Ahhhh, September. The kids go back to school, the temperature starts to cool and Christmas decorations start to show up in stores. That’s when you know it’s football season! Sure, some games kicked off last week, but the “official” start of the CFB season is reserved for the Labor Day Weekend!
While baseball season amps up meaningful games and the NFL is sorting through the rosters to make their cuts, the spotlight is really on those 18-22-year-olds on college campuses around the nation.
The vast majority of teams in the Power 5 Conferences (Big Ten, Pac12, Big 12, SEC and ACC), will host lesser opponents (G5 & FCS) in the unofficial “preseason” of college football, while a few others will challenge similarly talented schools in an effort to boost their resumes for when the evaluation of playoff contenders occurs. Early in the season, for every Auburn vs Washington (P5 vs P5) there are five Georgia vs Austin Peays (P5 vs FCS). In fact, after just one week of college football, there were 44 games between FBS teams (P5 & G5) vs FCS alone – and only 10 P5 vs P5 games.
Let’s not forget though… every once in a while, the Austin Peays of the world pull of the improbable. Many point to Appalachian State’s epic upset of Michigan in Week 1 of the 2007 season. Back then, App State was a lowly FCS school, that was invited to Ann Arbor for a beat down in exchange for a $400k payday in return. Little did Michigan know, that wasn’t the plan for the Mountaineers. Ever since that blocked kick to end the game, everyone remembers App State.
So, when the Mountaineers, now a Sun Belt Conference member and winner of three consecutive bowls games entered Beaver Stadium, why would anyone take them lightly, even as a 23 point underdog? The over-achievers from Boone weren’t overwhelmed by over 105,000 fans. They played their hearts out and almost pulled off yet another upset. Sure, not as epic as an FCS team beating a Power 5 team like their early victory over the Wolverines, but still just as shocking. Thankfully, Penn State salvaged the victory and moved to 1-0 on the year, setting up an intriguing matchup in Pittsburgh next week.
Others didn’t fare as well. This weekend saw four more FCS teams taking down their big brother opponent with UC Davis beating San Jose State 44-38, Northern Arizona beating UTEP 30-10, Villanova beating Temple 19-17 and the best of them all, Nicholls upsetting Power 5 Kansas 26-23.
Still, in a fog from the OT win, we headed out to Sun Devil Stadium for ASU’s home opener against the University of Texas-San Antonio for our official season kickoff.
Tailgating in Tempe is VERY different from Happy Valley, but to be fair, tailgating in Happy Valley is at one end of the spectrum and tailgating in the Pac12 is at the other end – so it’s not just ASU. For starters, temperatures at kickoff for early season night games in Tempe hover around 100 normally.
Couple that with a “downtown” style campus and stadium and your parking options are limited – and don’t even think about grass. That’s a deadly combination for any true tailgate fan. Sure, you can make due with what you’ve got – and if that’s all you know, it’s probably great. But once you’ve experienced tailgating at the likes of Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State or Alabama, your perspective changes.
We opted to sit outside at Postino, a bar that had cover and misters to keep you cool. Sure, it’s not the burgers, brats and dogs normally served pregame, but one of their incredible bruschetta boards was all we needed. Well, that and some of Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Pilsner – appropriately named to celebrate Penn State’s win.
The best thing about pregame at Postino’s is the short, one block walk to the stadium – a welcome distance given the temperature.
ASU has put a ton of money into improving Sun Devil Stadium – over a 3-year span. It’s hard to believe this venue was home of the Arizona Cardinals – and hosted a Super Bowl. They still have a ways to go to make it more comfortable for the fans, but it’s getting there. By reducing the seating from over 71,000 to 55,000, they are not only making it more comfortable, but it’s a better look when the stadium is full. Clearly, Texas-San Antonio in August (essentially) is not the best barometer for attendance.
One change we noticed on our way to seats was that they removed the ramps to get to the upper levels and replaced them with steps. This trek is not easy, especially in 100-degree heat. Opt for the elevators.
They added another beer garden to the east side, which means beer and wine are now available throughout the stadium, with the exception of the student section – ’cause you know the students won’t realize it’s being sold elsewhere.
A generous donor provided the funding for a new pitchfork sculpture placed outside the stadium as a picture spot. His grandfather played for the Devils back in the late 1880s. Couple that with the Pat Tillman statue outside the tunnel where the players enter and you can see traditions-in-the-making. I hope someone’s on guard at the pitchfork during the Territorial Cup week.
I will say, the students showed up early! Another welcomed change was reuniting all of the students in the south endzone – whereas last year, someone had the brilliant idea to put half of them in the north with the band. Tonight, the band and some students sat in the north, while the vast majority were in the south.
After climbing the stairs to the upper deck, we took our seats on the rail at the 45-yard line. I really prefer being in these seats as opposed to anywhere else in the stadium. You have an unobstructed view (except for the usher) of the entire field and you have the benefit of depth perception as well. And for $20 on SeatGeek, you can’t beat it. The photo below doesn’t properly capture the distance to the field – it’s much closer. Also pictured is the stunning video board above the north endzone for highlights and live game action. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen in college football – except when they do video replays to review calls and half of the board is an ad for a law firm. That’s when you’d want to see the bigger picture. Sigh…
Before long, it was kickoff and the opening of the season in Tempe!
But that’s about where the compliments end.
The in-game experience is lackluster at best. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but the combination of heat, opponent, metal bench seating, empty seats and overall general lack of tradition really make watching a game here somewhat boring – and almost painful.
They seem to rely too heavily on the normal video board antics of KissCam, MuscleCam, SnapChat Cam and every other type Cam to entertain during commercial breaks. At one point, I thought an episode of the Bachelor broke out. They had a far too long video of former Devil Mike Bercovici and his fiancee – showing how he proposed on the field. The feature is known as “Our Sun Devil Story”. I’ve seen it before, and quite frankly, it’s awful.
Of course, they have Sparky doing pushups and recognition of Veterans, Teachers, and Staff, but there’s just no buzz. Something’s missing.
The one feature I love is when the booming voice comes over the speakers with the chant of “Go Devils, Go!”. After investigating it, I learned that there was a fan from back in the 80s that used to blare this from his lungs at football and baseball games. Ernie Stewart has since passed away, but a couple of years ago, they found a former Sun Devil athlete turned opera singer to recreate the sound and now they have a recording they use.
As for the game, the Devils manhandled the Conference USA Roadrunners to the point of 28-0 at the half. It was then we called it night. We made our way down the stairs and out, along with thousands of others. Either they didn’t realize ASU enacted a no re-entry policy or they were like us. Too much heat, not enough sizzle.
ASU continued to dominate, finishing up with a convincing 49-7 win in Herm Edwards debut as the new Head Coach. Now, if he can only do something about the damned weather.
Go, Devils, Go!