There is no national television here. There are no seat licenses or overzealous alumni who might push for a coach's ouster over the indignity of a losing season.
What you're likely to find instead are dogs and small children romping just beyond the fence bordering the field, alumni tailgating behind the end zone before and during the game, and an intimacy that invites fans to call out to players by name.
The trappings of big-time college football are found at just two schools in New England: Boston College and the University of Connecticut, both of which compete in the NCAA's "bowl division" along with 117 other schools.
At the dozens of other colleges in the region, few players are likely to be invited to work out for pro scouts in the annual NFL "scouting combine." Many teams are not allowed by their schools to compete in postseason playoffs.
Don't be fooled. Just because you might walk through the gate without having to pay admission doesn't mean that these college players don't have plenty to compete for. On a recent tour, we found rivalries that are among the oldest in the sport; spirited, competitive games; and settings that make it a delight to be there. Letter sweaters are optional.
Harvard Stadium (1903)
As we head for the imposing, horseshoe-shaped stadium across the Charles River from Harvard Yard, one of the two freshman women walking past asks their male companion about high school: "It was pretty good," he begins. "I was class president . . ."
We want to stop him and say, "Dude, this is Harvard - who wasn't their high school class president?" At one time, the Crimson epitomized big-time college football. They won seven national championships, including four in a nine-year span. Even though the most recent was in 1919, Harvard's field had an enduring impact on the game.
Known simply as "The Stadium," it was the world's first massive reinforced concrete structure, and its arches and columns evoke Rome's Coliseum. Shortly after its completion, there was an effort to ban football over its increasing violence (more than 40 college players died in a two-year span).
One proposed rule change to lessen the mayhem called for widening the field by 40 feet, but that ran smack into Harvard Stadium's permanent dimensions. Instead, the legendary John Heisman's push to adopt the forward pass was approved, revolutionizing the sport and ensuring its survival.
This, the stadium's 105th season, opens with a twist, the first-ever Friday night game, against Holy Cross. Lights were installed as part of a 2006 renovation that included the addition of FieldTurf, and the playing surface can now be enclosed in a dome-like bubble for wintertime use.
On this balmy evening, no one is seeking cover. More than 20,000 people fill the respective Harvard and Holy Cross sides of the horseshoe, with the closed end of the field nearly empty except for kids running back and forth along the bottom curve of the "U."
At halftime, the Harvard band provides a typically cheeky show on the topic of global warming, decrying potential drilling for oil in the quad, while vowing to "turn off our tubas whenever we leave the room." Crimson players return from their break like gladiators through a subterranean tunnel that requires them to duck their heads as they emerge, bringing new meaning to the term "stoop to conquer."
Things look bleak for Harvard when the Crusaders drive to the 1-yard line, already leading, 17-6. But as the teams change ends of the field to start the fourth quarter, the Harvard band belts out, "Don't Stop Believin' " and on the very next play, the defense jars the ball loose and recovers the fumble. A couple of plays later, Harvard's standout quarterback Chris Pizzotti completes a 68-yard touchdown pass, and the Crimson are on their way to an exciting 25-24 victory.
As Harvard drives for the winning score, a few fans, obviously still enamored of Michael Phelps's Olympic heroics, break into a "USA! USA!" chant. Hardly anybody turns their heads at the goofiness. It's Harvard, after all.
Remaining home games: Oct. 18, 12:30 vs. Lehigh; Nov. 8, noon vs. Columbia; Nov. 22, noon vs. Yale. Tickets $15, ages 3-14 $8, Yale game, all tickets $30. Murr Center, 65 North Harvard St., Boston. 617-495-2211, 877-GOHARVARD (464-2782), gocrimson.com.
Weston Field (1883), Williams College
The hoopla in Williamstown on Game Day begins with the ragtag marching band, all of a baker's dozen strong, marching through downtown. They pass the Ephporium and the St. Pierre Barbershop en route to Weston Field, which hosted its first game in November 1883 between the Ephs (short for Ephraim Williams Jr., the college's founder, pronounced "eephs") and archrival Amherst College.
This gorgeous little town was buzzing last November, when ESPN's College GameDay broadcast from Weston Field, the show's first visit to a Division III campus. This day, the season opener against Colby College, is more low-key, as fans bask in the Indian summer sun. Members of the Sideline Quarterback Club, open to anyone with an interest in Ephs football, enjoy a cookout on a knoll behind the far end zone. The college's website calls the group, which is celebrating its 60th year, one of the oldest booster clubs in the country, and it appears that many members have seen decades of Ephs football.
One of their brethren, Theodore Noehren, 90, a football letterman from the Class of 1939, participates in the pregame coin toss wearing a Williams jersey with his name on the back, accompanied by former Williams coach Dick Farley. Farley draws a laugh from game officials when he relates that someone asked whether Noehren played for him. Though he guided the team for 18 seasons (five of them undefeated), Farley's first year as coach (1986) was 50 years after Noehren's freshman year.
Williams wins the game, 28-0, but they won't know until Nov. 1 whether their Homecoming tradition will be realized. If they defeat Wesleyan that day, the Ephmen will march from the field to the barber shop, singing the fight song. Once in the shop, the celebration begins in earnest with players shaving each others' heads. Known as "The Walk," it was named the best postgame tradition in college football by Sports Illustrated in 1992.
Remaining game: Nov. 1, vs. Wesleyan, free. williams.prestosports.com/sports/fball/index.
Jessee/Miller Field (1900), Trinity College
This centenarian of a field sits in the middle of campus, which is itself in the middle of Hartford, a booming punt or two from the state capitol. Though Trinity is in the city, it is not of the city. The campus is an enclave with what the school website calls some of the earliest examples of collegiate Gothic architecture in the country. Gates and ancient walls surround its buildings, which are dominated by the Trinity College Chapel, across another playing field from the football gridiron.
Trinity's team is known as the Bantams, and their field is called "The Coop." These Bantams are feisty: with their 17-7 victory over Bates in the season opener, they have won 28 straight home games, and they had a run of three consecutive undefeated seasons from 2003-05.
After they finish off the victory over their New England Small College Athletic Conference foe, coach Jeff Devanney reminds the assembled players about the next day's mandatory study hall, even as music blares from a nearby fraternity house party. Players break away to mingle with their families, and four of them (three from Trinity, one from Bates) compare notes on this, their first month in college after years as prep school teammates.
Remaining games: Oct. 25, Middlebury; Nov. 1, Amherst, both 1 p.m., free. 300 Summit St., Hartford. athletics.trincoll.edu/sports/fball/index.
Andrus Field (1881), Wesleyan University
This field is what it is, the oldest gridiron in college football. Oops, there we go, channeling Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Class of 1975 and king of the cryptic answer. Belichick's ties to Wesleyan are strong; his daughter graduated from here last year. Eric Mangini, the New York Jets coach and a Belichick disciple turned adversary, was an All-New England defensive lineman for the Cardinals.
The shout "Go Birds!" rings out as the Wesleyan squad charges onto Andrus Field, which is in the heart of the original 1831 campus surrounded by stately College Row and the Olin Memorial Library, in the central Connecticut city of Middletown. Wesleyan is hosting Hamilton College, which despite its location in Clinton, N.Y., is also a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference. Hamilton fans have strung a "Go Continentals" banner across their side of the field, and their cheers match those of the home side, until you reach the end of the field.
Here some Wesleyan student-athletes lounge on the terrace below the library. Their catcalls and critiques of the officiating are enhanced by a bullhorn they trade back and forth. Hamilton drives deep into Cardinals' territory as the third quarter ends, and as the teams walk to the other end, the guy with the horn goads Hamilton, "You better go to the other end!"
Once there, Wesleyan holds firm. A defender jars the ball loose on what appears a sure touchdown catch, another catch is ruled out of bounds, and a Hamilton field-goal try clangs off the right upright and bounces away.
The Cardinals' momentum is short-lived, as Hamilton quickly regains the ball and connects for a 55-yard touchdown and an eventual 17-7 victory.
Wesleyan can take solace in its standing as one of the few schools to have an undefeated record against Michigan. The Big Ten power has the most all-time victories in college football, but it has an 0-1 record against the Cardinals, a 14-6 loss in 1883.
Obviously, Michigan has been ducking them ever since.
Remaining games: Oct. 18, Amherst, 1 p.m.; Oct. 25, Bowdoin, 12:30; Nov. 8, Trinity, noon, free. wesleyan.edu/athletics/football.
Ron Driscoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.