prepared to defend their state’s honor, a handful of curious observers, iPhones in hand. By 11:15, the television cameras had arrived and a squadron of state troopers took their positions around the Statehouse courtyard.

The Midnight Yell Practice was fast approaching, and with it, the start of the 2014 College Football season.

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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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