The opening game of the college football season is largely unique because it is exactly what it is. It's the first game of the season, the ambitious start to a campaign rife with hope and optimism. Anything is possible.
The first week of the season is filled with two very distinct styles of matchups for the Power Five, former BCS AQ conferences. On one side sits what amounts to a glorified exhibition, a game where power teams pay either an FCS or low level FBS program to come into their home and get positively pasted. It allows the top team to give its fans a relaxed start to the season, a sort of soft opening devoid of drama. The scenario is driven by money, largely used for the Washington Generals to create their operating budget, have a chance to play in a huge stadium, and have the puncher's chance to pull what Appalachian State did to Michigan. The team paying out the money doesn't really need to worry about ticket sales because its fans are usually so starved for football that they go regardless of opponent.
On the other side sits the marquee matchup. Early in the season, two teams with national championship aspirations will place high rankings in polls on the line in a battle, occasionally at a neutral site. A win means the team has legit hopes for a shot at a marquee bowl game, while the dreams held by the losing team are dashed. In the world of college football's past, one loss can be the difference in getting to the national title game or not, and in the modern world, one loss could cripple a team that doesn't have the right strength of schedule. But it's still early enough in the season where the losing team can rebound; a loss in September allows at least 11 more weeks to climb back up the polls. A loss in November does not.
When Boston College opens up the season against Massachusetts, there's no clear cut answer as the quality of opening game. On the surface, it might look great. BC gets a chance to play a "road game" at a stadium closer to its campus than the home team. The Eagles' fan base has an opportunity to see its team play an extra game against a very beatable opponent, a team that's done virtually nothing over the past two seasons except lose and lose big. It's a game driven by ticket sales; UMass would love to get fans in the gate, even if they're wearing the wrong colors, and BC's ability to draw to another Massachusetts game can dictate a solid marketing base for the team. It's also a chance to bury an in-state opponent that's tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to invade its recruiting and potential fan base for the better part of three years.
Then again, it could invoke feelings of indifference. If BC does anything but cream their opponent, it's a lose-lose. The ultimate nightmare scenario would be a defeat, but UMass has been so bad lately, it's tough to imagine that happening (just like it would be tough to imagine Portland State beating Oregon State or Liberty upending North Carolina). And BC stands nothing to gain except an eighth game in its home state by even playing UMass. Unless you're from Massachusetts, this game doesn't mean or might not mean a whole lot to you. And even then it might not.
Consider my argument. I grew up in Boston, a fervent supporter of Boston College from my days as a young lad watching Glenn Foley and Pete Mitchell in the Aloha Bowl. I grew up with a ton of people who went to both BC and UMass, and two of my best friends either went or are going to the school. I remember when UMass was stripped of their Final Four basketball banner, when Chris Herren completely eviscerated the best back court in the nation with Fresno State, and when the Commonwealth Classic started up at the FleetCenter before 20,000 fans. I remember watching Mark Whipple win the I-AA national championship, and I remember actually rooting for that team because Whipple had left for UMass after coaching at Brown. I remember BC having creamed UMass in football despite being in the midst of a two-win season, and I remember the 2007 Eagles, one of the best ever, winning 24-14 in a mid-season game.
Having graduated (proudly I might add!) from the Dartmouth branch of the UMass system, I grew to loathe Amherst's flagship standing even though my school felt it was just the same or better in some areas academically. Having grown up in Boston, the western part of the state represents something you have to pass through on a drive out to Cooperstown. When their school transitioned to FBS, there was bluster from the UMass alumni base talking about how this was it. They didn't care that their games were played in an empty stadium. Having to listen to it can only feed personal feelings towards the matter.
But that's all something that needed to be developed over nearly 30 years of living and experiencing. It's entirely, 100% personal. I know UMass isn't the same marquee name as LSU or even remotely close to getting Central Florida. That doesn't diminish its personal importance to me. I don't care whether this is bulletin board material for someone or not; I want to decimate UMass. That this is the first game only heightens the anticipation.
If you haven't had that fostered, though, you might not get it. You'll look at this as just another game against a team that hasn't won much. Someone who came from the greater New York City area and spent four years in Boston won't understand the build up of feelings someone from the state will have. Someone from outside the area might look at this game and see an opponent who's won two games in the last two years while playing in one of the top-to-bottom worst conferences in the nation. Sure, NIU's been good, but the bottom of the MAC is really bad, and UMass is the bottom of the MAC. This is a game that fits squarely into Scenario A, along with Liberty's trip to Chapel Hill and Portland State's trip to Corvallis. The only difference is that it's not at Alumni Stadium, and we'll probably be able to tailgate more.
That's what makes UMass an intriguing opening game matchup. For some of us, it's awesome. For some of us, it's meh. There really isn't much in between. But to rank the Minutemen as an opening game boils down to the personal level. You either don't care or you absolutely can't wait. And you're either just excited for football or you're excited to add another chapter to a personal rivalry book.
* Putting this video in this link might've actually killed me.