Elevating college football to the appropriate level of importance in his small but powerful world, Bear Bryant once noted, “It’s kind of hard to rally around a math class.” And as if we needed reminding, the man operated at a time before outlandish concepts like “academic reform” and truth-in-scholarship limits.
Emotionally, however, not much has changed in the past several decades. For many, particularly in the South, the opening of college football season this week is like finally being given clearance to rip the gift wrap off of a box that has been sitting in the corner, seemingly taunting you, for eight months.
“If you grew up around here, the excitement is one of those things that you often think back to, like significant holidays,” said Bill Curry, the 69-year-old Georgia State coach, who is entering the final season (we assume) of his career.
“You remember where you were for certain games. I still remember listening to Georgia Tech and Tennessee on the radio in 1956. This is my 58th time doing this as a player, coach or broadcaster. I think the last time I had a Labor Day off was in 1954. I was in the seventh grade.”
This Labor Day weekend will see 124 games involving Division 1 teams (FBS and FCS). It begins Thursday when Georgia State opens against South Carolina State at the Georgia Dome, and South Carolina travels to Vanderbilt, an early SEC East Division measuring stick.
The parking lots surrounding the Georgia Dome will be like a 72-hour tailgate: There’s the Georgia State game on Thursday, Tennessee against North Carolina State on Friday and Clemson against Auburn on Saturday.
Georgia opens Saturday in Athens against Buffalo, a light yoga stretch before next week’s SEC opener at Missouri. Defending BCS champion and preseason No. 2 Alabama faces No. 8 Michigan Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The feast finally comes to an end Monday night when Georgia Tech visits No. 16 Virginia Tech, easily the most difficult opener in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure.
Then there will be a few days for fans to recover from their queso dip seizure before starting all over again in Week 2.
I’ve lived in Atlanta for 23 years. I never truly had a sense for how important college football was in these parts until moving here from a distant galaxy (California) in 1989. I remember sitting on a MARTA train, leaving the airport one Sunday morning after returning from an assignment, thinking, “Why are people talking about the Tennessee game? And Auburn? And who cares about Clemson?”
I don’t wonder anymore. Every year it gets bigger. Too big? Probably. The importance of college football for so many is out of proportion to the importance of academics and, well, real life. But there is a significant bonding element in the fall that nothing else compares to. In that sense, Bryant was correct: Regardless of age, race and socioeconomic level, we bond on a college football Saturday like we can’t over a math class – unless the curriculum includes trying to dissect the BCS formula.
It’s a significant season for all three local Division 1 teams. Georgia, by virtue of a strong defense and a favorable schedule, is the perceived favorite in the SEC East, which means it has a legitimate chance to win the SEC title. That potentially puts the Bulldogs in the BCS picture. (Standard caveat: This is a common refrain in Athens. But the Missouri game should tell us something.)
Tech’s record in the past two seasons (14-12 overall, 9-7 in ACC) hasn’t matched Johnson’s first two (20-7, 12-4), but the defense should be improved and maybe we’ll even see a completed pass on occasion. The Yellow Jackets could be a dark horse in the ACC Coastal. But that likely would necessitate upsetting Virginia Tech.
Curry’s goals are more modest: Just win. It’s year three of this start-up program and he would like to see the Panthers have some success before he moves into retirement and they move into the Sun Belt Conference next year.
“We’ll be improved in every area,” he said. “But so is our competition, drastically. With all our hearts, we’ll have to play our guts out.”
It’s what we look forward to this time of year.
By Jeff Schultz
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