If you're a college football fan, you may have noticed that tomorrow at noon on the SEC Network, the South Carolina Gamecocks take on the Furman Paladins. The game will barely register on the national scene or someone will complain about how these power conference schools keep scheduling these games. Furman is a 2-4 Division 1 FCS (formerly 1-AA) team with an enrollment just under 3,000 students. Cupcake game, right?
Well, like a pigskin-inclined Lorax, I speak for the cupcakes.
Pulling for a small school in the land of big time SEC football is an interesting experience. Growing up in South Carolina, virtually every school I attended had a "Carolina-Clemson Day" when students were encouraged to wear a shirt supporting their favorite school.
So every autumn, there was a day awash in garnet and orange. And then there I was: the kid wearing purple. It was probably a little peculiar. It would have been one thing to embody allegiance to another SEC power like Georgia or Alabama. Those kids were being good expatriates. But to declare loyalty to a small Division 1-AA school like Furman? It probably seemed like declaring brussels sprouts as your favorite food.
Brussels sprouts they are not. I know it seems odd. We live in a world of massive college football programs. Across the South and Midwest, stadiums have population that rival their states' largest cities. College football right now is about tradition, power, and respect. So why choose and stick with a team that only gets a mention on ESPN when it is disparaged as a cupcake?
They're my team. I grew up with them. My parents would take us to Paladin Stadium all the time as kids. It is one of my favorite places in the world. Some of my favorite memories as a child are of playing football on the field after a game. I have seen well over a hundred games in person and listened to countless more on the radio. Even though our fans are smaller in number and our student section is typically a woeful disappointment, those of us who care form a community. The school is where Mom and Dad went to school, where I went to school, where my wife went to school, and where my siblings went to school. It's a special place and so my ardent support is anything but odd.
So let me speak for the so-called cupcakes. Our schools don't have as many scholarships. We don't have the money or the facilities. Our players are not as big or as fast, but nowhere else will you find a place where they try as hard. When people are talking about how the playoffs have finally come to college football, we scoff. We've been playing for championships that way for decades (Furman won a National Championship in 1988 and its most recent playoff trip was last season).
Nine times out of ten we'll lose when we play the big schools and we know it. But we're going to try. Sometimes we get steamrolled but sometimes we're able to send Goliath crashing to the ground. And there is something unbelievably gratifying about watching an underdog go toe-to-toe with a powerful foe.
So when FCS teams line up against the larger schools tomorrow and throughout the season, we may very well lose. But it is not because we are cupcakes or jokes. Our teams deserve to be out there too. We don't need to go out and cheer for a real school. We've found ours and are quite happy with them. Go Paladins! And go underdogs everywhere.