The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Middle Tennessee. James Madison. How lesser-known teams do enchant us.

Middle Tennessee made sure this September stayed a doozy by walking into Miami and walking out with a blowout win. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

September always comes with its merciful promise of ebbing heat, and September always unspools its four or five college football Saturdays, and September always teaches us some things. Sometimes they’re smallish things, and sometimes, such as in this doozy of a September, they’re not.

As if to rear its head in an era of soulless, lifeless business talk at the top of the sport — realignments, TV deals, playoff structures, whatnot — this doozy of a September has reminded what constitutes the fabric of one of the world’s weirdest sports. It’s as if this September aimed to show that any future boardroom that approves some super league or advocates some structure that excludes financial lessers is pretty much a roomful of dull, flavorless sorts who lead meaningless lives. The game bubbles most from its underside, including the deathless upsets from the smaller kingdoms, often with names that don’t give away the GPS.

It’s the Appalachian State. It’s the Marshall. It’s the Middle Tennessee.

It’s the James Madison.

Hell, it’s the Kansas.

Those would be the charms that save the thing from staleness.

Tennessee finally beats a rival (College football winners and losers)

With Middle Tennessee, of course, people from afar might be able to surmise it’s somewhere in Tennessee and probably somewhere in the middle. They might not know it’s Murfreesboro. They might not know Murfreesboro is 35 miles southeast of Nashville.

But come a football Saturday in September, they might start hearing some strange news out of Miami, where apparently a too-proud old powerhouse with an overhyped new coach it paid a fortune to snare from Oregon is having some trouble, some 24-3 kind of trouble early on, with this Middle Tennessee and its mod nickname Blue Raiders and its lifetime total of wins over ranked teams standing temporarily at zero.

Hours later, there might be Blue Raiders Coach Rick Stockstill, long since a quarterback for Bobby Bowden at Florida State and way high on the survival list of Football Bowl Subdivision coaches — at Middle Tennessee since December 2005 — and he might be down there in Miami uttering this eternal truth: “It’s always fun to do stuff that nobody thinks you can do.”

Put that on his statue in Murfreesboro because, wait, continuing: “Coming down here 26-point ’dogs and kicking their butt like we did …”

(Slight pause for a clarification.)

“. . . because it was a butt-kicking. There was no fluke to this.”

How college football does give its people days to last forever, and do carry on, Mr. Stockstill: “We were the tougher team here tonight, mentally and physically, and we got after them. I told our team earlier in the week, I said: ‘Ray Lewis and Michael Irvin and all of them cats, they ain’t coming out of the smoke [at pregame entry]. They ain’t coming out of the tunnel. Have a strong belief in yourself, a strong belief in your team, and don’t flinch, don’t look at the scoreboard; just keep playing.’ ”

Just keep playing, and you might keep remembering all your life. We all wish a long life to a 280-defensive tackle named Zaylin Wood so that he can sit around as an old man and recollect how he got things going by tipping a pass, wheeling around, searching the hot sky for the ball, finding it, corralling it and rumbling 15 yards along the left side to the end zone.

May a 150-pound wide receiver named DJ England-Chisolm have bountiful days of recalling how he zoomed past any apparent defenders to get open and grab Chase Cunningham’s pass at the Miami 40-yard line for a 71-yard touchdown. Give him still more days to recall how, with Middle Tennessee at its own 2 after a fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter, he went up the left sideline to take Cunningham’s mighty lob for a 98-yard touchdown.

Let a wide receiver named Elijah Metcalf tell others as much as he wants about blowing past the apparent defenders for a 69-yard touchdown that made it 31-10, and let a wide receiver named Jaylin Lane tell how he caught a short pass on the right hash at his own 12, then carved his way through the apparent Miami defense through the middle and over to the left for an 89-yard gain that set up a touchdown.

Let them all remember how the empty seats at Hard Rock Stadium just looked sad.

Then let them all be truthful, if they can, to remember their opener in 2022, before they got to 3-1. They went to James Madison on Sept. 3. The far-flung or the oblivious may not be able to pinpoint James Madison’s location (it’s a gem: Harrisonburg, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley) or James Madison’s name, given the general national indifference to history (fourth president, wrote an important document).

Yet as JMU’s brawny Football Championship Subdivision program officially moved up to the FBS that day, Middle Tennessee went into Harrisonburg and took a 44-7 wallop. Then this past Saturday that same James Madison went to gorgeous Boone, N.C., trailed Appalachian State 28-3 and won, 32-28.

Get this: This September alone, in three home games, gorgeous Boone has staged a 63-61 game that involved a 40-22 fourth quarter, one of the most wacko Hail Marys you will ever see and a comeback from 28-3. The home team is 1-2 in those and very nearly 0-3, and that’s the same home team that went to then-No. 6 Texas A&M and proved superior, one day after a Texas A&M yell leader said to a chortling crowd in the Friday night pep rally, “I had to Google this team to make sure that they’re even real.”

These are the charms that make college football exceptional. If we’re lucky, in one September, Eastern Kentucky can beat Bowling Green, which beat Marshall, which beat Notre Dame, which beat North Carolina, which beat Appalachian State, which beat Texas A&M, which beat Miami, which can’t beat Middle Tennessee, which can’t beat James Madison. If the transfer portal has abetted all this, then maybe we all should go hang out in the transfer portal, maybe even ask whether there’s a sommelier in there.

The flavor comes from the bottom more than from the top. It’s an idea that right about now can distill to the state of Kansas. It’s the idea that Oklahoma can spend decades and decades as a mastodon but suddenly can’t seem to solve Kansas State at home twice in a row and thrice out of four, succumbing to a five-touchdown quarterback (Adrian Martinez) — four runs, one pass — who never seemed to have much fun in four years and 1,055 passes at Nebraska. And it’s the idea that Kansas, a threat to get jettisoned from somebody’s league in any cold, bottom-line future, can rise from a long turn south of moribund and reach 4-0, sell out its place and have that place storm the field.

And the Jayhawks’ outright delight of a quarterback, Jalon Daniels, who just went 19 for 23 against Duke to make it 66 for 93 with 11 touchdown passes to one interception in September, tells how they even had him punt in the fourth quarter. The junior from California popped a 33-yarder inside the 10 and said: “I was able to punt the ball my freshman year once, and I’ve just been waiting for them to call that play out again. So it felt nice to be able to show that I’m able to do a few more things.”

A soaring September of Saturdays ended with a 4-0 Kansas, long the cradle of somber punting, conducting a happy punt. In the lower tiers lay most of the enchantments.

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