Andy Bender wasn't taking any chances. The Cleveland, Tenn., resident reached the First Tennessee Pavilion a little after 2:30 Saturday afternoon, even though the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football game against Austin Peay at adjacent Finley Stadium was still more than three hours away.
"I wanted to make sure we had our food and television set up before the Alabama and Tennessee games began," said Bender, who strongly supports both UT and UTC. "This is such a great venue for tailgating."
To awaken Saturday morning to 55-degree temperatures, a cloudless sky and gentle breeze was to believe this could be one of the greatest days ever for college football.
There was the obvious Alabama-Texas A&M storyline, what with the No. 1 Crimson Tide traveling to Johnny Footballville to exact revenge for last season's lone loss in a national championship season.
There was Tennessee, unbeaten yet also untested, playing at No. 2 Oregon at the exact same time. Given that fact alone, it was reasonable to assume that throughout the Tennessee Valley, if not the entire Southeast, a record outbreak of carpal tunnel syndrome was inevitable thanks to overworked remote controls.
Then there was UTC, which was attempting to prove to its season-ticket holders that its efforts from Saturday forward would far more closely mirror its 42-14 victory a week earlier at Georgia State rather than its 31-21 loss at home to open the season.
"Oh, we've been looking forward to this for a couple of weeks," said Paul Ramsey, who works in the central office for the Cleveland city schools. "A lot of big games today."
There were a lot of big games when the day began. There were a lot of big point spreads when it ended, including the Volunteers' 59-14 loss to the Ducks. Yet even in defeat UT delivered a moral victory of sorts. It became the first Oregon opponent this season to stay within 45 points of Nike U.
Not that those who follow the Quack Attack were impressed. They taunted the Vols with derisive chants of "S-E-C! S-E-C!" and "We want Bama!" The last time Oregon got an SEC team in a BCS title game, it lost to Auburn. If it winds up beating the Crimson Tide it would need only one or two other national championships to seriously label itself the Duck Dynasty.
As for Alabama, it certainly collected its revenge for last year's home loss to A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Co. But the Tide's 49-42 victory, however satisfying, probably didn't humble last year's Heisman Trophy winner in the way many had hoped.
Yes, Johnny (Obscene) Gesture threw a couple of costly interceptions. And his Aggies lost before their boisterous 12th Man. But he also threw for five touchdowns and more than 464 yards, a preposterous total given Bama boss Nick Saban's rep as a defensive genius.
Still, the Tide won, and with fellow SEC West beast LSU forced to visit Tuscaloosa later this season, it's nearly impossible to imagine the Tide not reaching the SEC championship game for the third time in five years.
Yet if any team proved it might actually be better than its preseason hype, it might be UTC's Mocs, who led Austin Peay 35-7 at halftime on their way to a 42-10 victory. For those of you with short memories, the Vols led these same Governors 42-0 at the break on their way to a 45-0 win.
For those with shorter memories, that same Georgia State team that the Mocs topped 42-14 on the road last week lost 41-7 at West Virginia on Saturday. Throw in Austin Peay's 38-3 loss at Vanderbilt and you begin to wonder if the Mocs couldn't hold their own with anyone in the state. At least anyone but UT-Martin.
Said UTC coach Russ Huesman after this one, as if this should always be the expectation for this team: "This is what should have happened today. They played the way they're supposed to play."
If the Mocs play this way at Georgia Southern in two weeks following this Saturday's off week, we may be able to state emphatically that Huesman's fifth UTC team is really good rather than capable of looking really good against overmatched foes.
Or as the Mocs' Gunner Miller, he of the 20-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Govs, noted, "We've just got to do this against the Big Three (Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Wofford)."
The best moment of the day in college football didn't involve an active player, but rather former Rutgers star Eric LeGrand.
Paralyzed three years ago during a game against Army, LeGrand watched Rutgers retire his No. 52 at halftime -- the first player in the program's 144-year history so honored -- then told the crowd gathered for the Scarlet Knights' 28-10 win over Eastern Michigan: "Help me get back on my feet and walk again. Always remember each and every day -- believe."
It will be easier for Alabama, Oregon, UTC and the rest of the day's winners to believe in themselves going forward. It's also a lesson in growing too excited about the unknown. What looked to be a full slate of magical matchups became, on balance, a disappointing collection of mismatches.
Which brings us to Steve Smalling, a Jasper, Tenn., resident who is both an avid college football fan and recreational runner.
Smalling is the director of the Raccoon Mountain 'Round the Rim Road Race, which is scheduled for this coming Saturday morning. Unlike most of us, when Smalling woke up yesterday his first thought was not what a great day it was for football, but "What a great day this would have been for the race."
Here's hoping this coming Saturday's weather is just as pleasant. And that the race itself is a wee bit more competitive than the Ducks against the Vols.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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