College GameDay comes to Evanston

ESPN's popular pregame show returned to Northwestern's campus for the first time in nearly two decades. The crowd didn't disappoint.

Northwestern's student body isn't sleeping these days. Alert the presses.

Typically, sagged eyelids and cups of coffee are the product of the school's busy trimester system. For the past two days, the sleeplessness is due to something entirely foreign, something that doesn't fit neatly into a weekly planner and can't be quantified by a letter grade. Wildcat football has a national buzz, and its fanbase has been in full force. On Friday, many woke up to catch the 5 a.m. kickoff of ESPN's Mike and Mike telecast. On Saturday, alarms were forgone altogether, and students went straight from the off-campus party circuit to crash College GameDay, the flagship pregame program that touched down to campus for the first time since Pat Fitzgerald was an All-American.

You can chalk it up to Homecoming weekend, the team's no. 16 AP ranking, or the palpable buzz of playing national title contender Ohio State. But more likely, the hype surrounding Saturday's game simply comes from students that have been waiting for their football team to get the attention it deserves since they first got to Northwestern. It's tough to explain waking up at ungodly hours to watch media personalities debate sports, but it's easy to wrap your head around the idea of waking up for something that's been long overdue and patiently waited for. No tarps on the seats this weekend, no Western Michigan or Maine. As one GameDay goer told me in drunken slurs, "College GameDay means that this is actually college football."

It's tough to pity the underclassmen, who know nothing of the Cats' decades of futility. Even the senior class can't complain much beyond the Dan Persa injury and hearing "Adonis Smith the ballcarrier" far more than it should ever be heard. But for a program that's arguably the second best in the Big Ten at the moment, a Lee Corso appearance means a lot, even if he still hoists a Brutus the Buckeye head at the end of the show.

GameDay's trip to Evanston was officially announced last Saturday, after weeks of speculation and a bevy of student social media campaigns. The program originally wanted to set up on Deering Meadow, the location of Mike and Mike, but after that proved to be logistically difficult, the show was moved to Northwestern's lakefill. The festivities ran from Friday afternoon to 11 a.m. Saturday, and even before Kain Colter or Venric Mark takes the field, Northwestern has already made a statement to the rest of the country.

It's hard to stand out on something as established as College GameDay. Kirk Herbstreit, Chris Folwer and Co. have been making their way through the Bamas and LSUs of the game since 1993, and it's tough to imagine that the GameDay analysts found Saturday's show to be particularly rowdy or unique. But a fan base with an uninspiring history came to vindicate ESPN's decision, from the junior I talked to who hadn't slept in 72 hours and still camped out for a front row spot, to the freshman who couldn't name the Wildcats' quarterback but still felt obligated to deck out in purple, to the graying Evanston resident who said that Saturday was among his proudest moments as a fan. Earning the definitive top honor is contingent on Northwestern upsetting the Buckeyes, he said, but Saturday morning's showing can already be marked as a symbolic W for a program inching closer to national prominence.

Then there were the signs. A staple of GameDay, Northwestern's students came armed to the teeth with cardboard cutouts and poster boards. But unlike the unapologetically garish ones of your usual SEC host, NU fans came with some of the funniest signs GameDay has seen in a while. They were uniquely Northwestern, from your goofy "Urban Meyer cites Wikipedia" and "Braxton Miller has a two-page resume" to the tongue-in-cheek "Is this going to be on the test?" It was triumphantly nerdy, but not to a fault: there were enough signs rooted in actual football fandom to satisfy the national audience, and enough randomness and eccentricity to show off the best of what Northwestern has to offer. Rather than falling back on GameDay's usual pattern, Wildcat fans forced nearly every major publication to run a "best signs" slideshow by noon.

GameDay ended with a necessary reminder. As each member of the panel was greeted by boos after predicting an Ohio State victory, the pregame hype officially came to a close, and all that's left now is the actual game itself. Every screaming student in attendance would gladly take another 72 sleepless hours to knock off the fourth-ranked team in college football, and as exciting as the day was, things are shaping up to look difficult once the GameDay set is deconstructed.

But every big home game in recent memory has offered some level of embarrassment for Northwestern, be it the late-game blunders or the stands dominated by the visiting color. While far from a tangible victory, the Wildcats and their fans got an encouraging start Saturday morning.

Now, GameDay turns to game time.

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