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Original Issue

The Music Of the Cheers

If the top two teams in college football were to merge, they could rule the game from a place called Tuscahassee or maybe Tallahoosa, where the Florida State mascot—Osceola on an Appaloosa—could sing "Dixie's football pride ... Crimson Tide," from the Alabama fight song. But then all college football is a song.

The game's familiar phrases don't just cast a spell, they are a spell: Boomer Sooner, Hotty Toddy, Smurf Turf. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer and Rah! Rah! Rah! for-Ski-U-Mah. College football is an incantation, whispered at a stirred cauldron: Eye of Knute, Horn of Frog, Houndstooth Hat, Sweatered Dawg.

For this reason, few pursuits are more pleasing to the ear than college football, which is further enchanted by its own traveling orchestra—the marching band—making the game a kind of music set to music. And what God has joined together (wishbone and sousaphone) let no man tear asunder.

All of this makes college football the sport least like any other. It is utterly sui generis—Razorbacks might say Sooie generis—and for that reason requires a secret decoder ring. For who can tell the difference, with the naked ear, between Missoula and Boola Boola?

It is a phenomenon peculiar to college football that the game's most prominent people and places and events all rhyme. College football is Rock Chalk, Tiger Walk; Pop Warner, Toomer's Corner; George Gipp, I.M. Hipp; Doak Campbell, Camp Randall. It's Pat Dye playing to tie. Rudy and Flutie and John David Booty.

College football is so rife with Ragin' Cajuns and Mean Greens and Throwin' Samoans that it often reads like a psychedelic children's book, one part Juice, three parts Seuss. But Spike Dykes notwithstanding, the game isn't just the Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech and the Best Damn Band in the Land. It has inspired some of the world's most beautiful free verse too. Nothing rhymes with Orange Bowl. Cal's old cheer ("Oski-wow-wow, Whiskey-wee-wee") goes wherever it pleases, much as Ralphie the Buffalo does at Colorado.

Indeed, whatever one thinks of live animals as mascots, they're rivaled only by the likes of Air Bud and Secretariat among the animal kingdom's biggest celebrities. The alpha bulldogs Handsome Dan (at Yale) and Uga (at Georgia) have both appeared, solo, on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. They're the only bulldogs in history to swagger. Give them green eyeshades and stubby cigars, and they'd surely make the final table at the World Series of Dogs Playing Poker.

In the way that dogs and their owners come to resemble one another, college football's most successful mascots (Bucky, Smokey, Sparty) and coaches (Woody, Frosty, Eddie) were hard to tell apart for a time. Baylor still has a live bear roaming its sideline, just as Alabama once did, and it's difficult to say which of them—Baylor's Judge or Bama's Bryant—is the true Ursus americanus.

As an easy metaphor for America, college football works nicely. It is where the nation's oldest traditions link hands with the most naked commercial interests. (Army-Navy, meet Beef O'Brady's.) And America's complicated love of football and ballistics is consummated in the names Colt McCoy and Billy Cannon and Sonny Sixkiller.

To be sure, college football is a slightly distorted reflection of the nation—a reflection seen in the 26-inch bell of a nickel-plated sousaphone as it dots the i in Script Ohio. But the game by and large rhymes with society, down to its many economic inequities and scandals.

But that's another column. This one is about the theater of a game whose long history is written in rhyme, a passing parade of raccoon coats and kidnapped goats and Rose Bowl floats. It still peaks, if no longer ends, on New Year's Day. On some blazing green field. With Verne Lundquist, sun-kissed.

College football is Barkevious and Jadeveon. It's Jimbo and Jumbo and Beano and Bronko. Walk-on kickers and helmet stickers. College football is all these things individually, but collectively it's bigger, a specific alchemy that's as undeniable as it is difficult to explain.

It's a letter sweater, but better. It's Lee Corso, but more so.

The rhymes and incantations of college football can make the sport sound like a psychedelic children's book: one part Juice, three parts Seuss.

What's the best college football tradition?

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