In her award-winning book "H Is for Hawk," Helen Macdonald tells the story of training a vicious predator after her father's death.
When I was 7th grader in Durham, North Carolina, I had a teacher named Mrs. Crawford. She was a North Carolina fan. I rooted for Duke. The two universities are less than 10 miles apart. I think my rooting interest might have affected my grade.
That’s a joke but not too far from the truth. These college football rivalries are pretty serious stuff.
As my friend John Bacon, author of “Fourth And Long: The Fight For The Soul Of College Football,” reminds me, “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” is how folks describe the annual game between Georgia and Georgia Tech. Those two old friends meet for the 107th time on Saturday.
And to the winners of these rivalry games go the spoils. College football rivals play for at least seven bells, four buckets and two spittoons. There are also beer barrels and bourbon buckets at stake.
“This is probably the biggest Alabama-Auburn tilt since 1971 when both teams were undefeated and ranked in the top five.”
Saturday afternoon, the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels will tangle for the 100th time. And this fall I might just have the edge on Mrs. Crawford, if she’s still cheering for the Carolina blue. Duke is on the cusp of its first 10-win season in school history and a victory would lift the Blue Devils into the ACC Championship Game. The winner of the annual Duke-North Carolina game receives one of those bells, the Victory Bell.
Rivalry weekend actually started Thursday night with the 110th edition of the Egg Bowl between Mississippi State and Mississippi. The winner of that tussle receives a trophy that is supposed to be shaped like a football but it looks a little bit more like an egg, hence the name. Whatever it looks like, the Bulldogs of MSU will keep it for the next year. They edged the Ole Miss Rebels 17-10 in overtime in Starkville, Mississippi.
In the Northwest part of the country on Friday, there are a couple of major rivalry games. Washington State plays Washington in the 106th Apple Cup game and Oregon State tangles with Oregon in Eugene. The Beavers and the Ducks are playing each other for the 119th time in a what is know simply as the Civil War. So far, Oregon holds the edge in that war, 60 wins to 48. There have been 10 ties.
After my family moved from North Carolina to Illinois, I became acquainted with the most storied rival in the Big Ten Conference. And it’s not the game between the university that was kind enough to eventually graduate me (Illinois) and the school my more academically-gifted sister excelled at (Purdue). It’s actually the game between Ohio State and Michigan tomorrow in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes and the Wolverines are meeting for the 110th time. Ohio State is the clear favorite.
The Buckeyes are undefeated (11-0), the Wolverines 7-4. But as the cliche goes, throw out the record books when these teams collide.
I wonder where all those record books end up?
The rivalry game of the weekend that carries the biggest implications pits Auburn against Alabama. The Tigers and the Tide are playing in the 78th edition of the Iron Bowl, so-called because the traditional site of the game, Birmingham, had historic ties to the steel industry. It wasn’t until 1989 that the folks at Auburn convinced the folks at Alabama that the game should be played, at least sometimes, on the Tigers’ home turf. So tomorrow, the Iron Bowl will be played in Auburn, Alabama. And this one is about way more than bragging rights.
Alabama is the top team in the nation. Auburn is ranked 4th or 5th depending on the poll you watch. The winner of this game gets a berth in the Southeastern Conference title game but for the Crimson Tide of Alabama, a victory keeps them on track for a third straight national title. This is probably the biggest Alabama-Auburn tilt since 1971 when both teams were undefeated and ranked in the top five. Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan collected the Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in America that season, but Alabama didn’t seem to notice. The Tide rolled over the Tigers 31-7.
If memory serves me, one of the things we had to do in Mrs. Crawford’s class was memorize the names of all the counties in North Carolina. There are 100 of them. Somehow, I did it — placed them correctly on the map.
If I was still a 7th grader, I could imagine her asking me to do it again if Duke wins Saturday.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. So now that Thanksgiving's done, it's time for college football. Rivalry weekend started last night in Starkville, Mississippi, when the Mississippi State Bulldogs played the Rebels of the University of Mississippi for the 110th time. The Bulldogs won 17-10 in overtime on this touchdown by quarterback Dak Prescott.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Dak Prescott, Prescott, forget about it, touchdown Mississippi State.
CHAKRABARTI: The annual Mississippi-Mississippi State game is called the Egg Bowl because the winner receives a football-shaped trophy that looks a little bit like an egg. Joining us now with more on college football this weekend is John Bacon, he's author of "Fourth And Long: The Fight For The Soul Of College Football." He joins us from the studios of Michigan Radio. John, welcome back, and happy belated Thanksgiving.
JOHN BACON: Meghna, thank you very much, always a pleasure.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, John, let's talk about all the rivalries that are happening in the next couple of days. What's special about them?
BACON: Oh, what's special about them to me is that no sport has got rivalries like college football has got rivalries. These things go back a century plus. They're based on college campuses. Michigan and Ohio State are not going to move to Nashville for a better stadium. So these things deal with cultures, with state rivalries and so on. They go back, like I said, a long time.
These include, by the way, 102 trophies, Meghna, including seven bells, four buckets, two spittoons, beer barrels, bourbon buckets, peace pipes and yes, even a shot glass. I don't know how you put the winner on a shot glass, but that's for them to deal with, of course.
BACON: One of my all-time favorites is between Montana and Montana State. This has to be the most testosterone-y bowl of all time called The Brawl in the Wild. And yes, Meghna, they play for what? An oil painting. So go figure on that one. We won the oil painting. Put it over the couch.
CHAKRABARTI: It doesn't really seem very footbally to me, if I can say that.
BACON: I agree with this.
CHAKRABARTI: I see - from your book I see that you've also pointed out that for example Georgia and Georgia Tech play in an annual game whose official title is Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
BACON: Yes indeed, and I do believe, Meghna, they mean it. So you've got to love this stuff. Look, between the Lions and the Bears, for example, obviously the NFL is a huge deal, but these guys don't even know each other. They didn't pick their teams. They didn't - there are no values associated with the Bears versus the Lions, I don't think.
So in this case, of course, you pick your teams. So you pick Georgia Tech versus Georgia with a clear conscience, obviously. So you know what you're doing. And that's why these things are fueled very greatly with this passion. Between Michigan and Ohio State, for example, any high school player who leaves the state of Ohio to go to Ann Arbor to play for Michigan knows that is a one-way street. So you are not going back the same way.
So these things are fueled very much by passions that are self-selecting.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we're going to talk about Michigan in just a minute, but I'm seeing that Georgia and Georgia Tech are going to meet for the 107th time on Saturday. So, I mean, these rivalries are longstanding. The passions are authentic. And I mean, has commercialism worked their way into these genuine games that go back, you know, a century?
BACON: It's trying to, obviously, and it does get there occasionally, but the beauty part is the brown jug between Michigan and Minnesota, the - Tulane and LSU play for, I am not kidding, Meghna, the rag. I think that happened because they forgot to have an actual trophy, and here's a rag, congratulations.
But you really can't get to the rivalries because those predate all of this stuff. The bowls have been infected, obviously, but the rivalries are probably the last real stand for the purity of the passions of college football.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so let's talk about the big rivalry game that's going to happen this weekend. It's tomorrow afternoon. Alabama, the number one team in the nation, playing number five Auburn. So the game's going to be played at Auburn. How do you see it shaping up?
BACON: You've got to figure Alabama is the team to beat here, no question about it, but you've also got to figure, too, that they're playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. Auburn is the number five team in the country. They've only got one loss to LSU. If they win that game, they've actually got a shot at a national title. I'm still picking Alabama. They've got a machine down there. If they win, they're on their way to their third consecutive national title. That's not been done since Fielding Yost in 1904 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
So that would go as one of the all-time great achievements.
CHAKRABARTI: Now it's going to be the 78th Iron Bowl. Since we were talking about crazy trophies, why is this one called the Iron Bowl?
BACON: This one is commercial, Meghna, it's not organic. It's called the Iron Bowl because the game used to be played in Birmingham, Alabama, neutral territory between, of course, Auburn and Alabama. And Birmingham has a big role in the steel and iron industry. So there is your Iron Bowl. And these guys did not play between 1908 and 1947, the passions were so intense.
They started playing again in '48 because the governor and the legislature insisted on it, basically. It did not become the Iron Bowl until 1980, and Bear Bryant, God bless him, used to call it the brag bowl because that's what you're really playing for.
CHAKRABARTI: We did mention Michigan, and I know you're a Michigan guy. So let's talk about the Wolverines and their game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State is ranked number three. Michigan isn't ranked. But does that really matter, the rankings, when it comes to predicting who's going to win a rivalry game?
BACON: Well, we're not dumb here in Ann Arbor, of course. There are two touchdown underdogs, Michigan is, against Ohio State, even though it's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, of course. This team at Ohio State has not lost a game since Urban Meyer took over in 2012. They are now 23 and O under him, and he took over a team that was six and seven. So that's a pretty sterling achievement right there.
You never know what's going to happen in this game, and we do say throughout the records I'm not quite that blind, but if Michigan does get into the game, they've got a shot.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so let's talk about another team, Florida State. They've been right behind Alabama in the rankings for most of the season, and for true blue college fans, having a one-two matchup I think is the thing that people would most like to see. But there's a cloud hanging over the Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. Tell us a little bit about that.
BACON: Yes, famous Jameis Winston of course. He's the quarterback, star quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate, might be the leading candidate, but here's a catch. He is under investigation for sexual assault with a Florida State female student December 7 of 2012. This has obviously been dragging on for some time.
And that's - the problem is you don't know how to handle this. He's not been charged yet even, innocent until proven guilty, and yet you cannot deny the fact that this is clearly an ugly situation potentially. The flipside is State Attorney Willie Meggs is 70 years old. This is his last term. And he has not been afraid to tangle with Florida State in the past.
So he might well do what's right, whatever right might be, and make unpopular calls on either side of this. But the problem is we're not sure when or if he's going to be charged with this crime.
CHAKRABARTI: And Winston is a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy, right?
BACON: That is correct, and here is the other trick is that the Heisman Trophy voters, they're not a jury. So the last thing college football needs right now is another bruise on its reputation, and if you award a trophy to a guy who is subsequently going to prison, that is obviously not a grand situation.
So my strong hunch is here just the specter of this is going to be enough to probably knock him off the pedestal as the Heisman Trophy favorite.
CHAKRABARTI: Now in the last couple seconds, we have, John, we did already talk about Michigan and Ohio State, and I know you're going to be focused on that game. But is there any other matchup in sort of big time or small time around the country that you think we ought to be paying attention to?
BACON: The most fun one left, Meghna, is number 24 Duke, that's right Duke football, not basketball, versus UNC. They have lost 19 of the last 21 contests against UNC, and they're not even favored in this one even though they're ranked. If they win that game, it is the first 10-win season ever for Duke football.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, that's John Bacon. His latest book is "Fourth and Long: The Fight For The Soul Of College Football." John, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
BACON: Meghna, thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we know football is taken very seriously by a lot of people in this country. So what teams are you rooting for on this rivalry weekend? Let us know at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.