Morning Tailgate: I'm Not Thinking About Numbers

Photo via Rock M Nation's Bill Carter.

Introducing a new morning college football column by Bill Connelly, The Morning Tailgate. Sometimes it will involve numbers, but there's much more to it than that.

Maybe your experience is similar.

It's probably an hour after I intended to show up, but I'm here. I park in a different lot than where the tailgate is located, but while that gets a bit frustrating at times, it does allow me to take in the scene as I hike to our chosen spot. On my walk, I can eavesdrop on food, take in bits and pieces of conversations and get an early feel for what attendance is going to be like ("At four hours to kickoff, this lot should be much more full than this...").

Within 30 seconds of my arrival, Seth hands me a beer, as he has for just about every tailgate I've ever attended. He always gets here on time. At Homecoming it's all about the Bloody Mary with the infused vodka. After Halloween, I'll bring in growlers of the local pumpkin ale. Right now, it's just beer, even at 8:00 a.m. (if your team is unlucky enough to draw an 11:00 a.m. kickoff). The bottle is open, there are hours before kickoff, and it's time to settle in. I'm not thinking about numbers.

It's the same people, the same chairs, and the same tent with the same team colors each year. The grilling equipment gets upgraded from time to time, and lord knows there are more children here than there used to be, but there is comfort in familiarity. I do not overtly fear change in my day-to-day life, but I like my tailgates the way they are. When the weather cooperates, there is nothing more relaxing. And it's still pretty good when the weather is temperamental.

*****

A guy named Michael down the line of cars has a deep-fryer. He lives six hours away, but he comes in for every home game. Most road games, too, but the home games are special. "I have friends six times a year," he says. We talk about the game. I do not reference success rates, or leverage, or points per play. Maybe he asks me what "the numbers" think about this one, but I do not go into much detail.

The air smells like fried meat and grass. The walk to the stadium from our lot is a nice one: mostly downhill (which means mostly uphill after the game, I guess), past the basketball arena (a nice port-a-potty alternative), through the high-roller donor lot, past the buses blaring the same Jock Jams CD, and down the drive toward the stadium where, if we time it just right (and we usually do), the marching band is serenading the crowd and making their way into the stadium like we are.

Kids and families stop to watch and listen as we weave through them. Some old alum is attending his 300th home game. Some three-year-old, hypnotized by the band or the mascot, his first. So, so many people attend football games; all of them have their own habits, goals and levels of alcohol and food intake. I probably do not have much in common with most of them, but right now we are wearing the same color shirt. In about 30 minutes, we'll be singing the same song, and hopefully at some point we'll be high-fiving.

There is a lovely old couple in the row behind us. They were as excited as Seth's parents the first time they got to see his new baby last fall. They probably don't care about opponent adjustments or what "POE" stands for, but they love my school as much as I do. The first home game of the season is like a family reunion, really. It's the same people sitting in the same places around us. Sometimes you can move up a few rows if others have canceled their season tickets, but when your school is doing well, that doesn't happen too often. Winning comes with a price. (Winning also comes with bandwagon jumpers, horrible traffic, more ridiculous expectations and embarrassing behavior by some of the people around us. Also: it's much, much better than losing.) That's okay, though: we've talked ourselves into the "From the 61st row, you can really see the plays develop!" line of thinking.

(For what it's worth, you really can see the plays develop from up there.)

When you attend games for years (I'm in my 15th season as a ticket holder, which pales in comparison to others), seemingly subtle changes are noteworthy. Last year, a new director took over the marching band. They played different songs at different times of the game, and we reacted as if we were listening to ?uestlove DJ'ing in a club. "Ah, he chose this song now? Interesting transition." (Later on: "Is this Lady Gaga? Wow, the last guy definitely wouldn't have chosen this. Very progressive.") We also got a new P.A. announcer last season, the first change in that seat since I came here. We complained about him all season even though he probably wasn't actually that bad.

*****

College football is, literally and figuratively, an antique; the flaws, no matter how serious, just accentuate the charm. Shady academic dealings? Free tattoos? Envelopes of cash in recruits' pockets? Okay, sure, but ... fight songs! Bratwurst! Friends! Homecoming! Jumbotrons! Hugs from strangers after touchdowns! The local R.O.T.C. unit firing off a cannon!

I was a college football nerd long before I was a numbers guy. I've always been far too analytical about this sport (and most other things), and the numbers have simply informed my analytical ability. I thrive in the gray area most people are allergic to when it comes to sports debates (or any debates, really), and numbers give you more "Yeah, but..." material than just about anything else. Ranking teams is only the start of it.

Numbers have changed the way I watch the game, but not really in any conscious way. Numbers tell me just how important a fast start to a game truly is. Or how those long, satisfying, 20-play, seven-minute touchdown drives do not happen often enough to rely on them. Or how much of a difference 2nd-and-8 can make over 2nd-and-6 in the long run. Or how random fumble recoveries (and games that turn because of them) can be. Or how one team's offensive personality differs from others'. Numbers have given me a better feel for this game I love, and I feel they have given me a stronger voice.

(And they give me a way to talk about the sport every single day of the year. The best thing about next year? Leap years give us an extra day to talk about football.)

I obviously talk about numbers a lot, but they haven't made me a college football fan, and my obsession with them has not been some sort of attempt to beat the game or pound others over the head with them. You are about to be seeing a lot more of me and my writing here; as I have said many times, if you don't like numbers in my pieces, skip to the words. Hopefully some of them are worth reading. Numbers help me set better expectations, both for my team and others, but when the game's on, the game's on.

*****

We hang around, join arms, and sing the alma mater after the game. We think we're trying to set an example for others, but really we just do it because it feels good and we don't want to leave the stadium yet. We eventually make the weary walk back uphill for liquids, brownies and some general lingering. We are hoarse, tired and dehydrated. Some have to make a two-hour drive east or west to the nearby metro areas.

Maybe you grew up in a heavy metropolitan area (where pro football is king), or maybe you attended a school that was smaller or more prestigious (and less football-inclined). Or maybe you simply grew up in an area of the country that doesn't give a damn about college football. You may like pro football more than college -- plenty do -- but you aren't me. When you grow up in an area obsessed with this sport, and when you take in the collegiate gameday experience enough, it becomes a large portion of your identity, more than perhaps any other sport in this country. You cannot fathom another way to spend autumn Saturdays. You get nervous when friends announce they're getting married in September. Cracking open a beer at 8:00 a.m. is, on Saturdays, completely justifiable. Driving 12 hours round trip for a big conference game? Not only logical, but necessary. NFL fans who say things like "Well, I don't really follow college football..." make you question both their integrity and their morals. You perhaps cannot justify some of college sports' shady dealings, but you know there is enough good to outweigh the bad.

College football is a cousin (or brother, or uncle...) you still adore even though he's been arrested a couple of times, and you don't know where he goes when he isn't with you. You feel you know the real him, and you'll defend him breathlessly to outsiders. Just being in his presence six (or so) times per year tells you what you really need to know about him.

*****

Tomorrow, it's time for Fun With Numbers. Today, I am a college football fan in the heart of Saturday's America, tired and buzzed and trying to get home. Depending on how many people left early, or how horrendous the new Event Staff plan for directing traffic may be, I find my destination between 15 and 75 minutes after I got in my car (with no traffic, it would take me about eight minutes). On the drive home, I have been plotting what I will be writing and saying about the game, replaying virtually every play in my head, listening to the local post game show hosted by Former Player A and Former Coach B, charging my cell phone and trying to pull in some scores. I shower, I grab a bite to eat, and I open the laptop. It's time to start getting ready for next week's game.

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