It was well past midnight in Bristol, Tennessee. The confetti was still falling, the fireworks were still popping, ears were still ringing, and the postgame traffic was only beginning the first leg of its long, snaking journey into the Smoky Mountains night.
I'm sure Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc. (the owner of Bristol Motor Speedway), was soaking in the moment. The Battle at Bristol between Tennessee and Virginia Tech by all measures had been a successful venture. The game had delivered on its promise to attract the largest crowd in college football history, drawing 156,990. I'm sure Smith was quietly reflecting on how, a full two decades after his father, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bruton Smith, had first reached out to the two schools with the idea (not to mention $1 million checks), the dream of the game had finally been realized. I'm sure it was a great moment that Marcus was having, fully immersed in the magical glow of the here and now.
But hey, he was just standing there and I've known the dude forever, so I asked the question anyway. "Is there going to be a Battle at Bristol 2?"
"We'll see," Smith, 43, said with a smile. "There's a lot of debriefing to do with a lot of people. But I certainly do think there's interest."
There's no doubt about that. Zigzagging between in-game and postgame chats with everyone from ESPN executives to ACC/SEC reps to the family behind the game's title sponsor, the Haslams, there was not a frown to be found. "I think this was the perfect storm," said Big Jim, company founder and an offensive lineman on Tennessee's 1951 national title team coached by Robert Neyland. "These two teams from these two states at this place, that's hard to beat."
Yes, it is. And that might be the problem.
While Butch Jones stood alongside the game's fittingly over-the-top trophy, he said, "This experience ... it'll never be replicated. It'll never be duplicated."
A few minutes later, the Tennessee coach clarified his comments. Jones said he was speaking of the thrill of what he believed would be deemed an inaugural event. The trick will be recreating that inaugural thrill.
"It was always going to be these two teams," said just-retired Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. He beamed while sitting on a golf cart shortly after being recognized to the thunderous applause of Hokies fans. When the schools were first approached by the racetrack, Beamer, a NASCAR fan, was immediately on board. But Tennessee required more convincing. "There's no better way to get this area energized than these two teams," Beamer said. "So, do you make this an annual rivalry? You certainly could. But I also bet other schools watching this tonight are probably thinking, man, we'd like to get in on that."
But who else would be as perfect as the marquee programs of the two states that literally split the host town of Bristol in half? Would Alabama fans travel to Thunder Valley, USA, for a game against, say, Clemson? Would Ohio State loyalists come south to see the Buckeyes take on, perhaps, Georgia?
A big chunk of those visitors are gonna need to camp out. With Vols and Hokies fans, all of the above was a given.
The Battle certainly wasn't without its issues. The crush to cram all of those people through the racetrack's gates was downright scary at times. But NASCAR crowds typically arrive in more of a daylong stream, not a football-style "The gates are now open!" type of rush. Before Saturday night's game was over, track employees were already kicking around ideas on how to relieve that pressure. The complaints about sightlines and the distance from the field seemed largely reserved to those at the game in a working capacity. Media members and broadcast crews found it challenging to follow the football from such a distance.
But Speedway Motorsports Inc. has plenty of experience when it comes to dealing with such issues. Over the past quarter-century, it has opened new racetracks, all larger than Bristol, and added new events to those facilities. Some of those inaugural events were flawless. Others were indisputable disasters. Those disasters were all quickly smoothed over. I know. I lived through a couple of them, before and after.
The Battle at Bristol was nowhere near a disaster. It was a smash. Just ask the people who were on the field, even the ones who lost. "I think the event in its entirety was fantastic," said Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente. "For what it's worth, I thought it was a beautiful setting and beautiful arena to play in."
That's worth a lot. As will be the inevitable discussions about what comes next.
"There's a lot of talk to come about the future," Marcus Smith said before heading out of the infield. "But we've got a lot more to do here tonight first."
Bristol is also good at trolling. Michigan rightfully tweet-bragged about its attendance Saturday at The Big House, drawing 109,295, its 267th game with 100,000-plus attendees. Then the Battle at Bristol account replied, "That's cute" a few hours before it announced a crowd of 156,990. The single-game record that was broken by the racetrack was 115,109, set at Michigan vs. Notre Dame in 2003.
This week's version of "The SEC is dying!" The Big 12 went 0-2 vs. the MAC over the weekend. In the first two weeks of the season, the Big 12 has been handed Power 5 losses by Stanford, Arkansas, Arizona State and Houston. Wait ... sorry, Houston isn't a Power 5 team yet. That'll change when they join the Big 12.
Ridonculous Stats Department, Part 1. Running back Kalen Ballage of Arizona State scored eight touchdowns against Texas Tech, seven on the ground and one receiving, tying the 26-year-old NCAA record held by Howard Griffith of Illinois. However, Griffith's big day came against FCS (then I-AA) opponent Southern Illinois. Ballange also tied Griffith and five other players for the most points scored in a single game with 48. But again, he was the first FBS player to do it against an FBS opponent. The other players on the list were all from Division II and III programs.
Ridonculous Stats Department, Part Deux. Even with an extra day to process the Friday night performance of Louisville QB Lamar Jackson vs. Syracuse -- 610 yards of offense and the first FBS player with at least 400 yards passing and 175 rushing in one game -- I still can't wrap my mind around it.
Ridonculous Stats Department, one more time. If you've read Flipping The Field all year (and thanks if you have), then you know I have a bit of a San Diego State fixation. Last week, we told you to keep an eye on the Aztecs' home game against Cal. It didn't disappoint. SDSU won a wild one, 45-40, to extend the nation's second-longest winning streak to a dozen games. We've also told you to keep an eye on running back Donnel Pumphrey. He also didn't disappoint, rushing for a 2016 FBS-best 281 yards, moving him past Marshall Faulk to become the school's all-time leading rusher ... and they still have 10 regular-season games to go! Speaking of teams on a roll ...
"We're going streaking!" If you were surprised that Florida whipped Kentucky, then you don't know a ton about SEC football history. The number wizards at ESPN Stats & Info tell me that the 45-7 win was the Gators' 30th consecutive triumph over the Wildcats, the fourth-longest streak in an uninterrupted series in FBS history. The record is Notre Dame's 43-year dominance over Navy, a streak that ended in 2006. Ohio State's 48-3 mugging of Tulsa marked the Buckeyes' fourth consecutive 40-point performance, the fourth time the team has put together such a streak under Urban Meyer. All other coaches in the history of the program have managed only three such streaks ever, one each under John Cooper, Earl Bruce and Woody Hayes. Meanwhile, Michigan's 114 points is the most for the program through two games since 1914. The team record was set in 1892, when the Wolverines scored 142 points in back-to-back games with the Michigan Athletic Association club team from Detroit. Not surprisingly, the Michigan A.A. did not book a rematch in 1893.
"Get in the car, Frank ..." Auburn never punted during its 51-14 win over Arkansas State, the first time the Tigers attempted zero punts in a game since 2005. Last weekend, Cheney University, a D-II school in Pennsylvania, snapped a 43-game losing streak by defeating Lincoln University in overtime. Alas, their winning streak was much shorter. On Saturday, they lost 79-3 to California University of Pennsylvania.
Why the long face? Because it's his game face. My man was hydrating early for Boise State's visit from Washington State.
This is very concerning and HOT! pic.twitter.com/LhvINtlNWK— Jeff Caves (@JeffCaves) September 10, 2016
Tommy West Coach's News Conference of the Week: James Conner, RB, Pitt. Conner's comeback story, back from injuries and cancer, has inspired a wave of national attention. But the buzz within the Keystone State all week was produced via a perceived slight from Penn State, which seemed to not be super enthusiastic about the revived rivalry with Pitt after 16 years off. After a dramatic, back-and-forth showdown, Penn State's furious fourth quarter came up short and the Panthers won 42-39, the most points ever scored by Pitt in their 97 meetings. Conner arrived to the media room not alone but surrounded by teammates he'd insisted come with him, including the offensive linemen who paved the way for his 117-yard, two-TD afternoon. Nearly every word out of his mouth seemed pointed at Happy Valley. "This is a day me and my brothers, all hundred of us, will never forget. This is an awesome day, an awesome rivalry. It's awesome for them to bring it back after such a long time, and I've got the big dogs in here with me ... because this is total team effort." Later, he added a line that might very well end up on T-shirts by the end of the week: "This is our state now."
Speaking of rivalries ... What was it that made Week 2 so awesome in the end? Games like that one. The weekend was packed with rivalries that might not register like an Ohio State-Michigan nationally, but are regional bonfires. I'm speaking of Iowa-Iowa State, which wasn't a great game, but also Pitt-Penn State (great game), Boston College-UMass, Middle Tennessee-Vandy, New Mexico-New Mexico State (great game), Wazzu-Boise State (great game) and the most underrated rivalry in college football, BYU-Utah (great game). More on one of those games coming up ...
Danny Ford Scientific Rocket Quote of the Week: Nick Saban, Alabama. When asked about a couple of visible, intense sideline arguments with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin during the Tide's 38-10 win over Western Kentucky, Saban replied, "Those were no arguments. Those were ass-chewings."
Yeah, it's early in the season, but ... The competition for best helmets of 2016 might already be over, even during a weekend when TCU went with a sweet, chrome purple and Arizona State trotted out a gorgeous, full-forked design. But Air Force showed some bite that can't be beaten. During their 48-14 trouncing of Georgia State, the Falcons celebrated their very own version of Shark Week, wearing lids emblazoned with the legendary shark tooth design made famous by the Flying Tigers squadron of World War II and more recently A-10 Warthog tank busters.
Speaking of the academies ... It's the first time since 1996 that all three service academies have started 2-0. Navy honored injured QB Tago Smith by wearing No. 2s and reached 2-0 with a win over UConn. But here's the shocker: Navy and Air Force are joined in the undefeated department by the longtime distant third service academy team. Army has already matched last season's win total by knocking off Temple and Rice. Both of those teams are Owls. Is it too late to schedule FAU, Kennesaw State and Bryn Mawr?
Weston Steelhammer Name of the Week: Speaking of competitions that were over before they'd even started, the greatest name in college football belongs to Steelhammer, Air Force's hard-hitting safety. In honor of him, we're going to scour the rosters of the 128 FBS teams and find other monikers worthy of mention. First, we'll call this our "Almost Famous" guy. That'd be Dom Maggio, a punter at Wake Forest. He isn't quite a DiMaggio or Dom DiMaggio, but is a little bit of both. During Saturday's Tobacco Road win over Duke, Maggio booted it seven times for an average of 46.4 yards per punt.
That time we all outrushed UMass: Last week, some Minutemen fans sent me nasty correspondence after I included them in the Bottom 10, despite a valiant effort in The Swamp. This week in the Battle of the Bay State, UMass rushed for minus-23 yards and lost 26-7.
Frank Reich Backup QB Of The Week Award: Ellis Knudson, Towson. The Tigers of the FCS Colonial Athletic Association started their home opener vs. St. Francis by promptly giving up an 89-yard defensive touchdown. Then their starting QB, Oregon transfer Morgan Mahalak, was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury. With seconds remaining in the first half, St. Francis was up 28-10. No problem. Backup QB Knudson trotted onto Johnny Unitas Field and threw for 301 yards, including a 43-yard TD pass to wideout Christian Summers that broke a tie in the closing minutes and iced the 35-28 win. Summers finished with 232 yards receiving. Knudson finished a Towson hero.
Comeback of the Week Award, also named for Frank Reich: Same!
The Guy You Should Know About, But Probably Don't: Cooper Rush, QB, Central Michigan. Rush shows moments of legit talent with moments of brilliance, and his stats Saturday were going to be off the charts no matter how badly the refs officiated. His final line vs. Oklahoma State: 30-of-42, 361 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT. Rush's No. 1 target was tight end Tyler Conklin, who had seven catches for 96 yards and a pair of TDs, including one of the sickest one-handed grabs you'll ever see. In 2015, he had six catches for 95 yards the entire season. And in the most awesomely #MACtion thing you'll read today, Conklin is a transfer athlete from Division II Northwood University, where he played ... basketball.
The Team You Should Know About, But Probably Don't: East Carolina. There were many in Greenville feeling crushed when the Pirates were the first team revealed as being cut from the Big 12's expansion shopping list. But honestly, the Bucs have always done their best work as an underdog. On Saturday, they defeated NC State in one of the rawest rivalries that most of the nation doesn't know a whole lot about. (Trust me on this. I grew up around this. Some of the most impressively awful fights I've ever seen were as a kid trying to get out of the Carter-Finley Stadium parking lot after an ECU-NCSU game.) ECU fans live for knocking off Power 5 schools -- particularly ACC schools. Everything that has been said about Pitt-Penn State when it comes to the dramatically changing fortunes of the coaches applies every bit to ECU-NCSU. Since Dave Doeren took over at NC State in 2013, the Pack have won only six ACC games. Over that same span, East Carolina has also won games against six ACC schools ... and ECU is an AAC school. I'm thinking that stat might come up during lunch at barbecue joints all over eastern North Carolina this week. Oh, by the way, ECU is also now 2-0 and will continue its Ignored Stepchild Grudge Match Tour with a trip to South Carolina next week and Virginia Tech for Week 4.
Dowdy-Ficklen is like watching a game in a convertible with big-ass speakers in the back.— Ed Hardin (@Ed_Hardin) September 10, 2016
The Game You Should Be Psyched For But Probably Aren't: North Dakota State at Iowa (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2): The Week 3 slate is l-l-l-loaded. I visited Norman, Oklahoma, back in August, and everyone was already buzzing about the Houston game to the point that an athletic administrator said to me, "Damn, I don't even know if people realize we have Ohio State coming in here three weeks in!" Talking to College GameDay producers, they said there has rarely been a week with so much debate about where to do the show because there were so many juicy options. Ultimately, the overwhelming showings by Louisville and Florida State were too much to ignore. You'd also be wise not to ignore the goings-on in Iowa City, when the FCS juggernaut Bison will have a chance to knock off not only a ranked FBS team, but a squad that came within a point of making the 2015 College Football Playoff. If you've ever been to Fargo or simply know someone with ties to the NDSU program, then you know this is just the kind of day that place lives for.
Extra Point: On a personal level, the Battle at Bristol experience kind of felt like a game I'd been training for my entire adult life. For those of you who don't know, I also cover motorsports for ESPN and have for 20-plus years now. Over that time, I've not met many people -- and certainly no superstars -- as genuine as Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Bristol Motor Speedway has always been one of his best racetracks and is also one of the places where his father crystalized his Intimidator persona. Unfortunately, Dale Jr. hasn't been behind the wheel since mid-summer and won't return for the remainder of the 2016 NASCAR season because of ongoing concussion-like symptoms. Just one week ago, he held his first public news conference, sitting with his boss, Rick Hendrick, and his doctor to update his condition. During that Q&A, he was very honest about the depression and frustration involved with being out of his car and with the ongoing processes of healing. Earnhardt and his doctor both talked about how important it was to his recovery to get out of the house and into public and do things that challenge his mind. Well, it doesn't get more out into the public or more challenging than taking the College GameDay stage and making your Saturday picks in front of thousands of screaming fans and millions of television viewers. So earlier in the week, he called me to go over his choices. Some were based on facts, and others were based on family (his fiancée is a former Kentucky cheerleader, so he couldn't pick Tennessee over Virginia Tech). But the best part was seeing the smile on his face before, during and after the trip to Tennessee to sit with Rece, Desmond, Coach and Herbie. I could tell it was providing Dale with a much-needed boost to both his mind and spirit. That's a great thing. He's one of the good guys.