On Saturday, Illinois and Purdue will meet to play for "the Purdue Cannon." To those about to do battle for this trinket, I say: keep it weird.
Many lament the influence that enormous amounts of money have had on college football. Conference realignment has been the buzz phrase this year. If you're just tuning in "conference realignment" is code for "schools throwing away the concepts of geography and tradition in pursuit of wheelbarrows full of cash from TV contracts." Conference realignment also makes a mockery of our ability to educate the next generation of mathematicians, as conferences with numerical designations (the Big Ten, the Pac-10, the Big 12) call into question the continued existence of arithmetic.
But what really concerns me is this: The more money gets suffused into college football, the more it becomes a polished entertainment product, and the less weird it gets. And I like weird. College football is great because it is weird.
More on that later, but first, the game:
Illinois travels to take on Purdue, a team that has struggled to find its footing this year. Purdue is .500, both overall and in the Big Ten. They may be better than their record indicates, as two of those losses came against Notre Dame and Penn State, and they played the Nittany Lions close. Or they may just not be very good: One of the losses came against Rice, and their lone Big Ten win came against Minnesota, which has been having an incredibly bad year. As my muffed prediction last week amply demonstrates, how teams match up on paper is far less important than who is playing well or poorly on any given Saturday.
So both teams are coming off relatively close losses in low-scoring affairs against teams that did not put up much offense. Illinois needs a win to silence some of the doubters, arguing that Illinois was not legit, their unblemished record the result of a soft schedule. Purdue just straight-up needs it, and not just because it is their homecoming game. They have to play Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in each of the subsequent weeks, so the Boilermakers see this game as the last opportunity to salvage the season and set a course for a bowl game.
The talk in West Lafayette is that Purdue's defense has been serviceable, but not so much against good quarterbacks and good receivers. If Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins get back in rhythm, and the defense is able to stop Purdue's balanced run/pass offense, currently led by quarterback Caleb TerBush, Illinois will be in good shape. Purdue is a team that gave up quite a few sacks early in the season, but has stemmed the bleeding by relying on audibles. Illinois' multiple defensive looks and national-caliber sacking abilities should test TerBush's ability to read and adjust.
Illinois is favored by about 4, which has been driven down from an opening line of 6. The turnover problems are likely a big part of the loss of faith in the Illini. We'll know a lot more about this team after this week: If they return to form, hopes can build again despite some tough games ahead. If they struggle and lose, expect lots of apocalyptic predictions. I see a lot of character and heart in this team, and I believe that they'll rebound for the win.
Now, back to the weird. What was that thing about a cannon?
Professional sports have their place, and there's definitely some weird in there, especially amongst the older franchises. The Chicago Bears' fight song, "Bear Down, Chicago Bears," includes an excellently anachronistic reference to the "T-formation." These are the kinds of things that you just don't get much anymore, though. Case in point, the Carolina Panthers abandoned their attempt to develop a fight song, and instead play Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" after home wins. Like most things in professional sports, this is too pedestrian, too inoffensively corporate. Insufficiently weird.
Thankfully we have college sports, and especially college football rivalry trophies, perhaps the height of weird. Last week, many of you saw the annual passing of "the Illibuck," which is a wooden turtle that is passed back and forth between Illinois and Ohio State depending on who wins each year in football. At its inception in 1925, the Illibuck was a live turtle. That lasted for two years, until it died. Everything about this is legitimately weird. And legitimately wonderful.
The weirdness is pervasive. The lengthy list of bric-a-brac that collegiate teams square off over reads like an old-timey yard sale inventory: cast iron skillet, brown crockery jug, milk cans, barrels, the "old oaken bucket." What is fantastic about these gimmicky and odd trinket-trophies is how organically they grew up as a part of the game, and that they often came directly from fans. Take the "Purdue Cannon," which is at stake on Saturday's game. Yes, it is actually a physical, working cannon. It was originally brought to Champaign by some Purdue fans in 1905 (not a typo) to fire after an anticipated Boilermakers win. But Illinois fans found the cannon, stole it, and some dude hid it in his barn for nearly four decades, until it was decided it would be a great trophy to play for in 1943. And so they did. And still do.
This type of thing is inconceivable now. Imagine a football program making an official trophy out of something that one of their fans stole from a rival team's fan at a tailgate in the '70s. It would be awesome. But it isn't going to happen. But these lingering and bizarre traditions show the small-time roots of college football, and the long and strange history of the individual games that make up the larger landscape. That kind of stuff is worth preserving, if only as a tangible reminder of the weirdness inherent in the game itself, too often obscured by the polish and spectacle.
Illinois and Purdue face off at 11:00 a.m. local time on Saturday. The game is on ESPN2, but those of you who are skimping on cable can watch the game streamed live at espn3.com. Keep it weird.