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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006, 11:22 GMT
The real Varsity game
By Matt Slater

Of all the things that us Old Worlders find strange about New World games and pastimes - draft systems, chewing tobacco, Nascar - none is as weird and wonderful as America's fascination with sporty students.

Buckeyes fans taunt opposing fans during last season's 25-21 win over Michigan State
OSU fans try the old 'hold the other team's banner upside down' trick
During "fall", our autumn, your average US sports fan has his or her weekends mapped out - Saturdays are college games, Sundays are NFL (some even sneak in a high school game on Fridays, the rest go bowling).

College "football" and basketball are, quite simply, massive - massive crowds, massive money, massive players... Ali G would love it.

And this Saturday it is bigger than usual.

A quick look at the leading US sports websites will tell you that Ohio State University's gridiron team host the University of Michigan's in a contest that is billed as Verdict/Judgement/Something Extremely Portentous Day.

In a vote this week on the ESPN site, 35% said OSU v U of M was the sporting rivalry they would pay most to see.

This beat professional rivalries such as baseball's Yankees v Red Sox or the NFL's Cowboys v Redskins (no, that isn't a joke) by some margin.

But then none of those teams have sold every ticket in a 107,501-seat stadium for every home game since 1975.

Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr gets a little heated during last year's big clash
How much more special could Ohio State-Michigan be?

Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr

Michigan have. And they somehow squeezed a record 112,118 fans into "The Big House" for their 2003 game against Ohio State - which is a lot of cheerleaders.

That figure becomes even more remarkable when you consider that the population of Ann Arbor, U of M's home, is only 114,000.

You can also be sure that all 101,568 seats at the Ohio Stadium will be full come 2030 GMT on Saturday.

In fact, so seriously are the Buckeyes taking this game that they have announced a "Beat Michigan Week".

One of its features is a blood donor drive, which makes me wonder what they are planning if they lose.

After all, the rivalry is thought to stem from the Toledo War - not a US soccer franchise, but a 19th-century border dispute between these two Midwest states - and their games in the 1970s are often referred to as the "Ten-Year War".

The Buckeye Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio State sell out every game at Buckeye Stadium
And did I mention that after 102 meetings between what another ESPN poll described as "the greatest rivals in American sport", Saturday is the first time they have met as the country's top-ranked and second-ranked teams?

The Buckeyes, unbeaten in 18 games over two seasons, are number one.

The Wolverines, who have won 15 of their last 17, have bounced back from a poor 2005 to emerge as the only genuine challenger to OSU's top-dog status.

Michigan lead the series 57-39 with six ties, and have won 11 national titles to Ohio State's seven. The Buckeyes have won their last two contests, though.

As Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said last week: "How much more special could Ohio State-Michigan be?"

Lloyd, I agree. There is no way this game could assume more importance for you, your players and your fans. But that doesn't mean it makes much sense to us.

You see, we do get spectators at college sports matches in Britain - they're called substitutes.

Ohio State University fans
Things get a little crazy in Columbus at this time of year
The head coach is usually a third-year geography student and self-styled "libero"/fly-half/all-rounder called "Smiler".

And the only cheerleaders present are the women's netball team who have just finished their game on the adjoining tennis courts.

I suppose we do have the Varsity Match and Boat Race.

But as the same teams fight their way through to the finals every year, I would argue that they have more in common with that other US sporting institution - the Harlem Globetrotters v the Washington Generals.

Despite being strictly amateur, US college sport, on the other hand, is very competitive and often very good.

In the top games there is usually a strong chance that many of the players will be performing elaborate celebrations for an NFL or NBA team in the not-too-distant future.

In the UK, most people who are actually any good at sport would not get anywhere near university, even if it was just to study - but not necessarily pass - a degree in "communications".

University of Michigan fans
Wolverine fans are not to be outdone in the bodypaint stakes
Would-be professional footballers here are snapped up at primary school and shepherded into adulthood and the first team - or jettisoned when they cease to show sufficient promise.

Even sports such as cricket and rugby union, that used to be happy to let their most talented youngsters spend three years eating fish-finger sandwiches and watching Deal or No Deal, now prefer to keep a closer eye on things by tying them to clubs.

The most bizarre thing about the US system is that the British model is the norm for baseball and ice hockey - although they use "farm teams" as opposed to age-group teams and reserves.

Not, however, for American football or basketball. Hence the excitement and cash generated by those two sports for US universities.

But there is another reason behind the popularity of US college sport.

Whereas NFL outfits are an assortment of the best players that each franchise can assemble/afford, college teams are usually, give or take a few prize recruits, made up of local players.

Which is why even contests such as Michigan v Ohio State ladies' lacrosse 2nd team match, will still draw a bigger crowd than next week's big British Universities Sports Association rugby union match between reigning champions Loughborough and Premier North rivals Newcastle.

And the lacrosse players won't have to wash their own kits.

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