One reason Americans are so enraptured by football is the fleeting nature of the game.
It moves in with a blaze of fire and glory at the end of summer, only to burn out in a few short months during the darkest days of the year. High school football, the backbone of the American sporting landscape, comes and goes in three wonderful months. College ball also gives us just three short months, before fading out amid a slow, simmering, colorful potpourri of bowl games, all but one of which these days are mere exhibitions, played mostly for inter-regional bragging rights. The NFL gives us five good solid months. But with a total of just 267 games (including playoffs), NFL football is as fleeting as a Green Bay harvest season on the sporting calendar.
Baseball is interminable. The proverbial "boys of summer" begin "spring" training in the middle of winter and play halfway into autumn. Hockey and basketball each give us 80-plus games, few of which ever register in any meaningful way in the national landscape. NASCAR is widely proclaimed as the fastest growing sport in America. It certainly shares one thing with football: weekends are a hub-bub of activity, interrupted by weekdays of neglect, and longing for its fans. But NASCAR kicks off in February, not to end until 10 months later in November.
Football stands alone in its brevity, in its cultural relevance and in the passions these briefs weekends of colorful activity incite. And if you're ever looking for a weekend that captures the essential, passionate Americanism of the great national game, this weekend provides it.
You'd have to search long and hard and far and deep into the history books to find a weekend filled by so many important games. Here's an overview of the games that will have the Cold, Hard Football Facts crew glued to the tube for a good 30-plus hours of football over the next few days.
Green Bay (10-1) vs. Dallas (10-1)
Army (3-8) vs. Navy (7-4), noon
The 108th meeting between the nation's great military academies moves this year from its usual home in Philadelphia to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Must-see TV for any true football fan – those who loves the pomp, pageantry and circumstance of the grand old game. In the Cold, Hard Football Facts world headquarters, this is mandatory watching each year. Beyond just the game are the great traditions that surround the game, both at the academies and, this year, in Baltimore Harbor, which in celebration of the game will be filled with more military hardware than Omaha Beach
Virginia Tech (10-2) vs. Boston College (10-2), ACC championship, 1 p.m.
The Atlantic Coast Conference's division champs meet in a neutral site (Jacksonville) rematch of their dramatic, nationally televised barnburner in Blacksburg earlier this year. In that game, BC quarterback Matt Ryan inserted himself into the Heisman race by throwing two TDs in the final minutes to lead an improbable 14-10 victory.
Tennessee (9-3) vs. LSU (10-2), SEC championship, 4 p.m.
Let's just lay out for all to see and agree with: the Southeastern Conference, year after year, plays the best football in the NCAA. The toughest teams. The biggest stadiums. The most hardcore fans. The best talent. NFL rosters are littered with SEC players. The Georgia Dome, as every SEC arena is game after game, will be rocking from the rafters. The better part is this: these SEC powers did not meet in the regular season, so this will be our first chance to see the LSU Tigers vs. the Tennessee Volunters. The best part is this: the SEC is so good that No. 4-ranked 10-2 Georgia, who didn't even make the conference title game and was smoked 35-14 by Tennessee earlier this year, is probably the best team in the conference.
UCLA (6-5) USC (9-2), 4:30 p.m.
One of the great, star-studded glamour games in all of football, whether its played at the beautiful Rose Bowl in Pasadena or, this year, across town at the grandiose L.A. Coliseum. The USC Trojans can win their sixth straight Pac-10 championship and set themselves up for a short bus ride to UCLA's home stomping grounds for an appearance in the Granddaddy of 'Em All, the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. The Bruins can play home for the holidays with a win over USC and a loss by Arizona State later in the day. The Trojans have plenty to prove: last year UCLA ruining USC's national title hopes with a shocking 13-9 win in Pasadena.
Oregon State (7-4) Oregon (8-3), 4:30 p.m.
The 111th revival of "The Civil War" lost some of its luster when Oregon lost top Heisman Trophy candidate QB Dennis Dixon two weeks ago. The Ducks offense has gone into a slump since under the leadership of Brady Leaf, Ryan's little brother. The one-loss, championship-bound Ducks then lost to Arizona before being shutout, 16-0, last week by UCLA. It shouldn't dampen the enthusiasm or entertainment value of the longest-running rivalry on the West Coast.
California (6-5) vs. Stanford (3-8), 7 p.m.
Cal-Stanford has been "The Big Game" in the Bay Area for 100 years. This year, it features an exciting Cal team that was an early national title contender and a Stanford team coached by former NFL QB Jim Harbaugh that shocked 42-point favorite USC earlier this year. It became a big game nationally 25 years ago, when John Elway led Stanford to a miraculous comeback victory, only to watch it disappear with "the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football." In recent years, The Big Game was moved to championship weekend in recognition of its national appeal, even if the game rarely has national title implications.
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Pittsburgh (4-7) vs. West Virginia (10-1), 7:45 p.m.
The "Backyard Brawl" is always big news in West Virginia and Western PA. The 100th meeting, this year in Morgantown, boasts bigger-than-usual hype: The struggling Panthers are the only thing standing between the No. 2-ranked Mountaineers and a spot in the national title game.
Oklahoma (10-2) vs. Missouri (11-1), Big 12 championship, 8 p.m.
Missouri enters the Big 12 championship in San Antonio as the No. 1 team in the nation – and underdogs! Mizzou's lone loss this year was a 10-point defeat in Norman, Oklahoma back on Oct. 13. The Sooners, for their part, are essentially out of the national title picture, following a shocking early-season loss at Colorado and a defeat two weeks ago at Texas Tech. But this game could not be bigger: If Missouri wins, they move on to the BCS national championship game in January.
Washington (4-8) vs. Hawaii (11-0), 11:30 p.m.
The Saturday night-cap features the only undefeated Division 1A (or Bowl Subdivision) team in the nation, Hawaii, not to mention the most explosive quarterback in the nation, Colt Brennan. Thanks to an incredibly weak schedule, the unbeaten Warriors have no shot at playing for the national title. But this will be your one of your last chances to see Brennan, likely to be a top QB taken in the 2008 NFL draft, in action. He's passed for 3,732 yards and 33 TDs this season, while completing 69.9 percent of his passes. Last year, he passed for 5,549 yards, 72.6 percent completions and 58 TDs. He holds the NCAA record for career TD passes, with 126.
Jacksonville (8-3) vs. Indy (9-2), Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Jaguars have been trying to claw their way above Indy for years now. They'll have their best chance yet Sunday. With a win by Jacksonville, the two teams will be locked in a first-place battle for the AFC South title and, perhaps, for first-round playoff bye.
N.Y. Giants (7-4) vs. Chicago (5-6), Sunday, 4:15 p.m.
This is the Real-Fraud game. The Giants, the Bears and their respective quarterbacks each have a chance to prove whether they're real playoff contenders, or whether they're frauds posing as real NFL football teams. The Bears are basically done if they lose, still breathing if they win. The Giants fall to 7-5 if they lose and noise about the traditional Tom Coughlin second-half swoon will grow only louder.
Cincinnati (4-7) vs. Pittsburgh (8-3), Sunday, 8:15 p.m.
This may not be the glamour game it had the potential for at the start of the season. But every game from here on out is a must-win game for the Steelers, as they attempt to keep pace with Indy and Jacksonville in the battle for a first-round bye. And with a game looming against New England, the stakes are even higher for Pittsburgh. Sunday night, we get to watch them stomp on a down-and-out divisional rival in a true grudge match.
New England (11-0) vs. Baltimore (4-7), Monday, 8:30 p.m.
On paper, another blowout. Even Vegas agrees, installing New England once again as a ridiculous three-touchdown favorite. But this is worth watching, for either one of the outcomes will be highly entertaining. Either the machine-like Patriots offense will rebound from last week's near loss and surgically dissect the once-proud Ravens defense; or Ray Lewis & Co. will channel the ghosts of 2000 and stifle the most prolific offense in history. One way or the other, you better enjoy it. The following Monday gives us New Orleans-Atlanta.
Also receiving votes:
Fresno State (7-4) vs. New Mexico State (4-8), 8 p.m.
O.K., it's not much. But it is background football while you're out at your Friday night holiday swinger's party. We'll be home all by ourselves, watching the game.
Miami of Ohio (6-6) vs. Central Michigan (7-5), MAC championship, 11 a.m. Saturday
The championship game of the MAC at Ford Field in Detroit. The best we can say is that this is the conference that gave us Ben Roethlisberger.
Tulsa (9-3) vs. Central Florida (9-3), Conference USA championship, noon Saturday
We, like you, will be deeply engrossed in Army-Navy and Virginia Tech-BC. But if you need to exercise the remote hand, this will give you the opportunity.