Welcome back to the Three Downs and Punt, the Thank-You-God-The-Games-Have-Finally-Started edition. It's with this spirit in mind that we raise our arms, chant "OOOOOOH!" and kick off this week's plays.
First down: Most underrated rivalries
I'm very excited about a new weekly series that we're launching in this space next week. It's all about rivalries (details in Second down) and I love me a good one, whether it's the Civil War, Border War, Holy War, the War on I-4 or even some games you've never heard of between two Division III schools. As long as it leads to some shouting in the parking lot, I'm in.
In fact, some of the most heated rivalries are the ones that don't receive a lot of national ink. In the region where they're played, they are hotter than the surface of the sun. To the people who wear the colors of the teams involved, their version of the big game is no less intense than Ohio State-Michigan or Texas-Oklahoma, even if it has zero bearing on the national championship or even conference championship races.
So what are America's five most underrated rivalry games? Read ahead. And set your DVRs, because one of them happens this weekend.
The great shame about this game is that it isn't played every year. Their last two meetings -- 2008 and 2010 -- were both decided in overtime, with each team winning at home. Sadly, they won't play again until a 2013 meeting in Raleigh.
The issue these days is scheduling conflicts. The problem not so long ago was that fans became so unruly, school administrators decided to shut it down.
Long forced to live in the shadow of Tobacco Road, ECU has always been the place for players who were spurned by the ACC schools and found a short drive west on US 264. The result is a very large chip on the Pirates' collective shoulder and a lot of pressure to kick big brother in the shins when given a chance. Sure, the folks in Greenville dislike UNC, which they host on Oct. 1 and which they beat in overtime in 2007, but their real venom is reserved for the Wolfpack, who live just 90 minutes away.
After winning at Carter-Finley Stadium in 1987, Pirates fans stormed the field, tore up the turf and tore down the pre-breakaway goalposts, so angry NC State officials suspended the series. ECU got its revenge twice over. In 1992 it won the Peach Bowl with a stunning fourth-quarter comeback. Seven years later, Hurricane Floyd forced ECU to move a home game with No. 9 Miami to Carter-Finley. It upset the Hurricanes and then, naturally, tore down the goalposts.
There isn't a ton of history between these two. They've only met 20 times over the last 70 years. But if you like ridiculously good games, you'll dig this below-the-radar matchup. Their first meeting was in the 1940 Cotton Bowl, which Clemson won 6-3. And they fought to a pair of ties, one each in Fenway Park and Death Valley, SC. That 17-17 standoff at Clemson kicked off a modern era between the two that has resulted in some classics, particularly since BC joined the ACC in 2005.
Since then, five of the six games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including two overtime games, both won by the Eagles. Those two OT wins came during a three-game BC win streak that essentially torpedoed Clemson's ACC title hopes. Clemson returned the favor with a win in Chestnut Hill in 2009.
Since 2008 the winner of the game receives the O'Rourke-McFadden Trophy, a replica of the leather helmets worn by Boston College's Charlie O'Rourke and Clemson's Banks McFadden, who played against each other in the 1940 Cotton Bowl.
After last year's 16-10 Eagles victory, the series is tied at 9-9-2.
To youngsters, the Southwest Classic is still a new concept. Former Razorbacks defensive back and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones invited the teams to help christen his new billion-dollar playground in Arlington, Texas, in 2009. Arkansas trailed 10-0 in the first quarter, but came back to romp over the Aggies 47-19. Jones inked the two schools to a deal that will have them playing for at least a decade, and potentially up to 30 years. (Of course, if A&M moves to the SEC, it will become much easier to schedule.) The Razorbacks lead the series 40-23-3, but the last 11 meetings have been split nearly down the middle, 6-5 in Arkansas's favor.
Us older folks remember a time when the two schools played every year, as in every year from 1934 through 1991, when Arkansas bolted the Southwest Conference for the SEC. In fact, the Razorbacks' final SWC game was a 13-3 win at Kyle Field, during which the team was forced to endure boos and cries of treason.
Army-Navy receives all the hype (as it should; it's still No. 1 on my rivalries list), but the reality is that the Commander-in-Chief's trophy almost always goes to the winner of this military matchup during the first weekend of October. Since the C-in-C trophy was introduced in 1972, the Air Force-Navy winner has clinched the award 29 out of 39 times, including the last 14 seasons. Ten of the last 15 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
The latest stanza of college football's most underappreciated rivalry kicks off Sunday afternoon in Morgantown, W.Va. (3:30, ESPN).
Forget the records. This one's all about malevolence.
The Friends of the Coal Bowl, aka the battle for the Governor's Cup, has been a decidedly one-sided and surprisingly infrequently played game between big brother West Virginia and still-somewhat-new FBS program Marshall. But the two proud programs have dominated their corners of the football-mad state for a century now. It's a relationship that's so tense, they are about to go back into those corners out of nothing but pure spite.
The Mountaineers are a perfect 10-0 in their series with the Thundering Herd, games spread out over exactly a century. Their first game took place in 1911, a 17-15 win for WVU. From there, none of the games were close. West Virginia's margin of victory sat around 30 points per game. That changed last year when the Herd led 21-6 in the fourth quarter at home, before surrendering two 96-plus-yard scoring drives, a game-tying two-point conversion with 12 seconds remaining, and then missing a field goal in overtime to lose 24-21.
Now, West Virginia will host the next two games, which is a huge point of contention in the Mountain State. The series was restarted in 2007, but bad blood still remained from their previous meeting in 1997, Marshall's first game as an FBS school. It was a wild, Randy Moss-led shootout, eventually won by WVU 48-23.
When the two teams sat down to set up their current series and then recently to extend it, tensions escalated to the point that the governor's office had to intervene. Marshall wants a traditional home-and-home alternating-site format. West Virginia prefers the current two-for-one structure. As of right now, the next games in the series will be in Morgantown and then the series ends. WVU athletic director Oliver Luck, a former Mountaineers quarterback, has incensed Marshall loyalists with his repeated insistence that Big East expansion will make resuming the series more difficult. A glance at the school's future schedules shows that WVU's nonconference dance card is indeed full through 2015.
What's more, sports talk radio and message boards have crackled all year with the gossip that both embarrassed incoming offensive coordinator-turned-new head coach Dana Holgorsen and eventually ousted now-former head coach Bill Stewart -- and that had its roots in the Huntington area.
Now that's a rivalry. That's why I'll be watching Sunday. And that's why we're starting this ...
Second down: Introducing State of the Rivalry
Next week we're rolling out a new weekly feature in this space, State of the Rivalry, where we'll break down every angle of the biggest, nastiest, mud-slingingest grudge match of the upcoming weekend. I'll also highlight some honorable mentions, the rivalry games that might fly under the radar nationally. While I salivate over the Iron Bowl and Army-Navy as much as the next guy, I also love me some East Carolina-NC State and the greatest rivalry title of them all, the Battle for the Paddle (Nicholls State at Texas State, Oct. 1 -- write it down).
So as the year rolls on, feel free to email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or hit me up on Twitter and sell me on your favorite rivalry as it approaches and why it should stand proudly alongside the Civil War and the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
Third down: Another reason to love Coach Grobe
Last week I gave you an awesome quote from Wake Forest's uber-old-school head coach Jim Grobe about players being a little too soft during full-contact practice. This week I give you this photo, posted on the Demon Deacons' official football Twitter account Wednesday as the team boarded the plane for Syracuse. That's Grobe down in the pit grabbing bags and helping load them onto the plane. Awesome.
It still wasn't enough for the Deacons on Thursday night, however, as they lost in overtime to Syracuse.
Punt: Bringing 110 percent ... of football cliches
Hopefully over the last few weeks we've done enough to get you totally ready for the start of the season. But here's one last piece of prep work, a video to get your mind right for a college football tradition that will resume after the final seconds tick off the clock of every Week 1 game -- meaningless, repetitive postgame news conferences.