The more things change in college football, the more Thanksgiving weekend remains the best the sport has to offer.
Every Saturday until now brings playoff feel for teams striving for the postseason. Only in college football could a high-stakes battle emerge from a clash of 5-6 teams, which is the case in Blacksburg, Va., where Virginia Tech plays host to Virginia.
College football opens with a five-day extravaganza over Labor Day, powers through the most meaningful regular season on the sports landscape, and this year for the first time will provide a four-team playoff to determine its champion.
At those moments, college football looks and acts like a national game.
Over this holiday it returns to its roots with regional clashes that formed the sport’s foundation.
Pick a state or a state border and you’ll likely find an encounter that connects generations and means everything to a fan base. A game with such importance to a school that it can cost the job for a coach who finds success on the rest of the schedule but fails on this weekend. Reference, Cooper, John, Ohio State.
The passion that fuels college football runs deepest this weekend. These are the games where opponents are derided as snobs or little brothers, and those are the gentler insults.
A few of the traditional season-ending rivalries have risen to national status. The Iron Bowl winner between Auburn and Alabama has played for the national championship each of the last five years, and the Crimson Tide finds itself in that position this year.
Michigan-Ohio State, perhaps the most enduring of bitter rivals, moved to a post-Thanksgiving spot in 2009 and maintains its wide appeal.
Some of the longest running season-ending battles with the best nicknames are based in the South. The Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate game matches Georgia and Georgia Tech, with both teams ranked and a chance to be conference division winners this season.
National championship implications are on the line for Mississippi State in its Egg Bowl encounter at Mississippi.
This week, South Carolina and Clemson officially dubbed their game “The Palmetto Bowl,” and Florida will attempt to derail Florida State’s hopes of repeating as national champion in a game that promoters have dubbed the “Sunshine Showdown.”
Arizona and Arizona State meet in the Duel in the Desert with a shot at the Pac-12 South title, and the winner receives the Territorial Cup, first presented on Thanksgiving Day, 1899, 13 years before Arizona was granted statehood. It’s the oldest trophy for a regular-season winner in college football.
The Apple Cup (Washington-Washington State) and The Civil War (Oregon-Oregon State) are this weekend and Bedlam (Oklahoma-Oklahoma State) returns to this weekend next season.
The Bayou Classic on Saturday in New Orleans between Grambling State and Southern University is so important to the historically black schools that their best teams have passed on the opportunity to play in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) playoffs that open on the same weekend.
The business of college football has impacted rivalries over the past few years. Because they no longer share a conference, the Border War between Kansas and Missouri, the Backyard Brawl (West Virginia-Pittsburgh) and Texas-Texas A&M are among those that have come to a halt.
But Mizzou and Arkansas have already come up with a name — Battle Line Rivalry — for a series that starts Friday as conference members. And the Kansas State-Kansas rivalry has found a home on this weekend.
College football after November is about championship clashes at neural sites, conference title games next week, and bowls and the playoff beyond. Television ratings will mean more than atmosphere.
Not this weekend. Over Thanksgiving, games are played on campus, between rivals, for bragging rights. College football started with this. These games are the sports’ heart and soul, their essence, and for that fans should give thanks.