It wasn't always like this. The SEC and Big Ten weren't always just about 40,000 student public universities with 100,000 seat football stadiums. In fact, there was once a time when the University of Chicago was a conference rival of Illinois, and Sewanee: College of the South would have conference battles with Alabama. It was a different era.
Then the second World War happened, and college sports more or less went on hiatus. When the war ended, schools had the opportunity to re-evaluate what they wanted for their athletic departments, and schools like Chicago and Sewanee got out of the big time. Since that time, those two conferences have as much history to brag about as any. Virtually all of the current 23 schools in the two leagues have rich football traditions with 60,000+ seat stadiums, 25,000+ person student bodies and countless bowl victories.
With two exceptions.
Vanderbilt and Northwestern, two almost-Ivy private schools have had some of the most incredible stretches of futility in all of college football. Northwestern once had an NCAA division 1-A record 34 game losing streak from 1979 to 1982. We're talking three straight years without a win here. That's tough. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has not been to a bowl game in twenty six years. Considering that the majority of the FBS competes in bowl season these days, that's fairly atrocious. But oh, how times have changed.
Today, with wins over Ohio and Mississippi, these two long-time doormats both improved to 4-0. And while they've played only two conference games between them (Vandy is 2-0 with wins over South Carolina and Ole Miss, NU starts their conference slate next week with Iowa), there is reason for optimism at both schools.
For Northwestern, the news is excellent. Assuming Tyrell Sutton isn't too banged up (he has a lower leg injury following today's game according to WGN), they'll have a shot to go to 5-0 against Iowa next weekend in Iowa City. After that they'll have their first big test with Michigan State. However, of the five toughest teams in the Big Ten, Northwestern does not have to play Wisconsin or Penn State (talk about luck), and gets MSU, Ohio State and rival Illinois all at home. The stars may be alligning for Northwestern. They aren't going to be making any trips to Pasadena in January like they did in their miracle season of 2005, but for this team to be able to look realistically at a 9-win season is fantastic.
For Vanderbilt the news is not as good. The 'Dores are in the SEC East, which means that they still have to play Florida and Georgia, plus they draw Auburn from the West, and go to Wake Forest for their finale. Assuming this team doesn't pull any top-10 upsets, and that just doesn't seem terribly likely, especially since they're getting some attention, this probably wont be better than a 7-5 season in Nashville. But hey, that's progress.
Northwestern had the first miracle season of the lovable losers that I can remember, coming in '95 when Darnell Autry and Pat Fitzgerald let the Wildcats to a Big Ten title and an appearance in the Rose Bowl against USC. Two years ago Rutgers tried to duplicate such an accoplishment by coming within one play of a Big East title which would have sent them to the Orange Bowl. However, in both cases, the teams were back to their old selves shortly thereafter, including this year's Scarlet Knights, who look just awful.
The lesson? Enjoy the success your teams are having in Evanston and Nashville. They could be back in the cellar at any time, so as long as they're winning, no empty seats should be tolerated. I mean, these are schools that play high profile games in relatively small venues (Vanderbilt Stadium holds about 39,000, Ryan Field around 49,000). Get out there and support them. Vandy's fans are doing pretty well. But NU? Come on, today there were 22,069 fans out there to see your school start 4-0 for the first time in 46 years! That's putrid! I mean, it's better than the 19,062 that showed up to your last home game and 20,015 who came out to see the season opener, but for chrissake this is major college football, not division II lacrosse.
Support your student athletes. They're earning it.
Also, nice job by the Minutemen today. Really. Great stuff.