You may have heard that there’s a little tackle football game happening this weekend in the middle of a race track. And, if you don’t know that Virginia Tech is facing Tennessee in a field constructed in the middle of the Bristol Motor Speedway you have either been in a coma for 3 years, or you live in China.
Since the Battle of Bristol was announced on October 14, 2013, the Bristol Motor Speedway has had a large digital clock outside of the race track counting down to what they call “College Football’s Biggest Game.” Presumably that clock is down to one day and a few hours this morning and thank God for that. I’m tired of hearing about it so let’s just play it.
To say this game has been overhyped is an understatement. It’s appeared on both the Va. Tech and Tennessee athletic websites since it was announced. It’s a Regular Season College Football game that has no bearing on either team’s ability to win a respective conference championship. It has it’s own title sponsor in the Knoxville based Pilot Flying J. That’s only appropriate since Pilot – long before merging with Flying J – began with a single gas station on a corner in Gate City, Virginia which is literally right across the Virginia-Tennessee border from Kingsport, Tennessee. It also has a presenting sponsor in Food City, a grocery store chain that absolutely screams Northeast Tennessee. You know what I mean if you’ve ever been in one. It has an official domestic beer in Bud Light and Budweiser, a beer my late, great friend Roy Stanley called “headache beer”, and it has an official car and truck in Chevrolet. I have no idea why a college football game needs an official truck, but no one asks me anyway. It also has a trophy that will go to the winning team. Along with the game there are pep rallies and concerts including one featuring life-long Vol fan Kenny Chesney. I knew there was another reason to hate that guy. In short it’s a Week 2 bowl game atmosphere.
This game is the brainchild of Bristol Motor Speedway Owner and the Chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. O. Bruton Smith. Smith is North Carolina born, and the ultimate in self-made billionaires. Smith, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, began promoting races around his hometown in North Carolina at age 18. In 1959, he built the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 1.5 mile track in Concord, North Carolina. Two years later, he was broke and had to sell the track and re-group. Did he ever. Smith rebounded from his initial failure to found Speedway Motorsports, Inc. It’s made his net worth somewhere north of $1.5 billion. SMI owns not only Bristol, but he was able to eventually buy-back the Charlotte track, to go with his Speedways in Atlanta, Sonoma, California, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Texas.
Bruton Smith has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. He isn’t like everyone else and appears to enjoy it that way. Now, I don’t know the man. I just know what I’ve read and heard from him. He’s had a long-standing rivalry with the France family, the founders of NASCAR and about 20 years ago was rumored to be considering taking his tracks (and make no mistake as almost all NASCAR teams are based in and around Charlotte, he holds one of the Circuit’s crown jewels) and forming a competing “stock” car circuit. Either that was just a lot of talk or he made a business decision that tracks along the lines of that old saying “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” He took SMI public in 1995, and in 1996 ruffled the feathers of NASCAR purists when he and a partner purchased the North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina. To understand NASCAR history you have to understand that one of the first NASCAR sanctioned races was held at North Wilkesboro and it held a special place in the heart of the Southern diehards who have always been interested in the sport. Smith immediately took the two races that NASCAR ran at the aging facility and moved one to his track in Texas and the other to his track in New Hampshire. And, just for good measure when SMI hosts a race at one of his tracks, don’t expect it to hear it on the iconic MRN Radio, which is owned by NASCAR. SMI owns the Performance Radio Network which broadcasts all races at SMI Facilities, with one of the worst collections of radio talent you’ll ever listen to by the way. Earlier this year he expressed interest in purchasing the NFL’s Carolina Panthers if they were to go up for sale. When asked about the franchise he called them a “losing team.” Wait? Didn’t they go to the Super Bowl last year and don’t they have 2 NFC Titles in their short history?
So, how do you get from NASCAR to College Football. Well it hasn’t been easy. Smith first floated the idea of paying Tennessee and Virginia Tech $20 million apiece to play a game at Bristol in 1998. It never happened because to hear Smith tell it, then Tennessee Athletic Director Doug Dickey balked at the idea. When Dickey retired (and Smith contends he was fired), that opened the door for new Athletic Director Mike Hamilton, who was an absolute used car salesman,to open the discussions. It took several more years to get there and the two schools finally agreed to play in 2013. To show how things can change in 3 years consider that the A.D. who signed the deal on behalf of Virginia Tech is now deceased, the head coach is retired, the Tennessee A.D. who signed the deal is retiring and the head coach is one game into his 4th season and they are about ready to run his butt up a flag pole after the Volunteers opening night performance.
Each school will make $4 million dollars to play this game. Bristol has, in just a few weeks, constructed a field that frankly looks really sharp. There are however, in my opinion, plenty of concerns with this game. One is that will most people actually be able to see the field? I guess that’s secondary to actually being there and long site lines hasn’t stopped capacity crowds from filling domes for the NCAA’s Basketball Final 4. To combat the problem, the track has its gigantic screen suspended in the middle of the track and my suspicion is that most in the grandstands will actually be watching the game like the rest of us, on television.
Secondly, yes it’s going to be college football’s biggest crowd, but you have to navigate 150,000 people into the track and then guide them out. If you’ve ever been to Bristol Motor Speedway you know it sits on Volunteer Parkway and given the small arteries back to I-81 North toward Virginia and South toward Knoxville, Bristol officials have warned that it may take fans up to 4 hours just to get out of the area. Area hotels have engaged in price gouging doubling, and tripling their normal nightly rates and requiring a two-night stay. Each school only received 40,000 tickets to sell on their own with Bristol retaining the remainder to sell to it’s loyal NASCAR customers. So, the crowd may look a little different from your average college football game, but then again this isn’t your average college football game. There is one positive difference between NASCAR and football at BMS. No outside coolers are allowed so there’s no chance that those sitting closer to the field will get hit with chicken bones and beer cans like a normal NASCAR event.
Do I think this is a cool idea? Yes, I do. Why not? Life is about doing something different and this game is certainly it, but the challenge for both schools is to keep it a game. If I hear one more local television sports anchor talk about the rivalry between Va. Tech and Tennessee, I’m going to reach through the television and punch him. These two schools are not rivals. Rivals meet more than once every 79 years in the regular season. The two schools have only played 8 previous times and haven’t played in the regular season since October 2, 1937. The last two meetings have come in bowl games, the 1994 Gator Bowl which was moved to Gainesville, Florida as the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville was being refurbished for the NFL’s expansion Jaguars and the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Believe it or not in both of those meetings, Virginia Tech was ranked in the A.P. Top 25 and Tennessee – long one of college football’s blue bloods – was not. They split the meetings with Tennessee thoroughly wearing out Tech in the Gator Bowl with a freshman quarterback named Peyton Manning, and then Tech returning the favor in Atlanta.
This is, in my opinion, a bigger game to Virginia Tech than Tennessee. The Hokies would love to beat up on Tennessee in a nationally televised game on ABC, and frankly they are not expected to contend for the ACC title under first year head coach Justin Fuente. For Tennessee the most important game in Butch Jones tenure as the head coach comes in two weeks when Florida comes to Knoxville. Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida in 11 years and to win the SEC East they absolutely have to win that game.
So who wins? Well if they play to their talent levels, then Tennessee wins. Other than Cam Phillips, Isiah Ford and especially Bucky Hodges (whose going to make a lot of money in the NFL), I don’t see any other Va. Tech players who could start at Tennessee. Va. Tech has just one native Tennessee on its roster in Woody Baron from Nashville. Tennessee has two players on its roster from Va. Tech’s backyard. Starting Center Coleman Thomas is from Fort Chiswell, just 30 minutes south of Blacksburg and Chance Hall- who is out with an injury – is from 30 minutes North in Roanoke.
I do however expect regardless of the final score to see a competitive game if for no other reason that Va. Tech Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster probably has a trick or two up his sleeve. I expect to see some variation of the Defense he employed two years ago to beat Ohio State. They should sit on Tennessee’s running game, and short and intermediate passes and force quarterback Josh Dobbs to throw the ball downfield, something he did only one time successfully last week. Dobbs supposedly spent the offseason working on his downfield throwing. If he did, it wasn’t apparent last week. And the Volunteers have to get their offensive line fixed. They were awful getting beaten off the ball by smaller and quicker players at Appalachian State. And, I still need to see that Butch Jones and his staff can coach ’em like they can recruit ’em. Top 5 recruiting classes are going to wear thin with the fan base if those recruits are coached to 8-4 ever year.
Don’t think that Va. Tech was perfect in beating Liberty. They turned the ball over 4 times including a god-awful option pitch by quarterback Jerrod Evans that got him pulled from the game. And, why oh why, this staff thinks Sam Rogers (and good and loyal hard nosed soldier) is a better running back than Trevon McMillian is mystifying. College football is a line of scrimmage game so who wins up front tomorrow night wins. Period. Whoever that is can take a really nice trophy back home and forget about it and move on while Bristol prepares for Battle at Bristol II the following week when Western Carolina faces East Tennessee State. Something tells me that won’t draw 150,000 fans.
Despite the hype and the visit by College Gameday there are other games this week. While Tennessee and Virginia Tech play a cross-border war, there are several in-state or even neighborhood games this weekend. Vanderbilt hosts Middle Tennessee State in a neighborhood game. Ditto for Miami hosting Florida Atlantic. In Iowa, the Hawkeyes and Iowa State play for the Cy-Hawk Trophy, and in the Land of Enchantment, it’s New Mexico and New Mexico State.
But two grab my attention. The first, is the regular season renewal of the Holy War in Salt Lake City, Utah between Utah and BYU. These two met last year in the Las Vegas Bowl, but resume their suspended regular season series at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake. Utah has won the last five meetings between the two schools and leads the all-time series 58-34-4. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham – a BYU grad – is 7-3 against his alma mater and needs 4 more wins to reach 100 as a head coach.
And in Pittsburgh, it’s the renewal of a long time rivalry as Pitt hosts Penn State. This game was a yearly tradition usually around Thanksgiving, but the two schools meet this weekend for the first time in 16 years. This is the first year of a four-game series between the two that will run until 2019 and we can only hope further than that. Penn State leads the overall series 50-42-4, but Pitt won the last meeting in 2000.
In addition to reviving its series with Penn State, Pitt will also be reviving the “Backyard Brawl” with West Virginia in a few years. This weekend however, the Mountaineers play their second non-conference game by hosting FCS Youngstown State in Morgantown. This will be the first time these schools have met since 1938, but make no mistake there is no love lost between the Penguins and the Mountain State. For several years, Youngstown State and Marshall had a heated rivalry going when both were I-AA schools. Youngstown won two of its 4 I-AA titles in West Virginia beating Marshall 17-5 in 1993 in Huntington and then returning the next year to beat Boise State in Huntington for the I-AA title. Youngstown State also played for the 1992 championship in Huntington as well, and there was nothing more disgusting to Huntington’s residents than to see Penguin flags flying all over the city.
This week’s A.D. should be fired for scheduling this game goes to Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage who is not doing his first year coach Bronco Mendenhall any favors. The Cavaliers flopped in losing to FCS Richmond at home last week and now have to fly 2,800 miles to Eugene, Oregon to face Oregon in a game that starts at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. This is only the 19th time that Virginia has played west of the Mississippi. The Cavaliers are 4-14 and you’d think they’d stop scheduling these trips, but noooooooo. Next year, they go to Boise State. The immediate concern for U.Va. is a long trip to Oregon. They’ll likely get back to campus perhaps mid-day on Sunday and then have to prepare and go to U-Conn next week. U.Va. has never beaten a PAC-12 team and when they played Oregon in 2013 at home, lost 59-10.
The best game of the weekend may be our FCS game of the week, a meeting in Fargo, North Dakota between North Dakota State and Eastern Washington. This is just the second time these two schools have played and it comes in the 26th annual Trees Bowl sponsored by the North Dakota Forest Service. In their last meeting Eastern Washington beat North Dakota State 38-31 in the 2010 FCS playoffs. Eastern Washington went on to win the FCS title in 2010. North Dakota State has won every FCS title since.
For Division II, we go to Las Vegas. Las Vegas, New Mexico that is as New Mexico Highlands hosts the 13th ranked Ore Diggers of the Colorado School of Mines in a Rocky Mountain Conference Game. New Mexico Highlands is 1-0 after an opening win over Dixie State. Colorado School of Mines is also 1-0 after beating the Thunderwolves of CSU-Pueblo 57-21.
In Division III it’s off to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania for a game matching the River Hawks of Susquehana and the Blue Jays of Johns Hopkins in a Centennial Conference game. Hopkins may be best known athletically for Lacrosse as they’ve won 9 NCAA Division I Lacrosse Championships, but they play a pretty fair game of Division III football as well. After opening with a win over Washington and Lee last week, Hopkins is now 54-6 over the last 5 seasons and 1 game. Otherwise, Hopkins is best known for its world class research hospital in Baltimore. The school got its name when a entrepreneur named Johns Hopkins donated $7 million dollars to establish the hospital.
Finally to NAIA and the commonwealth of Kentucky where the 12th ranked Lindsey Wilson Blue Raiders host The 18th ranked Tigers of Georgetown College in an afternoon game in Columbia, Kentucky. Georgetown located just about an hour South of Cincinnati opened with a win last week. Lindsey-Wilson, tucked in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields is 2-0.
Have fun and enjoy the weekend.