Eleventh Month, Eleventh Hour

There’s something about November that electrifies the air. This Saturday in the SEC, a stacked slate of games offers an appropriate way to enter the eleventh month of the year, otherwise known as the eleventh hour for football teams throughout America’s most cutthroat conference.

In the Deep South, where football–anytime and every time–is enthusiastically welcomed, one week can bleed into another. Football season is so delicious, with its weekly dramas and constantly shifting fortunes, that a fan can get lost in the Autumnal sojourn, not to snap out of a trance until the cold reality of mid-January hits with the force of a mack truck… or Reggie F. Nelson (the “F” standing not for his legal middle initial, not for the state of Florida, but for the word that most naturally rolls off fans’ tongues: “freakin’”).

But for those who possess a different mindset, there are phases and flavors that independently exist within the college football season. There’s September and its summery feel, accompanied by open-minded, open-ended observations that process the early pigskin pulses and patterns produced by the Ole Alma Mater. There’s October, the big-boy-beckoning, find-out-who-you-really-are month in which tentative September tiptoes become largely defined strides… be they forward or backward.

And then comes November. The shadows lengthen dramatically. The air becomes a little colder. The fires–in response to the emerging outer chill–must burn a little deeper inside the soul. The finish line can be seen, even while the prize remains far away.

There’s nothing quite like November college football. While the NFL playoffs don’t start until January–culminating in February’s Super Bowl–the NCAA game has just three full weekends left in its 2006 regular season. On Thanksgiving weekend and then the first weekend of December, there will be ample games on television, but the nation–as a whole–will fall largely silent. November 18 is the final day on which most of the nation’s 119 Division I-A teams will take the field. Many regular seasons will end that day, and for a fair percentage of teams, the lack of a bowl game will mean the absence of games for nine and a half months. Florida’s last regular-season SEC contest is–at press time (Wednesday, Nov. 1)–ten days away. November means that the clock is ticking on another memorable march through green fields of gridiron glory.

A college football season is so unbearably short, so powerfully precious, so undeniably fleeting. It must be grasped, savored, deeply imbibed, and absorbed into one’s bones and marrow. November enables a fan to stop in time and cherish the pigskin passion plays yet to come. If your pent-up energies ran wild when college football returned to the stadium in September, or your nerves were deep-fried (or is it “deep-frayed”?) in the proving ground of October, when your team became revealed for what it really is, November offers a chance for you to breathe, re-gather your emotions, and brace for the defining moments of an all-too-brief Autumn that is swiftly acquiring a past-tense feel.

November is such a magical month because–after the rust of September wears off and the bruises of October are dealt with–this eleventh month of the year matches teams who, at this late hour, have attained a fairly discernible identity, for better or worse. These identities are whole personalities, not just isolated quirks or eccentricities. They blend the dynamic and the dysfunctional, which means that the good side of a team’s personality could emerge instead of the bad side (or vice versa); but they just as surely suggest which part of a team’s personality is dominant and, therefore, likely to emerge in a game’s manhood-making motivational moments. “You are what you are,” as the old coaching truism goes, and it’s in November when that football proverb can be authentically applied.

Seeing these proven personalities warring on the gridiron is dramatic enough in its own right, but when you then add the stakes involved in these late-season clashes, you can appreciate why November football–much like a poignant holiday movie–packs such a potent punch and wields a withering emotional wallop. When November football games arrive at their memorable conclusions, reputations are made or broken. Tears of ultimate failure are shed. Shouts of primal conquest are unleashed. These are the snapshots of supremacy sustained and misery extended. These are the scenes that emerge when opportunities–once so immediately available–are suddenly lost (again!) for nine and a half more months. This is the climactic crescendo of a football season, the end of a taxing trail that began in training camp’s trials and tribulations. November football makes an already-great sport sing with championship urgency.

And so, in the SEC, this Saturday–the first one of November–is a great time to sit back and absorb the magic of eleventh month matchups and eleventh hour odysseys.

Arkansas is the kid who fell into unemployment and was written off by the parents from Louisiana and Alabama, but who found religion, worked like hell, caught a few breaks, and now has a steady and well-paying blue-collar job. A successful season has already been attained in Fayetteville, but if the Hogs want to get a white-collar job and go to the big, fancy dance hall in Atlanta on Dec. 2, they need to beat South Carolina this Saturday. The Gamecocks are the earnest but weak-kneed folks who fantasize about the good life from their lower-class dwellings, but who–when given a job interview for a breakthrough career opportunity–experience flop sweat and stage fright to miss out on their road to riches. Carolina won’t win the SEC East this year, but this Arkansas game is crucial if the Cocks want to pass the next big job interview they get in 2007. The subculture has to be changed in Columbia, and before it can be fully uprooted in future seasons, some small steps need to be taken in 2006. November calls the Hogs and Roosters to reach beyond their current places in the SEC pecking order.

Then there’s Georgia and Kentucky. UGA is still a lot wealthier than the Wildcats, but in human life, a rich person can feel poor while a poor person can sometimes feel blessed. This is, in many ways, the backdrop to Saturday’s Dog-and-Cat dust-up in Lexington. Georgia doesn’t figure to have many seasons like this in the future, but for now, Mark Richt’s men are hurting psychologically. Kentucky’s kids, on the other hand, will probably be favored to reach the .500 mark (probably only because one doesn’t know how well Vandy will fare against the Gators on Saturday) before the regular season is over. A win over the Dogs will almost certainly punch a ticket to a bowl game for this long-downtrodden football program that toils in the shadows of Bobby Petrino’s Louisville thoroughbreds. November demands a gallant stand and a lot of pride from Georgia, while requiring uncommon poise and precision from Kentucky.

Also on Saturday is the small matter of Florida’s game at Vanderbilt. After the Commodores flirted with victory in Gainesville last year, there should be zero reason for the Gators to look past Bobby Johnson’s team and dream of the emotion-drenched donnybrook to come a week later, when a former Gator is rumored to return to his old haunt under an opposing team’s banner. Vandy needs this particular game if it wants to have its first non-losing season in 24 years; the Gators can’t think about South Carolina, and neither can they allow themselves to get caught up in the national title chase. As a wise Head Ball Coach once said, “You can only control the SEC, not the national championship.” The Gators–and their fans–would do well to remember this: November is a month that rewards focus on the basics while punishing any delusions of long-range grandeur.

Finally, we come to the noggin-knocker in Knoxville, as the Children of the Checkerboard challenge the LSU Tigers. If Florida stumbles, Tennessee could still steal the East, and a win over LSU is the Vols’ most difficult task in the remainder of their schedule. With Arkansas’ bona fides still in question, Tennessee could muzzle Mitch Mustain and mold Gus Malzahn’s man into mince meat come Nov. 11. A win over LSU, if attained, would make Florida fans sweat some bullets. But if the Vols are to even get to that point, Erik Ainge–while healing quickly–will almost certainly have to avoid rough patches and play his best game of 2006. One says “almost certainly” instead of the stronger word “must” because LSU–even when an opposing QB isn’t lighting up the scoreboard–can always lose a game as long as JaMarcus Russell’s under center. If Russell ever figures out the QB position, the Tigers become virtually unbeatable. November will require two up-and-down signal callers to get the dadgum thing right when they oppose each other in Neyland Stadium.

November football. It is an annual point of pigskin passion unlike anything else on the sporting landscape. Saturday, the SEC has the kinds of collegiate crucibles that are worthy of November’s name and the white-knuckle nervousness it unfailingly creates. We’ll see who answers November’s call on a day when reputations are waiting to be made and seasons are crying out for salvation.