The night before last year’s MSU game, I joined some friends at the Brown Jug. It was only five o’clock on a gray, chilly Friday afternoon, but the restaurant was already packed with students, alumni, and fans. With the students back from fall break, and Michigan facing its in-state archrival, you could already see that this weekend–not the previous week’s 45-0 smackdown of Illinois–would serve as the real homecoming game for most fans.

Pro sports have rivalries, but they’re fueled more by personalities than by teams and certainly not by schools. But in college football, you really can throw out the records. In these century-old tugs-of-war, even when one or both teams are down, the hate is just as great–and the chance to play spoiler is almost as delicious as an opportunity to run over your rival on your way to the title.

Thus, even though the Spartans were 4-3, and Michigan stood at 4-2 after two wins over weak Purdue and Illinois squads, Ann Arbor was buzzing with a ritual renewed: Spartans and Wolverines packing every diner, restaurant, pub, and club in town on a Friday afternoon.

A couple years ago I met a few guys through a mutual friend, Dana Jacobson, who was on ESPN for more than ten years before moving on to CBS radio. They were all students at Michigan in the nineties. More than a dozen of them have stayed in touch and come back every year for a football game.

At the Brown Jug, before we met the rest for dinner, the group consisted of Lee Shufro, a sales exec in New York City; Mike Ryan, who studies education at Georgia Tech; and Dan Ross, who runs a Virginia services company.

Why do they come back to Ann Arbor for a game? “Half of it is just seeing all our friends,” said Shufro. So what’s the other half? “College football is different than any other sport,” said Ryan. “It engages the whole campus.”

“And it fills the whole day,” Shufro said. “Tailgating, the game, dinner, then drinking. You catch up pretty fast.

“You come back here,” he added, looking around the bar, “and you step back in time. And honestly, I don’t know if we’d ever come back if there wasn’t a home football game. I know we never have. We’re not coming back for Art Fair!”

“There’d be no point!” Shufro said. “If we didn’t go to a school with a serious football tradition …”

“We would never come back!” Ryan said. “My friends [in Atlanta] who went to Wake Forest, they don’t go back.”

Given their deep-rooted passion for college football, they are naturally concerned about preserving what makes it special.

So, what does make it special?

“Your identity is your school,” said Ross. “And there’s a limited number of games, so there’s so much riding on every game.”

“That’s it: every game counts,” Ryan said. “But once they put in a playoff–and you know it’s going to expand–will you care about the second non-conference game of the season? And why do we need one champion, anyway? I never tell people, ‘Remember 1997, when we were co-champions?’ No way! No one cares about the ‘co-.’ I want to go back to the conference champions going to bowl games.”

The best evidence for the “every game counts” argument–unfortunately for these Michigan graduates–is “The Horror”: Appalachian State’s stunning victory over Michigan in 2007, still considered by most pundits to be the greatest upset in the history of the game.

When I simply mentioned Appalacian State, their eyes closed, their heads dropped, and their palms slapped foreheads–which is pretty good evidence for another argument: how college football creates community. They all know what’s being discussed, what it means, and how everyone felt about it–without another word. Since these three alums came from different states, majored in political science, economics, and electrical engineering, respectively, and scattered across the Eastern seaboard after graduation, what else could create such an emotional shorthand?

“You had to mention that, didn’t you?” Ross asked. “I was in a meeting with the CIO at Lowe’s. Once he learned I went to Michigan, his eyes got big and he said, ‘I went to Appalachian State! I’ve got a shrine to that game!’ And he actually does, right in his office. A football, a jersey, framed photos–from that game. And that’s just his shrine at Lowe’s. He has another one–the ‘official’ one–at his home. It’s even bigger.”

“So, tell me, why are we playing them again?” Ryan asked, getting a laugh. No one in this booth could understand why AD Dave Brandon decided to bring back Appalachian State to open the 2014 season.

“TV ratings,” was the best anyone could come up with.

The growing commercialization of the sport they love is always a hot topic among college fans.

“In college football, there’s no advertising, no beer signs, no commercials [in the stadium] during the game,” Ross said.

“That’s just Michigan and Notre Dame,” Ryan corrected him. “And the Big Ten, to a lesser degree. But when you go to an SEC game, man, there’s an ad on the big screen every single second. And they have moving scoreboards, and scrolling ads. It’s endless.”

“They’re squeezing the goose,” Ross said, “but I don’t think even the profiteers can kill it. They’ve got a great sausage-making machine. And every year [the big state schools] mint 10,000 more alums.”

That model only works, of course, if those 10,000 newly minted alums keep watching the games wherever they end up living and getting back for as many as they can. And that, ultimately, depends on a continued connection.

“The fan experience was about the same as it was twenty or thirty years ago, and that’s good,” Ryan said, “until they built the Death Star–er, the luxury boxes [in 2010]. Michigan, that great stalwart of tradition, is now murdering the very things we love about Michigan football. They didn’t build the luxury boxes for a better fan experience. They did it for one reason: to make money.”

“All the good games are now on Saturday night,” Ross said. “I think these universities are shrouded in this ‘temples-on-the-hill’ mentality, but that kind of change is just for money.”

“There’s always been a battle between money and the original mission,” Ryan said. He didn’t need to add that the money seemed to be on a winning streak of late.

“In fairness,” Ross said, “Michigan’s locked in an arms race, and Ohio State was winning it! Either you keep up with Ohio State, or you become the University of Chicago. Either you’re going to keep up and get more skyboxes and all that, or you’ll see thirty schools pass you by. I think we needed Dave Brandon.”

These were smart guys, loyal to their school, devoted to college football, and not afraid to be critical of any of it when need be–but you could see them wrestling to define the problem and the solution. Is it the infusion of money? Is it the accelerating arms race? Is it all a necessary evil? That they couldn’t come to a single conclusion suggested it might be all three.

Although it was actually Brandon’s predecessor, Bill Martin, who built the luxury boxes, to the fans, Brandon has come to represent the corporatization of college athletics, and all the jargon that goes with it: “maximizing revenue streams,” “customer satisfaction,” and, of course, “branding.”

None of those were terribly well received by these three, but they weren’t sure what, if anything, could be done about them–especially when the same symptoms beset just about every major college football program in the country.

“T. Boone Pickens is the cover boy of the college football boosters,” Ross said. “He owns the Oklahoma State athletic department.”

“You look at the top 100 donations universities have received, and where are they from?” Shufro asked. “Wall Street, real estate, Nike, oil.”

Why is that a problem?

“Look at UConn,” Ross said. After head football coach Randy Edsall left for Maryland, the school hired Paul Pasqualoni. Problem was, booster Robert G. Burton, who had given $3 million to build the team’s new practice facility and put his family’s name on the building, establishing him as the program’s top donor, preferred Steve Addazio. He was unhappy with the selection and even more unhappy he was not consulted. He sent off a scathing, public letter to UConn’s AD. “For someone who has given over $7,000,000 to the football program/university, I do not feel as though these requests were asking for too much. Your lack of response on either of these requests tells me you do not respect my point of view or value my opinion.”

UConn won that round, in a close decision, but you could see the future in the exchange, and my friends at the Jug didn’t like it.

“We’re starting to hand over control of our schools to ‘special interests,'” Ryan said. “That can’t be good.”

“If you can’t buy an NFL team,” Ross said, “the next best thing is to get a seat at the table with the athletic director.”

Since college football is the catalyst that brings this group back together and keeps them connected through good times and bad–well, you can see why they’re so invested in the future of the game. When we joined a dozen more of their friends and spouses at Zingerman’s on Fourth, the discussion accelerated.

“They are ruining college football,” Detroit attorney Jason Conti said, in a view that was echoed by many. Why? “Because the essence of college football is not a national title. That’s as cheesy as a unicorn. It’s tomorrow’s game against Michigan State. It’s regional rivalries that go back generations.

“Honestly, I don’t give a damn if Alabama wins the national title by a hundred points. If Michigan beats State tomorrow by three, I’m thrilled.”

When an NFL team changes divisions–which happens often–how many fans really care? But when a college football rivalry is suspended or merely threatened, fans get their backs up pretty fast.

“Notre Dame is going to live to regret ending the Michigan series,” Conti added. “They’re ruining the sport. At the end of the day, if you pull out of the rivalries, it’s just another football game.

“I hope Notre Dame has fun playing Syracuse.”

Bacon’s latest New York Times best-seller is Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football.