Every team is a champion on opening day. Stadiums fill because anything is possible and optimism soars. Arkansas fans have been anxious for a breakthrough. Early stumbles have sullied recent hopeful seasons, and so few were looking past Louisiana Tech. Tailgating crowded the circumference of Razorback Stadium, eager for a fresh slate of games ahead, but from the first “Woo Pig Sooie,” it was evident that the Razorbacks would be in a fight in Fayetteville. Bret Bielema has brought a bullish brand of ball to Arkansas, and have successfully taken a bite out of the SEC. But, championships appear elusive at the moment, particularly when it’s a struggle to strike down LA Tech with ease.
“We are Marshall.” This is more than just a school motto. It extends beyond a mere battle cry. “We Are Marshall” is the spirit and unity of this university. These three words forged a strong bond during the aftermath of the plane crash that took the lives of the 1970 Marshall football team. From this tragic event, the Thundering Herd have rebuilt a program that could have easily vanished, and moreover, it rebuilt the hearts and minds of the Marshall faithful. It’s a story that has inspired the entire athletic world. Walking around campus, evidence of this fateful moment appears in the form of tributes honoring those Sons of Marshall that were lost. It’s a devastating, but significant component of Marshall’s history, and these tributes urge fans to never forget.
Arriving in Huntington, West Virginia for gameday was a welcome sight after driving through an entire landscape of Kentucky nothingness. Homecoming festivities filled the adorable downtown space adjacent to Pullman Square – an area complete with little shops and eateries that somewhat resembled the quaintness of a movie set. The dreary clouds and slow drizzle hardly dented the enthusiasm for another Marshall gameday – especially with the team boasting an undefeated record.
Visiting Western Kentucky raises several questions: What exactly is a Hilltopper? What is the significance of the wild red towels waving around campus? What on Earth is that big floppy red mascot? A visit to Bowling Green on a frenzied gameday will help to answer these questions, and more. Upon arrival to campus you may notice a that it rests on a large hill that rises above it’s surroundings. With Western being atop this 232 foot hill, Hilltoppers became a natural choice. Finding a mascot to depict a Hilltopper posed a greater challenge. In 1979, WKU grad Ralph Carey, created Big Red as a symbol of spirit for the university. Bearing a striking resemblance to many Sesame Street characters and Grimace from McDonalds, Big Red is a big furry loveable blob that has gained national attention and fame. Getting a photo with this mascot is a true honor.
Anticipation flooded the Western Kentucky campus for tonight’s matchup. A record crowd showed up for one of the biggest games to ever take place in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Hilltoppers’ battle versus Southern Miss put rumps in the seats not only because of the name recognition that the Golden Eagles bring to Houchens Smith Stadium, but also because Western is coming off a monumental upset of their instate rival Kentucky. T-shirts documenting the 32-31 upset could already be-spotted all over campus.
Throngs of fans congested the walkway from the team buses to the stadium as they glued their eyes to the band, mascot, and Hilltopper team strolling their way to the stadium. Stunned by the overwhelming amount of fan support for this matchup, one man exclaimed, “This is the most crowded I’ve ever seen Western! This is crazy man!” What can be defined as crazy or crowded is truly relative. WKU’s website urged fans to come early to avoid traffic and secure a parking spot, but the level of activity seemed no different than most campuses on gameday. However, sellout crowds and massive pregame hype are not the norm in these parts yet, so the university is erring more on the side of caution.
There really was no need for worry as all the festivities flowed smoothly. Fans herded toward the stadium to watch the pregame honoring of Jack Harbaugh, former WKU head coach. Coach Harbaugh and his wife, Jackie, had the stadium club named after them during the ceremony and Jack looked up proudly at the jumbotron as his two NFL coaching sons, John and Jim, praised their father for his outstanding achievements at Western. All the excitement that preceded kickoff made this night one of the greatest in Hilltoppers football lore. The outcome of the game would only add to the good memories. With fireworks blasting and red towels waving, Western Kentucky never let up and gave Southern Miss more than they could handle. Score after score piled up, and the Golden Eagles could only wish the clock could have mercy on them. An impressive 42-17 victory by Western poured more respect into the Sun Belt conference, and gave the Hilltoppers back to back marquee wins. After big wins by Western and fellow conference member, Louisiana Monroe (over Arkansas), the new phrase “Fear the Belt” began to spread. For Western Kentucky, a team still brand new to the FBS level, their stock has risen and a new energy has topped the hills in Bowling Green.
The last time we visited Northwestern, they were struggling to finish off Penn State and lost a tough game at home. Three weeks later, the Wildcats have put together two straight wins including last week’s stunning upset at #10 Nebraska. Funny thing- It always seems like every year, Northwestern loses to someone they have no business losing to (this year, Army) and defeating a team they have no business beating (this year, Nebraska). Now, Rice comes in having to confront these confident Cats.
West Virginia football had lost some of it’s spark over the past couple years. Former coach, Rich Rodriguez had lofted expectations in Morgantown and the hope was that new coach and offensive wizard, Dana Holgorsen, would put the Mountaineers back in the spotlight. The Marshall game was his debut and the West Virginia offense opened with a three and out followed by an 87 yard punt return TD by Marshall. It didn’t exactly showcase the fruits of his labor. But highly touted Geno Smith quarterbacked his way back into the hearts of mountaineer fans as he led his team on several scoring drives.
Compared to the surroundings of their hated rival, Houston, the campus of Rice is like a little slice of “Oz,” and Owl fans know it. It’s a twelve minute drive from UH to Rice and the scenery changes from boarded up houses to old southern style oak tree lined streets.
Rice is an outstanding academic institution that tends to seem out of focus when it comes to their football program. Despite some recent bowl success, the Owls appeared doomed to roost among the average in Conference USA. Further evidence of this came on this night when Baylor came to town. Of the mere 23,000 fans that showed up, around half displayed green and yellow in support of their Bears. Rice fans were not very vocal. However, their team did not provide them with much to exercise their vocal cords. In fact, the only thing that appeared to stop the Baylor offense was a lightning delay early in the second quarter.
Just forty five minutes south of Nashville lies Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This is not the type of town that will be found in bold print on a map, but the passion for their Blue Raiders is well highlighted. Middle Tennessee State’s campus pops up in the middle of this sleepy town with the stadium being the focal point, as many southern schools are. Being in the Sun Belt, one might expect to find a dinky stadium that seats only a few willing fans. However, this double decker stadium is the only one of its kind in the conference and holds a congregation of very involved fans.