In College Football, the 'Big' Games Are Played by the Smaller Programs

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, October 6, 2008; 4:16 PM

There really is nothing quite like college football.

Let's forget for a moment the pox that is the BCS. There are reasons why thousands and thousands of people deal with the headaches of getting into and out of stadium parking lots each Saturday; why so many of them sit on benches without chair-backs in the heat of September and the cold of November; why they plan their tailgates so elaborately and feel as if a place they go to six times a year is something akin to a vacation home.

Some of it has to do with enjoying seeing their team win. But there's a lot more to it. While television focuses on the big-money, big-stadium programs, it is actually the teams playing the sport at the non-BCS levels that make it fun. In that sense, it isn't all that different than college basketball. What makes college basketball unique are the two weeks before the power schools line up for the sweet sixteen: first the conference championship tournaments in the one-bid leagues, where winning means everything; then the opening week of the NCAA tournament, when the little guys get their chance to shine. George Mason is a once-in-a-lifetime story; Davidson not as rare though highly unlikely. But San Diego, Siena and Winthrop are stories that happen every March.

College football ¿ sadly -- doesn't have that. But it does have Appalachian State going to Michigan and winning, and it does have playoffs well worth watching at every level below division I-A. A national college football writer recently wrote after LSU routed Appalachian State to start the season, "now Appalachian State can return to the obscurity of division 1-AA."

He misses the entire point. The "obscure" games played by non-power programs matter to those involved every bit as much as the big-money games do. Maybe more, since NFL futures aren't at stake, only the competition that day and that year is at stake.

No game (except Army-Navy and Army-Air Force) embodies that kind of emotion more than Navy-Air Force, which is played well below the radar of those who care only about who may play for the national championship. But is played with all the fervor and intensity you could possibly want in any game.

I know I have a bias here, having written about the Army-Navy rivalry and having done color commentary on the Navy radio network for the past 12 years. This, though, is what I say to people who scoff when I say Army-Navy is the best sporting event there is every single year: go to the game once, and then you will understand.

When the three military academies play one another there is nothing quite like it. Dick Vermeil once described Army-Navy this way: "It is the only game where you will see 22 players knock each other down on the opening kickoff."

But there's no bitterness, no anger. Occasionally there's trash-talking because kids are still kids, but not much. For years, the players at Army and Navy thought the players at Air Force were cocky. In truth, they were simply better, which is why they dominated the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for 20 years, holding onto it for 17 years during that period. Now Navy has won it five straight years and took a huge step towards making it six straight by winning at Air Force (for a third straight time) on Saturday.

The Midshipmen won the game with their starting quarterback sidelined with a nagging injury; with their offense sputtering; with Air Force running up 411 yards of offense. They won by blocking two punts for touchdowns and by making key plays when they absolutely had to make them, including holding Air Force to three points on two drives inside the 10-yard line in the second quarter. If the Falcons had scored touchdowns there, they would have taken control of the game.

But here's why these games are different. It would have been easy for Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun to agree with Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo after the game, when Niumatalolo said, "I take my hat off to Air Force. We got lucky. We'll take it, but we got lucky."

Calhoun didn't do that. He said Navy was better and Navy deserved to win. The irony is that Navy won the game the way Air Force used to win when it was the dominant team in service academy football: special teams, turnovers and big plays at key moments. Calhoun, who played at Air Force when the Falcons almost never lost to Army or Navy, understands that. Good teams don't get lucky, they make plays. End of discussion.

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