College football's bowl season kicked off this week, starting a two-and-a-half-week, 28-game smorgasbord of football, fun and comical corporate tie-ins.
Our favorite this year is the Mazda Tangerine Bowl because when we think fresh citrus, we think Japanese cars.
But as much entertainment as all those high-profile events will deliver, none compare to the delightfully intriguing game that may be the best game of the postseason.
The Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
There isn't much hype surrounding the bowl named after the late, great coach because it doubles as the Division III national championship game and thus isn't considered "big time" enough for most.
But what's your definition of big time?
Try matching Saturday's clash in Salem, Va., for compelling storylines – drama, history, competitiveness, offensive firepower and tradition. Only the Rose and Sugar bowls, which determine this year's Division I-A national championship(s), perhaps can compare.
On one side we have Mount Union College of Alliance, Ohio. The Purple Raiders are, of course, undefeated at 13-0. We say of course because Mount Union has now won a NCAA record 55 consecutive games and 109 of its last 110, with just a single loss since 1996. It will be gunning for its fourth consecutive national championship and seventh in the last eight years.
How powerful is Mount Union? It beat Bridgewater (Va.) in the semifinals 66-0.
So meet your hulking, stalking, superpower.
The opponent is St. John's University (Minn.), also 13-0. The Johnnies are led by John Gagliardi, whose 413 career victories make him the winningest college coach of all time. Now in his 55th season, the 77-year-old, three-time national champion makes Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden look like a couple of rookies.
How big time is he? The Division III version of the Heisman Trophy is called the Gagliardi. Now in the very season he surpassed Eddie Robinson on the all-time win list, Gentleman John goes for his first title since 1976.
So meet your heartwarming, fan favorite, living legend.
Can it get better than this? Seriously, can it?
Forget the argument that this is D-III and the players aren't talented enough to watch. If you follow that reasoning, the only level of football worth watching is the NFL.
An intense, meaningful and colorful game is always great theater, which is why high school athletics often provide the best drama of all.
So while D-III understandably doesn't get much attention, this perfect meeting between two perfect teams is the exception. ESPN2 will televise it Saturday at 11 a.m. ET.
This game is unique, and not just because the athletes are non-scholarship students playing for little more than the love of the sport.
Start with Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, who in 18 years has posted 12 undefeated regular seasons and captured nine national titles. The 53-year-old is 235-17-3 (.928) overall and 187-7-1 (.964) since 1990. Go ahead and roll those numbers around in your head for a moment and then wonder why some Big Ten school hasn't driven a Brinks truck to Northeast Ohio to hire him.
Of course, if you want coaching numbers, no one can compare to Gagliardi. But it is not so much his success that is stunning but how he accomplishes it.
In practice he doesn't allow physical contact, and the players don't even wear pads. There is no tackling, blocking sleds or mandatory weight training. There aren't even whistles. Everyone must call him "John."
He believes that the repetition of fundamentals in practice will lead to perfect execution in games. And with all those victories, who can argue with his system?
Well, maybe Kehres, who is 3-0 against the legend including a victory in the 2000 Stagg Bowl.
It is unlikely this will be some boring defensive game, either. St. John's is averaging 39.2 points and is outscoring opponents by more than four touchdowns per game. Sounds pretty good until you compare it to Mount Union, which is putting up 50.3 points a game. Its average margin of victory is a ridiculous 43.8 points.
So that's the setup. The Mount Union juggernaut is looking to steamroll on. Its seniors are trying to finish out their careers with a 56-0 record. They'll put the win streak on the line against a high-powered team that may represent the last shot at all the marbles for one of the sport's all-time greats.
That big time enough for you?
Or would you prefer the Continental Tire Bowl?
- Mount Union
- John Gagliardi