Yet if you wouldn’t mind rethinking a decrepit topic about SEC teams padding their records by inviting underlings from the Football Championship Subdivision, there’s one constituency to which you might listen. They’re the mismatch veterans who graduated from the FCS programs, who lost those games by scores such as 70-19, 45-0, 56-6, 62-24 or 50-17, and who rate those football memories among their most treasured.
People sometimes pity them as fodder making money for their schools.
They revel as football players who made money for their schools.
“Don’t feel bad for us, because it really was a positive experience,” said Ryan Consiglio, who, as a linebacker for Chattanooga, played at national champion Alabama in 2009 and at national champion Auburn in 2010. Of losing those two games by 45-0 and 62-24, he said, “Nothing but positivity coming out of those experiences.”
“We really value those games,” said Russell Hubbs, who as a linebacker at The Citadel played at three defending national champions: Florida State in 2014, Clemson in 2017 and Alabama in 2018.
“Everybody would definitely agree with what I’m saying,” said Grant Drakeford, a former Citadel running back who found such games “definitely valuable.”
“You perform at the highest level,” said Dewitt Jones, who played defensive end for The Citadel in a 70-19 loss on Nov. 22, 2008, to the national champion Florida of Coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow. “I certainly don’t look for any pity in the score, or, ‘Poor Citadel.’ It was an important part of our program, for money. We weren’t getting eighty-thousand people in the stands in Johnson Hagood Stadium.
“The financial boost that it brings along is important. It’s somehow like a business transaction in the sense you’ve got a bunch of players on the team interested and hungry in playing in that environment, and you’re satisfying something important from the fundraising aspect.”
In these allegedly useless events, the players found one of life’s most exhilarating possibilities: that of weathering an imposing frontier. They might even speak one of life’s utmost truths, like this one from Consiglio, the 30-year-old former Chattanooga linebacker and current sales representative at the football gear company Riddell: “It’s human nature. We always build things up in our heads to be a lot bigger than they end up being.”
In a span of facing two Heisman Trophy winners in two seasons — Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009 and Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010 — Chattanooga went first to Tuscaloosa. Consiglio found Ingram hard to tackle, Trent Richardson even harder. The great Julio Jones lined up at wide receiver. “And the offensive line was a bunch of future NFL players,” Consiglio said.
“So it was obviously intimidating at first, but you get out there, you start to get into the flow of the game, you get used to it and realize it.” It reinforces that at all levels, “Everybody works hard in the offseason. Everybody lifts weights. Everybody runs gassers in summer.”
With that comes a feeling maybe even instructive for the remainder of life.
“Once you’re in there starting,” said Hubbs, a Citadel graduate student, “it takes a couple of plays to get your feet. You get this exhilaration, I’d say, this confidence, that you can play with this person.”
Dewitt Jones, the Citadel defensive end turned biotech product manager, said the curiosity of the test takes over: “Could I have played at that school?”
These eccentric games contain a tutorial on how football players play the game. “Football players are creatures of habit,” Consiglio said. “You aren’t really focused too much on the score. You’re obviously aware of the score and know where you stand, but it’s a lot more of a micro view, I guess, how you try to approach it, play-to-play.”
These unmemorable games left unforgettable memories.
Here’s Hubbs describing looking across the line and seeing Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa: “It was just really cool to just see him across from me, and just know that you’re about to play him. That was pretty amazing. ‘I’m actually playing with these guys.’ You get that feeling, you want to show him what you’re made of, and you get to play against him. There’s no better feeling.”
Said Drakeford, a 2018 Citadel graduate and sales representative: “Even before the game, just looking at them and their size, you realize it’s the real deal.”
On tackling Richardson, Consiglio said: “I mean, essentially, what I would guess what going out and trying to tackle an SUV would be like. So low to the ground, so strong and fast, relentless, all the things you would want in a running back.”
He found Newton “transcendent” and said: “He’s way bigger than I think people realize. He’s every bit of 6-5, 6-6, probably 240. He’s fluid. He can run. He’s got great balance. He’s tough. He’s a lot stronger than probably people would give him credit.”
Then there’s the time last year, when an Alabama player got injured, and Coach Nick Saban walked onto the field in support, and, Hubbs said, “I was actually shocked because I’d never seen Nick Saban before, and I remember one of their guys got hurt and he walked out there and I thought, ‘He’s not that tall.’ ”
They didn’t get wins, but they did get moments.
On a dreary third and 13, while Auburn led Chattanooga 41-7 in the second quarter, this happened: “I can count one of my claims to fame is that I sacked” Newton, Consiglio said. “I’ll always remember that. My friends remind me from time to time.”
Hubbs, at Alabama last November, plucked a fumble from Jerry Jeudy, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the country’s foremost receiver. “I don’t think I remember the six seconds after that,” Hubbs said, “because I just sprinted off to the sideline and just screamed with my teammates.”
That, of course, was the day on which The Citadel stood tied, 10-10, with No. 1 Alabama at halftime, and players and witnesses all felt something rare. “Oh, my god, as a parent and as a spectator, it was phenomenal,” said Hubbs’s father, Eric, describing a “disbelief” and a precious, momentary thought: “Can we do a South Carolina like we did a couple of years earlier [a 23-22 upset] and blow everybody’s mind?”
No — final: 50-17 — but they value that halftime, similar to 2007 when The Citadel tied Wisconsin, 21-21, at halftime and, Jones said, “You could hear a pin drop” in the stadium.
Should we, as a people, sustain this maligned mismatch habit?
“Oh, yeah,” Drakeford said.
“Oh, yeah,” Consiglio said.
“Oh, most definitely,” Russell Hubbs said.
“Sure,” said Jones, even as he observes his gnarled hands and feels his sore shoulders and considers the big football questions a worthwhile national conversation.
“Eventually the game ends for all of us,” Consiglio said, “and I’ll go ahead and tell you right now, if I could go back and play, I’d pay anything.”