Friday, November 30

Where the Clouds Take Their Places for You

Odometer: 17,457
Location: Los Angeles, CA
States Visited: Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California

Well, I made it to the Pacific again. I can’t believe this is the end of the season. As the Iron Bowl came to its close, I found myself melancholy at the thought of no more college football games. This new life for me has been every bit as exciting as I hoped it would be. I’ve made new friends, visited 43 states (and counting), and will soon have no more games to watch. I’m going to miss all the fans extolling the virtues of their schools, towns, and teams. Pretty soon there will be no new places to drive. And there’s nothing quite like the “yyeeEEAAAHH!” from crowds at a big third down defensive stop. I don’t know what I’m going to do in a week when this is all done. I’m certainly a changed man in many ways, and I know I’ll look back on these days with nostalgia and perhaps a bit of pride.

At least there is one game remaining. I left Lake Martin, AL with over 2,000 miles ahead of me. The initial part of the drive was a frustrating one. State roads in, out of, and through Birmingham featured many lights and stop-and-go traffic. It was an unfortunate reminder of my hated commute back when I made an honest living. Once free of Birmingham’s congestion, the interstates were smooth sailing, save a pit stop. It struck me that Mississippi is one of the slowest places on the planet. Both at the gas station and the sandwich shop, the customers, employees – heck even the gas pumps moved a pace far too leisurely for this city boy from the north. Perhaps with so many miles in font of me, I grew overly impatient, but I certainly didn’t expect to be in New Albany, MS for over a half hour.

When I visited my friend Rob in Charleston, he said he had a question for me that he assumed no one else had asked. His question: “What do you fear?” Astute as ever, Rob's query was a new one. It took a second to give him a response, but only a second. My greatest fear is getting into a horrific car accident. I’ve been lucky with weather, construction and all other traffic issues to this point, but that all evened out over my Arkansas leg. Mother Nature was delivering some much needed rain to the South, but the timing and velocity couldn’t have been much worse for me. I could barely see ten yards in front of me and the bumpy road was full of tractor trailers. I would have exited, but without any tail lights in front of me, I feared missing the off ramp. After two hours of white-knuckled, fearful driving, I made my Motel 6 in Russellville, Arkansas. Of course, as soon as I exited, the rain abated and the wet roads intimated a serene calm. Incidentally, long ago, I mentioned a shower that resembled a low-quality time machine. People asked for a photo which I neglected to take. I give you, the Time Machine 2:
Beam me up, Scottie

I made the mistake of allowing a very sick girl to serve me dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I asked, “Are you sick?” “Yes, I can’t even swallow.” I said to myself, “I’m taking my vitamins. I’m going to get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Ooops. Two mornings later, I was clearly coming down with a cold despite the fact that I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

But I chose to ignore any illness for at least 24 hours because my next stop was at The Grand Canyon. When I was 20, I spent a summer in the UK and visited Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. I was blown away by their enormity and beauty. The Grand Canyon is a whole different thing. I can’t fathom anything on the planet that s better defined by the world “awesome.” When you first look at the canyon, you get the feeling that it’s looking back at you. It’s totally motionless and everything is quiet. But after enough time, you realize that it’s not doing anything. It just is. The Grand Canyon cares not of your worries, your life, or how your team fared in the Iron Bowl. It’s six million years old and will be here long after all of us are gone. Many tourists chattered loudly with one another while looking over the rim. It was wholly irritating. As I said, there is very little sound and no reason to shout. I met a man from Tyler Texas who was there with his wife. He spoke quietly of the awesome visage in front of him, “It’s amazing. You can’t put it into words, you can’t put it in a picture, you can’t capture it. Your brain’s trying to take it all in, you can’t even describe it.” I nodded, not wanting to break the silence. A moment later, he stated, “It’s eye candy, that’s for sure.” “No doubt,” I said.
Grade: A++

I took in as much pristine air as I could, knowing I was heading to Los Angeles, where I would be forced to fight my cold along with smog and cat dander. The drive from Arizona is all downhill and tranquil as can be. My friends who are putting me up are unfortunately out of town, and I quickly realized I know hardly anything about this city. No better way to experience it than to just get out there on my own. With one game to go, I’m staring my fatigue in the face, longing to be home and be finished. All I can say to myself is, Fight On!

Tuesday, November 27

Michigan TRC up at SIOC

The Tailgate Report Card from Ann Arbor is up at SI On Campus and can be found here.
Some photos I took at Auburn are up as well. Here and here in the "Superfans" section.

Sunday, November 25

Iron Souls

Odometer: 15,190
Location: Lake Martin, AL
States Visited: Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama

Thanksgiving is typically a time for family. Being at home was unfeasible, so I opted for time with my “road” family of Erik and Chrissy in Atlanta. They had relatives coming, but generously offered me a seat at their table. Unable to cook anything myself, I could only provide a cherry pie from Bigg’s Market. Luckily, it perfectly complemented the pecan and pumpkin pies, giving us a trio of options. The Publix pecan garnered the most rave reviews.

I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I’m not feeling some fatigue. It’s been a long road and though the season is almost over, I still feel like I’m in the middle of it all. Perhaps the looming trek to the west coast is affecting my perspective. But someone did something right when they put the rivalry games at the end of the season. The Iron Bowl is nothing if not a rivalry. In fact, the fans and participants would argue that it is the rivalry. The increased intensity due to the opponent rejuvenated fans who otherwise would be licking wounds and focusing on recruiting season. That has in turn made it easier for me to do my job and find more energy myself.
A fine publication.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning, spots were staked out early, but most tailgates didn’t get rolling until around noon. When I approached people, they generally greeted me by saying “War Eagle,” words whose significance I understood, but whose usage confused me. Almost a muttered “good day”, to which I repeatedly replied with a blank, puzzled expression. It reminded me of visits to a foreign country where you know the textbook language, but have no idea how to apply it. Fortunately, enough people took pity on poor, bewildered me and took me under their awnings.

After hearing the legend of the original War Eagle, we discussed great games of Auburn’s past, with everyone’s favorite being the 1989 Iron Bowl. Alabama came to town with a top five ranking, but lost to a team with the support of fans who’d been waiting for the game for four decades. Pat Dye was also reverently recalled by all. I have always liked both programs and hadn’t made any conclusion about which side I was on. On January 1st, 2001, Michigan played Auburn in the Florida Citrus Bowl. My interaction with Auburn fans online ranged form pleasant to affable. The year before, Michigan played Alabama in the Orange Bowl and relations were similar, plus the Tide did me the favor of missing an extra point in overtime. I found myself feeling very dirty. I hoped by the end of the day that something would compel me one way or another. There weren’t as many ‘Bama fans present as I anticipated. Losing to Louisiana-Monroe surely had an impact. The ones that showed had to endure epithets and vitriol, but all of it hollered in good fun. Some Tigers privately intimated that they “just hate them,” but true altercations were few and far between. One group of young alumni set up shop on Donahue Drive and employed a toy megaphone in hopes of getting a rise from Crimson-clad visitors. They were collecting as many “birds” as possible. The over-under was six. When I checked in with them three hours before kickoff, they’d reached nine and were clearly satisfied with their work. A show of exuberance not to be missed is Tiger Walk. Two hours before kickoff of every home game, the players walk from the athletic offices to the stadium. There are other places that do something similar, but I haven’t seen the passion from fans like this anywhere else. The 1989 game featured the most renowned Tiger Walk. Current students lament not being around for it, and those that were can’t stop talking about it.

Immediately after Tiger Walk, some seniors mentioned to me that some friends of theirs were stabbed by some Alabama fans at a bar two years ago. You hear stories like this all the time, but this one surprised me. Throughout a long day of tailgating, all I saw was good-natured ribbing. I know that the Auburn and Alabama fans will take issue with this statement, but last week in Ann Arbor, there were hateful shouting matches every fifty feet, many featuring beer showers. I was lucky enough to have a pres pass for this game, and that meant entry to the field for pregame. Technically, I was supposed to head up to the press box or find an open spot in the stands once the game commenced, but I figured I could get better photos and get in touch with more fans from the field.

Auburn was clearly the better team, but ‘Bama brought their best effort and made it a tense contest. The late start time and a steady breeze created a chilly environment. At halftime, with their team up 10-7, the students huddled together for warmth. Most were optimistic, though a quick score to start the second half would go a long way to easing concern. The third quarter passed without any points from either side despite some decent drives. When Auburn scored a late touchdown giving them a ten point lead, everyone went nuts. Alabama cut it to a one-score game, but couldn’t secure the onsides kick, giving Auburn their sixth straight Iron Bowl victory. I turned to take some photos of the student section’s glee and was nearly knocked into the turf when the players came running through to celebrate with their fans. I should have known they were coming, but was too busy taking snapshots. The players are big enough on their own, but when they’re wearing shoulder pads and gleefully running to the wall, my narrow frame was that much more inconsequential. But I kept my feet and took some more pictures.
This broadcast brough to you by the number six…

…and the letter d?

Some time during the revelry, a mass of photographers came zooming across the field, and I was struck again. This time, I was more put off as I couldn’t fathom any reason to run around at this point. I grew angrier once I realized these were other media people knocking me about. Tommy Tuberville had decided to take a victory lap of sorts, waving thanks to each section of the Auburn crowd. The fact that he did this in haste made for paparazzi racing to keep up, unconcerned with anyone in their way. When Tuberville made his turn for home, he came right at me. I was sure that I would get swept up in the wake of working press, but they dodged me and followed him around. Incidentally, back in September, I interviewed an older LSU fan named Bill Sharkey who owns a Cajun restaurant in Atlanta. One of the comments he made was that Tommy "always has that smirk" and that was enough to make Auburn a rival. Judge for yourself:
The Sharkey Smirk?

Of course, no visit to Auburn is complete without a visit to Toomer’s Corner for the great unraveling – provided Auburn wins the game. A jubilant throng celebrated by “rolling” the trees, signs and anything else around. All were well behaved, taking pictures with six fingers on display. Apparently someone lit the paper on fire later in the evening, but I was long gone by then. I stayed with extremely gracious friends on Lake Martin, most of whom were Bama fans and rather distraught about the outcome. I didn’t have the gumption to tell them that I eventually leaned in the Tigers direction, if only a bit. I was more than grateful for the hospitality they showed me, and similarly pleased to see another fine contest with passionate fans on both sides. I also want to give a special thanks to Jay of Track Em Tigers who provided me with an introduction to all things Auburn and spent a long lunch talking football. Jay, I wish we could have had more time. It was a pleasure.This amazing journey is winding down for me. Just one more game to go. It happens to be over 2,000 miles from here, so it doesn’t exactly feel like the end.

Angry Dawg!

Well, I finally made it on Sportscenter, not that that was a goal or anything. In the clip below, Jerraud Powers get his hand chomped by a guard dog. If you pause the clip right at the eleven-second mark, you can see my head just above the 17 in the scoreboard. I'm the dude in the black jacket with brown hair.

I bring this up not to say "hey look at me", but rather to mention that the dog in question had been jumpy from the moment they brought it down to the field. I actually considered moving farther to the corner because the mongrel was making me nervous. I didn't see the bite, and had I known they were walking the thing right behind me, I might've run out on the field and risked security tackling me en masse.

War Eagle Soon

Odometer: 15,???
Location: Lake Martin, AL
States Visited: Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama

I'm departing for Los Angeles in a few minutes. It's a 31 hour drive, so I'm not sure when the Auburn update will show up here. But I promise that it's coming. It will start with a sunny morning and nervous parties on both sides concerned about the game. It will end with my nearly being tackled by Tommy Tuberville and his posse of aggresive reporters.

Thursday, November 22

Thanks For All The Giving and You're All Wrong

Odometer: 14,436
Location: Cincinnati, OH
States Visited: Ohio

Over the course of this trip, I have found myself extraordinarily grateful for the hospitality so many people have shown me. From tailgaters who share food and drink to athletic departments who provide learned resources for interviews to bloggers who take time out to speak with me. But I am especially grateful for those who have housed me along the way. Nobody has done this more than my aunt and uncle who are quite literally putting me through college. I am currently in the house where I spent every Thanksgiving as a child, and unfortunately have to hit the road on Thursday morning. But again I am fortunate because I am joining Erik and Chrissy in Atlanta for dinner. Actually, they’ve come darn close to matching the care and support that my aunt and uncle have provided. This will be my third trip to visit them in their new digs. So seriously – a sincere and heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s helped me so far. I couldn’t have done this without you.

Back to football… Clearly, this is the most surprising college football year on record. The season began with Appalachian State defeating Michigan and hasn’t been normal since. South Florida beat Auburn, Syracuse upended Louisville, Kansas State throttled Texas as Colorado came back to beat Oklahoma, Stanford won at USC, Vanderbilt surprised South Carolina, and now Arizona topples Oregon and Louisiana Monroe beats Alabama. Meanwhile, Mississippi State is decent and Kansas is the lone undefeated major conference team. What are we to make of all this?

The short answer you hear on ESPN and in various other places is parity. It’s the age of parity, right? Historically, college football is the most static sport in terms of who’s good and who’s not. If you looked at the top teams from 50 years ago, you’d get the same list of teams we expect to be good now. There are certainly exceptions, but for the most part, the teams that can win a national title at the start of any given year are Texas, USC, Florida State, etc. As we know all too well, 2007 is not any given year. This is the rarest of years no matter who you ask (and I’ve asked a lot). The conventional wisdom says that this is a new era of college football where parity will reign on into the future.

Not so fast my friend. Instead of this year being about parity, isn’t it possible that the senior class just isn’t that great? Look at the Heisman race. The only seniors involved at any point have been Dennis Dixon, Matt Ryan, and Mike Hart. Two of those players have sustained injures that affected their teams’ success. It is pretty darn clear that Tim Tebow, a sophomore, is going to win the award. In its 70 year history, that has never happened. But let’s delve deeper. The best receiver in the country is a freshman, Michael Crabtree. The best return man is a freshman, Jeremy Maclin. The best running back? Nobody can definitively say, but odds are he’s not a senior. When 2007 is in the books, we’ll look back on a season where a lot of crazy stuff happened, and there wasn’t any dominant team.* This season is an anomaly and not the sign of a larger trend. Many point to the 85 scholarships as the reason for parity, but we’ve been down to 85 for thirteen years now. Would it really take this long for Appalachian State and Stanford to happen?

The truth is, wild upsets happen every single year. It’s one of the reasons we love this game. We’re just not used to so many of them. The word parity is clearly originating from the NFL, where it’s been a goal of the league for some time now. Teams with good records are penalized the following year with a tougher schedule. The best draft picks go to the worst teams. College football still has its pecking order and nothing’s changed that. The top programs get the best recruits. Teams that go to bowl games get an extra month of practice. The major leagues have more money to throw around for better facilities. None of this has changed. With the minor exception of teams like Boise State and Utah making BCS bowls, none of it is going to change. Kansas’ stadium still only holds 46,000 people. Mangino will eventually be hired away to a big name program if his ticker keeps working. And it will all go back to normal, no matter what they think on PTI.

Whether that’s a good thing is certainly debatable. For now, it’s best to appreciate this crazy season because we’re not going to see anything like it ever again. LSU’s just lucky they’re not playing Troy this week. In 2007, no game is a gimmie.

*If Kansas blows out Missouri, Oklahoma and LSU, I will obviously rescind the above comment.

I’m off to the Iron Bowl which does not take place in Pittsburgh. For a brief overview loaded with highlights, I present a man after my own heart:

Roll Tide! War Eagle! And everything else...

Sunday, November 18

The Whisper of the Towering Tree

Odometer: 14,181
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
States Visited: Indiana, Michigan

At this point in the trip, I’m not accustomed to finding myself in familiar surroundings. A drive I’ve probably completed 100 times in my life passed by more quickly than ever. Unsurprisingly, my perspective on what is far has definitely changed. My first stop was at the house where I spent my senior year. My how the times have changed. While I’m sure my standards for what makes a good home are different, I was kind of shocked at the poor shape in which I found the house. I don’t think they’ve put one iota of improvement into it since I graduated. Carpet, new when we moved in, was ripped up exposing pretty shabby hardwood floors. The most striking thing was that certain rooms seemed a lot smaller than I remembered them. It could be that the people currently living there have more stuff, but I can recall fitting dozens of people into rooms that now seem like they could only hold eight comfortably. It was an odd feeling to say the least. I know it’s been ten years since school, but it really hit home when I saw the inside of that house. After stopping by a fraternity house where they were sledgehammering scarlet and gray cars for charity, I had a choice on which restaurant to hit. This would be my only opportunity on the trip to hit one of my old haunts. I wish I could have eaten six meals instead of just the one. I opted for Maize N Blue Deli, a place I had not visited in over ten years. The food was every bit as good as I remember – in fact, maybe even better as I’d forgotten how much meat they pile on each one of their sandwiches. China Gate, Backroom, University Café, and Coffee Break – you’ll have to wait until next time.
Relax, all right? My old man is a television repairman, he's got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.

The school held a pep rally in the Diag (Michigan’s version of a quad), something I don’t ever recall happening in my tenure as a student. Like most pep rallies, it was loosely planned and went on far too long. Jamie Morris and Marcus Ray fired up the crowd, while Mike Hart appeared somewhat low-key as people shouted questions about his ankle. The Diag was completely packed. I’d never seen this many people congregate in that area before. Friday night was spent watching the HBO feature on Michigan/OSU at a friend’s house in Plymouth, just to get us extra fired up. We rose early and made it back to Ann Arbor by 7:45. Every time I’m back in town, I get a little nostalgic as the memories, good, bad and otherwise, immediately return. Hitting the tailgate scene, I first stopped by to see some friends who I hadn’t seen face to face in a decade. Everyone pretty much looked and certainly acted the same. It was extremely hard to pull myself away from that group to go do my job, but duty called.
Finest barbershop quartet on campus

The enthusiasm around town surprised me. After traveling around the country, I had a feeling that my return to Michigan would unveil a fan base that just didn’t care as much. I was pleased to discover that was not the case. Tons of students had their faces painted and many went well beyond that. I started to believe that maybe we did have a chance to find victory. Maybe Hart and Henne were rested enough that we could compete. Maybe the players would win one last game for Lloyd. I knew Ohio State was the better team, but perhaps we’d find some “old ghosts” just like in 1995.
Banned by Disney. AOK here!

Banding together with a couple buddies, we managed to snag three student seats for 160 bucks. Not bad considering the going rate was about a hundred per seat. Plus, I wanted student section anyway. If we were going to win this game, I wanted the maximum excitement, and if we were going to lose, I didn’t want any geezers yelling at me to sit down. The only way to utilize a student ticket is to pay 27 bucks to get it validated or have a valid student ID. For the next three hours, my name would be Olivia, the student kind enough to loan me her card. I was assured that they didn’t really look at the IDs, but sure enough at the gate, the woman taking tickets asked for it and said, “Olivia??” Then her supervisor came over and said, “You know, she’s supposed to confiscate the ticket.” I ably played off that I had accidentally brought my girlfriend’s ID, but they didn’t believe me. Feigning a trip home to get the right ID, I moved on to the next gate. This time, the guy saw the ID, gave a brief chuckle and let me in. By this time, the ball had been kicked off and the student section was swollen with kids. I stood in the aisle for the entire first half, sliding between fans standing on the benches whenever security stopped by. The second half view was much better as we positioned ourselves directly behind the Michigan Marching Band. Unfortunately, the game was a total stinker. I can’t imagine that the Buckeye fans found it to be anything special, either. While I’m sure they love beating Michigan, the second half was one of the least entertaining football games I’ve ever witnessed. If it weren’t for Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko, there would have been nothing worth paying attention to. But the fans stayed loud throughout the game, showing their Michigan pride. That’s a lot more than I can say for Mario Manningham who looked every bit like he wasn’t interested in playing football for Michigan anymore. After 14 games, and 14,000 miles, I’ve seen nearly a million fans cheering for their respective teams. I had hoped for at least a touchdown. For one of those moments that throws the audience into disarray with people falling on top of one another in a beautiful, joyful mess. Alas, it was not to be. My one weekend where I get to be a true fan and root for my guys ended up miserably.
Moving to Oakland upon graduation

The students left the game defeated and cold, knowing that Lloyd Carr had just coached his last game at Michigan Stadium. I have no idea how they felt about this fact. I’m sure it varied. I couldn’t help but get a bit misty-eyed thinking about Carr’s tenure. I’m going to miss the guy, and I hope he stays with the program in some capacity. He’s earned it.

From there, it was on to meeting up with more old friends to drown our sorrows at various watering holes. We told the old college stories that everybody already knew, but wanted to hear again. We called friends who couldn’t be there. We reminisced about the great times in Michigan football and raised a glass to Lloyd Carr. Every time I return, I feel a little older, a little more removed. But I also feel like a college kid again. This season keeps rolling along, and though my homecoming weekend featured a disappointing football game, I couldn’t have asked for a better return.

Friday, November 16

Tennessee Tailgate Report Card up at SIOC

To check out the latest Tailgate Report Card at SI On Campus, click here.

Feel free to leave comments.

Thursday, November 15

And Then There Were Three

Odometer: 13,926
Location: Chicago, IL
States Visited: Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois

I’m not exactly sure how long it’s been since I’ve been home. I could do the math and figure it all out, but it feels like eight or nine months. After a rollicking weekend in Knoxville, the drive back to Chicago passed without issue. I arrived to find that my house sitter has done a fine job with maintaining plants, retrieving mail, and general security. In all my life, my bed has never felt so comfortable. The crazy dreams I experienced were a small price to pay for familiar surroundings, even if it’s just for a couple nights.

The sad thing is that there’s no time for friends or family as various concerns about the remaining schedule are a bigger priority. By the way, I have opted for the Iron Bowl over Texas/Texas A+M. College Station, you’ll have to wait for another time – with a new coach, I can only presume. Bills have piled up here. Luckily, there’s still enough in the bank to pay them all. The frightening news is that I awoke this morning to find a shooting pain in my knee. I haven’t really had any pain since before the season began, so this is major cause for concern. I’m not sure if I overdid it with the kneehab this week or if I somehow tweaked something in my sleep. With equal parts surprise and concern, I’m just hoping that when I wake up tomorrow there’s improvement and not the opposite. Even if there is more pain, I’m not sure what action I could take, as it’s time to head to Ann Arbor tomorrow. I’ll have to gut this one out the same as Chad Henne and Mike Hart.

Speaking of them, while working in a café two days ago, I was sitting next to a woman who is a junior high teacher. I quickly learned that she was a huge Buckeyes fan and Ohio State grad. This past Monday, in her seventh grade class, the students were assigned to write about a disagreement they’d had. One student's paper talked about how he walked into class and saw that the teacher had an Ohio State flag. This caused the student great consternation because he was a Michigan fan. “I knew we would butt heads,” he wrote. He couldn’t understand why the teacher could root for Ohio State. He decided to go home and do some research only to be dismayed by the discovery that OSU was number one in all the polls. But then because Illinois beat the Buckeyes this week, and they weren’t number one any more, he could get along with the teacher. Lest you think that there’s more than just interstate pride, Lloyd Carr’s legacy, gold pants, and a Rose Bowl berth on the line. If Michigan doesn’t win, this kid’s education may suffer! So with that, I head off for my three remaining games, each of them a rivalry with more on the line than anyone can ever really explain - though I'm gonna try. Let’s hope the knee holds up – and the shoulder on #7 and ankle on #20 for that matter! Sorry for the lack of objectivity this week, but… GO BLUE!

Sunday, November 11

Lookin' For a Moonshine Still

Odometer: 13,372
Location: Knoxville, TN
States Visited: Kentucky, Tennessee

Ah, to be in college again. Not that I’d been to Knoxville before in my adult life. The family made a trip to the 1982 World’s Fair, but I can only recall the side jaunt to Silver Dollar City in Pigeon Forge. I’ve passed Knoxville at least twice earlier in this trip, knowing that its time would come. Excited to hear Rocky Top and check out one of college football’s great stadiums, I came away with new friends and a well exercised liver. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before we come to all that, I would be remiss if I didn’t share the following with you:
Choose your own caption

I took in Friday night’s Tennessee vs Temple hoops contest and saw the unveiling of the newly refurbished Thompson-Boling Arena. I overheard someone say, “You could hold NBA games here”, and that was about right. I’d say it is comparable to the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, except snazzier and with much skinnier cheerleaders. I sat two seats over from SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, though we didn’t talk about anything.

From there, I met my tour guide for the weekend, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend named Jon. Jon showed me a bit of the campus before we grabbed a booth at Cool Beans, a bar whose name I later heard referred to as a place “where skanks hang out.” I mostly saw girls dressed to the nines hanging out with guys who didn’t shave or even comb their hair. I fit right in. Jon and I shared a lengthy, jovial conversation about college football and we found ourselves in agreement on nearly everything. There was a moment when I mentioned Charles Woodson’s name, and his face suddenly turned very serious. I immediately feared some sort of intense altercation. In a low voice, Jon advised me, “Yeah, I wouldn’t bring that up again around here. You might find yourself in some trouble.” Duly noted, I followed his advice. I struggled to keep pace with Jon in terms of adult beverages, holding my own as best I could. We managed to close down Hannah’s and then scooted over to Gus’ Deli for some late-night grub. I had paced myself with the alcohol just enough that I chose to drive back to my hotel. That was perhaps inadvisable, but it was already four in the morning and I planned to get to campus by 8:30 at the latest.

Three hours of sleep probably wasn’t enough, and my knee was acting up worse than ever – it was downright wobbly. I had vowed to gut it out and actually felt pretty spry for an old guy trying to relive the college lifestyle. Most of the Vol Army was slow in arriving on Saturday. Perhaps the “cold” weather kept them tucked in bed. I’m sure the 12:30 kickoff didn’t help matters. After taking in the Vol Walk, Jon and I went in search of food, folks and fun. He kept telling me that things were subdued because of the cold and the early kickoff and the fact that nobody thought they could beat the Razorbacks. But we did encounter a lot of friendly people who were quick to share their beer, Jack Daniels, and homemade apple moonshine. I was once again in the press box for the game, and had the good fortune of being seated next to Roy Kramer. Kramer is the former SEC commissioner who is considered the father of the BCS. He looks older than I expected, but was very engaged in the game, and still quite sharp in both observation and strategic consideration. Various people greeted him throughout the game, wishing him well and happy to say hello. Despite his older appearance, he seemed pretty up on current technology as he checked the Michigan score for me on his cell phone.

Darren McFadden was held in check throughout the game, and UT came away with a big win, continuing their season-long dominance at Neyland Stadium. I hoped that would lead to celebration afterwards, but most people had a bite to eat, threw back a few more drinks and packed up their tailgates. Jon and I decided we needed to get aboard one of the boats of the Vol Navy, and we found a friendly trio peeling frozen shrimp. They spoke of how early in the season, the number of boats more than triples what we saw on Saturday and people swim in the river all day long. That just means that I’ll have to return some future September. I rested up at my hotel and watched Illinois follow my advice and beat Ohio State with play action passing. The evening ended at the VolPost tailgate which had been bumping since 8:00 am. I didn’t expect to find myself at a southern school huddled around a fire to keep warm, but it is November after all. Up next, a quick stop home in Chicago followed by homecoming weekend (for me at least) in Ann Arbor. Looking forward to both!

Friday, November 9

Ohio State Tailgate Report up at SIOC

Ohio State Tailgate Report Card is up at SI On Campus and can be found here. Will Brutus be happy with his grades? Feel free to leave comments.

Also, a late-arriving photo from a stop at Essen Haus in Madison, as some of you are concerned that I'm not having enough fun on this trip:
Technically poor form by me, but tasty either way

Wednesday, November 7

The School Up North

Odometer: 13,056
Location: Cincinnati, OH

On one hand, it feels like just yesterday when I spent a quick night here at my aunt and uncle’s house. It was between games at Notre Dame and Clemson just two days into this road trip. On the other, I can’t believe that was even this same season. Just setting out in the world on my own, I was such a different person then… Daylight savings did little for me as I was up very late, reveling in the celebration of a happy couple tying the knot. The shortest drive of my trek was also one of the most arduous due to lack of sleep and a path headed straight toward the setting sun. Fall is well past full on now, and it seems clear that winter will arrive any day now. At least I’m driving south.

Time for me to put my winged hat on for just this one posting. I watched the Ohio State/Wisconsin game from the press box where I spotted such dignitaries as Barry Alvarez (who is very imposing in person) and John Cooper wearing an Ohio State sweater (not imposing in the least). Perhaps I was shirking my duties by not joining the fans, but tickets were extremely hard to come by and I gladly utilized the pass. I’m not a big-time Xs and Os guy, and I’ve never played organized tackle football, but I did watch the game intently. And I firmly believe you can see things in person that are not discernable on a TV broadcast. I’ve seen more Wisconsin football in person than I have any other team (two games). This is my first real look at the Buckeyes, but considering it was one of their two biggest games this season, I gathered a bucketful of insights.

Wisconsin Offense – I think they played their best game, but only for about two and a half quarters. To perform this well with their third-string running back in the game deserves attention. They tried their best to run, but holes were somewhat scarce and while Zach Brown was aggressive, he’s not shifty and had trouble creating his own yardage. Tyler Donovan played a gutty game, getting popped early and often. Upon the first real hit, someone next to me said, “He’s going to get injured in this game,” but he played pretty well throughout, and didn’t force any foolish throws despite constant pressure. Most of his passes were pretty on-target, including a laser to the back of the endzone after a 15-yard penalty pushed them back. The Wisconsin folks around me felt he had one of the best games of his career, so perhaps it was an anomaly – or maybe with an ineffective running game, he simply stepped it up. Note that The Badgers' second-string running back is only suspended for road games, a punishment that seems ridiculous to everyone, regardless of affiliation. If PJ Hill can’t play this week, sophomore Lance Smith-Williams will be taking the handoffs. I know nothing about the guy beyond his suspension issue.

Wisconsin Defense – Their unit which looked merely so-so against an inept Iowa offense is clearly much improved, but still nothing to write home about. Michigan should be able to gain yardage if they can establish a run game. It took Ohio State until late in the third quarter to do so, but I think that was likely for lack of trying. Cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu is the real deal – probably the best DB in the Big Ten. Buckeye receivers under his watch were nearly always blanketed. In the rare instances where they did manage a step on him, only a pinpoint pass would have connected, and Boeckman couldn’t deliver them. Granted, Manningham is likely a tougher cover, Ikegwuonu will definitely take some things away. With some injuries to Wisconsin’s defense (Jason Chapman’s looked particularly bad – he was injured, came back for a couple plays and then had to be helped off the field), pounding the ball up front is probably the way to go.

Wisconsin Summary – Having Mike Hart at our disposal will make a large difference. Wisconsin’s offense has the ability to make plays when necessary – I’d like to see Michigan put this game away early by overpowering the Badger defense, and that just happens to be Mike Hart’s specialty. If he’s not available, that strategy would still be the best option. Early in the game, Ohio State was able to drive for an easy touchdown by spreading their receivers out and winging out passes (let’s all pray that Paul Maguire isn’t there to repeat this fact over and over and over again, not that we need special reason to wish for Maguire’s absence). They quickly made the necessary adjustments and the Buckeye offense was stuck in neutral until late in the third quarter. It’s hard to adjust for a team that’s overpowering you. I think we win, but if Hart is not available, it’ll be a very tough game.

Ohio State Offense – They spread their guys out. Their receivers don’t have the athleticism of those who recently left, but they have sure hands, end up in the right places and make plays. Can Michigan finally handle this strategy? Strong efforts versus Purdue and Illinois would indicate that the defense has turned a corner, but neither of those teams had a tailback as explosive as Beanie Wells. When running free, he is a monster. Michigan can not allow the breakdowns that occurred in last year’s game. I figure he’ll bust free at least once, but Michigan must limit it to just once. Boeckman runs a good offense, generally making good decisions. He’s a big dude and while not speedy, knows when to take off and get yardage. I doubt he will fumble on the run, either. I can’t see Michigan’s defense shutting this unit down. They’re going to score some points, be it on big runs from Wells or dink and dunk short routes from their wideouts. I don’t know exactly what alterations Wisconsin made to change their fortunes in the middle of the game, but English had better take a look and be ready to do something similar. It didn’t last for Wisconsin because Wells ripped through their line for 30-yard touchdown runs on three occasions.

Ohio State Defense – In my opinion, this is where the game will be won for one side or another. Their front seven comes after the QB. I still think that Henne has trouble with pressure, albeit less than he used to. If he can, instead of taking off at the first sign of trouble, buy himself some time and still look downfield, he could have a huge day because… the Wisconsin wideouts were open all day long. I have to think if the Badger receivers can find that much space, Manningham and Arrington are going to be available to Henne provided he has enough time. According to the Wisconsin student newspaper guy sitting next to me, Donovan has been bad about locking into receivers and not checking to find the open ones. But that was not a problem in this game because everyone was open. With their third-string freshman tailback running the ball, I'm not sure anything relevant could be learned about Ohio State's run defense.

Ohio State Summary – Can the offensive line block like they did at the end of the Michigan State game? If so, Michigan has a chance as long as their defense is able to slow down the Buckeye offense. That spread is deadly with a guy like Wells carrying the ball. Michigan is going to have to score a lot of points, but I think they can as long as Henne has some time back there. Emotion is such a big part of college football. This will be the ultimate redemption game for Michigan. Beat their nemesis. Erase the Appalachian State debacle. Be America’s team for just one day (the entire country will be pulling for Michigan in this one). I’m not going to predict that Michigan wins, but I think we have a chance. Playing at home in the greatest rivalry of all time… 2007… up is down… fingers crossed…. I think we’ve got a chance.

It’s a bit hard to tell what to think in sum, particularly because 2007 is the “year where all you know is wrong.” I saw USC take apart a Nebraska team that up to that point had looked pretty good. I thought I had just witnessed an excellent, but flawed team destroy a pretty decent, but flawed team. In hindsight, I saw a decent, but flawed team destroy an awful team. Has Wisconsin improved to the point where they’re pretty good? If so, OSU is great, and we’re likely in big trouble for both games. If Wisconsin is actually a pseudo-fraudulent team that isn’t very good at all, then I like our chances on the 17th. I guess this week’s game in Madison will tell us more about next week’s game as well. Until then – Go Blue!

Sunday, November 4

The Old Gray Mare

Odometer: 12,944
Location: Columbus, OH
States Visited: Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio

From Jacksonville, I made my way north through Georgia. The stretch of I-75 through this section is jammed with billboards as far as the eye can see. The signs quickly become part of the scenery you don’t even notice, thus losing their effectiveness, much like pop-up ads. But there’s room for more – add to the visual pollution! I made my return trip to Erik and Chrissy’s dander palace, where I stayed for four fun-filled nights. The lone lament was that I never found the time to make it to downtown Atlanta. My wonderful hosts kept insisting on showing me the city, but I was busy playing catchup on all kinds of work. Regretfully, we have to leave the Hotlanta tour until next time. Still, it was another great visit highlighted by my cheapest Halloween costume ever - $1.49 hockey mask from CVS. If you like rock music, and I know you do, check out Erik’s band, Life At Sea. They’re excellent, and currently working on a new release.

After successfully evading the many radar guns on The Perimeter, the ten hour drive to Columbus passed without major issue. Ohio State purported to be perhaps my most challenging stop along the way. Growing up, I always viewed Ohio as my second-state. My cousins lived in Cincinnati and my family made two road trips per year to the Queen City. But four years at the University of Michigan shifted my second-state designation and of course altered my attitude towards The Birthplace of Aviation. In the interest of this ongoing project as well as the objectivity required to write my tailgate column for, I resolved to create a game plan that would best serve my needs in Columbus. My initial thought was to lie. I was going to tell people that I graduated from Northern Illinois University, a team they blew out last season, and assume that no one would ask me too many detailed questions. This lie would be told in the interest of ultimate truth. Ironic though that may be, I wanted the people I met to treat me naturally and without any “school up north” prejudice. But after further rumination, I decided it was best to be honest and let the chips fall where they may. I would not wear a blue t-shirt, and I would not go about singing The Victors. But if it came up, so be it. My policy would be “ask and I’ll tell.”

I arrived to the west campus parking lot by around 7:45 in the morning. It was easily the coldest morning I’ve experienced since this trip began. So cold, in fact, that I had to use my window scraper before I could leave the hotel parking lot. Frost covered the nearby fields until the late-arriving sun could do its work. Layers of clothing kept my core warm, but lacking gloves, my fingers quickly went numb. It’s no fun taking notes down with fingers that don’t obey your commands. There are many striking things about Buckeye fans. The most notable is their adoration for Jim Tressel. If he were to walk across the Olentangy, it would come as a surprise to no one in Columbus. Perhaps it was because the John Cooper era was so frustrating that they appreciate him all the more. At any rate, the guy is everyone’s personal hero. Many people referenced the marching band, which surprised me even though I knew it was a point of pride. I’d seen them perform on the road before, but it had been many years, and I don’t remember them leaving much of an impression. They put on quite a show. Because I was up in the press box, I couldn’t hear whether they were actually playing their instruments well or not, but their formations were beyond impressive. At one point they formed a bow and arrow which then shot the arrow through a gigantic W (for Wisconsin, natch). They deserve a lot of credit, even if they are dressed like Lynndie England at a court date. Early in the day, I came across some students who are part of the Block O organization which is basically Ohio State’s pep club. They were totally excited about all things Ohio State. I have to give a special thanks to Courtney, Kathleen, Kyle, and Matt for taking me on a guided walking tour of the campus once the game ended. Nobody has offered that anywhere else I’ve been. You kids were awesome, even if Courtney broke her momma’s heart by choosing Ohio State over Michigan. Speaking of Michigan and my “ask and I’ll tell” policy... It never came up. The only person that asked me about my affiliations was an Arizona fan who married into Buckeye nation. Judge for yourself what that means about Buckeyes – just know that 80% of the people I’ve met this season have asked me, “What’s your team?” I’m proud to say, I did my journalistic best and grinned through the invective gleefully levied upon my beloved alma mater. I didn’t get my ass kicked and didn’t start any trouble. I surely must return for a Michigan game here when I am free to fly my true colors. Lastly, the greatest thing about this weekend was that my friends Scott and Tracy were married. Upon hearing they would be having a fall wedding, I told them that there was pretty much no way I could attend since I would be working every Saturday with my itinerary already mapped out. In an absolutely fantastic stroke of dumb, blind luck, they chose this weekend and this location to tie the knot. All the better I managed to avoid a pummeling by riled up, nutty Buckeyes. Mazal Tov!

Friday, November 2

Harvard Tailgate Report Card up at SIOC

The latest Tailgate Report Card is up at SI On Campus. Check it out here. As always, please feel free to leave comments.

Florida/Georgia report should be up next week.

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