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The Civil War And Regional Culture

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The 120th meeting between the Ducks and Beavers is more than just a football game in the state.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Oregon Ducks will play the Oregon State Beavers today in the Civil War for the 120th time. The Civil War is the 9th most played rivalry in the country. Luckily, the rivalry between the two teams is a friendly one with no real animosity. College sports have some of the most avid fans because colleges are so engrained in the fibers of the community. Many people in our state have gone to one of the two schools and often pass down their fandom to the younger generations in their family. College football is the King Kong of college sports and is often the central meeting point for fandom and pride derived from having gone to the school, being in the same family of someone who went to the school, or being in a community that heavily identifies with a college.

College football has always been a regional sport. Conferences are based on geographic location with similar economic and demographic conditions. Even though staying exclusive to a region has been stretched by conferences as part of realignment for more lucrative television deals, the newer teams and fan bases are often similar to the league that they join.

In my opinion, Colorado and Utah are just as at home in the PAC-12 as the Arizona schools are. Nebraska is at home in the Big-10 just as much as Penn State is. The Nittany Lions have fit in so well that many people forgot the school joined the Big-10 in 1990.

Teams in the Big-12 often find themselves at a loss on defense and high-powered offenses no matter what recruits and coaches join the teams. I don’t think any conference places as much as an emphasis on winning the war in the trenches as the SEC does. The difference in football philosophies across conferences is what makes out of conference games so interesting. Exhibition games such as the Rose Bowl were created so that teams from other parts of the country could play against each other. (And for fans to pay to watch teams from other parts of the country play against each other.)

It wasn’t until the last few decades that college football became such a national sport. When national television broadcasts became more common, 24/7 sports news organizations formed, and the BCS was made to try and pick a unified national champion, college football fans began to pay more attention to teams in other conferences. The successes or failures of teams in other parts of the country had a direct impact on teams on the other coast. The games that still mattered the most were the regional games. For example, when Louisville didn’t take care of Houston it didn’t matter what Michigan and Ohio State were doing.

Since 200 the Civil War has been a gatekeeper of sorts for the Ducks and the Beavers. In 2000 the #8 Beavers beat #5 Oregon 23-13 that sent Oregon State to the BCS Fiesta Bowl and the Ducks to the Holiday Bowl. The tables turned in 2001 when Oregon topped Oregon State 17-14. Oregon finished second in the country that year after handling Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon State missed out on bowl eligibility when they lost to Oregon 56-14 in the 2005 Civil War game.

Oregon State entered the 2008 Civil War game a single win away from winning the conference title and going to the Rose Bowl. Jeremiah Johnson had two huge runs and a Walter Thurmond pick-six before the half blew the game open en route to a 65-38 win. The following year both Oregon and Oregon State enter the Civil War with Rose Bowl hopes on the line. LaMichael James ran for three touchdowns, LeGarrette Blount made an appearance after being quiet most of the year after punching Boise State’s Byron Hout, and Jeremiah Masoli ran through a linebacker to convert on a game-sealing fourth down. Oregon returned to Reser in 2010 with a national championship spot on the line and the Beavers couldn’t spoil the season in front of a record crowd. In 2014 the Ducks once again beat the Beavers to make it to the first college football playoffs and eventual national title game appearance.

While most of Oregon’s roster comes from out of state and a significant part of Oregon State’s roster is from outside the Oregon borders it is noteworthy how competitive and emotionally charged the games are. Once again, the regional nature of football is an agent of socialization. It is cliché but you can throw out the records each game. Both teams have shown that they can implode and both have shown that they can also rise to the occasion.

This year there are no New Year’s Six bowl games on the line. There are no conference championship dreams to spoil. The only outcome of real consequence is if Oregon wins and move to 5-7 on the season they might stumble their way into a bowl game if the rumors are true.

The result of the game could be more symbolic than anything else. Many “experts” across the country and a sizeable portion of the Oregon fan base feel that the Oregon Ducks are on trending downwards. Meanwhile, Beaver fans have a lot of hope with Gary Andersen as head coach. I was a huge fan of Gary Andersen at Utah State and later Wisconsin and I think the Beavers are a year ahead of schedule. Oregon State has been competitive in nearly every game they have played this year and have three close losses. Both teams have had bad luck with games breaking the wrong way.

If the Beavers win, the narrative will be that Oregon State will be superior to the Ducks for the next few years with a coaching advantage for the foreseeable future. If the Ducks win, the take will be that the Beavers aren’t there yet, Oregon still has a floor they won’t dip below, and a subset of the Duck fan base will cringe thinking that Helfrich did just enough to keep his job.

This is a special weekend of the college football season. Where a bunch of weird stuff always happens. I don’t think science has proven it yet, but there is no reason to doubt that when rivals play the physics of the universe might change ever so slightly for a kick-six to happen.

Today the Ducks will line up across from the Beavers for the 120th time since 1894. That was back before bowl games, before flying across the countries before games, and before facemasks. This game mattered before people cared so much about sports. The Civil War began near the very inception of football and will surely be played as long as football is a sport. It will always be a game where thousands of people across the state are all watching the same game on television and care about the outcome more than usual if only because they have to see their coworkers the next day. The yearly football matchup between the two largest universities in the state have been one of the cornerstones of the state’s culture and will continue to be as long as there is college football.