Alabama-Auburn. Michigan-Ohio State.
Ithaca College versus SUNY Cortland.
In the pantheon of college football rivalries, one of these things is ostensibly not like the others. But try telling that to fans of the Ithaca Bombers and the Cortland Red Dragons — or to hordes of devotees across the country enraptured by sports rivalries that are largely unknown beyond their region.
On Saturday, Ithaca and Cortland are scheduled to play the 61st Cortaca Jug game at MetLife Stadium, more than 200 miles from their campuses in central New York.
Despite that distance, the matchup is poised to become the most-attended football game in Division III history, with the expectation of breaking 50,000 on Saturday and about 46,500 tickets sold as of Thursday. That would dwarf the usual attendance for the game, which averages about 10,000 fans when it is played on one of the schools’ campuses.
But the boosting of the crowd size is not a gimmick, rather a reflection of the game being played closer to New York City, where some fans will have a chance to go conveniently for the first time.
“Everyone has bought into this,” said Dan MacNeill, the Cortland coach. “This will be another great story attached to a storied rivalry.”
Cortland and Ithaca first squared off in 1930, and the inaugural Cortaca Jug game was played in 1959. The game — a portmanteau of the names Cortland and Ithaca — is named for its titular trophy, a moonshine jug purchased at a yard sale. Following each year’s game, the name of the winning school is inscribed onto the jug. When the first jug ran out of space in the 1980s, a second was acquired. A third jug was christened in 2016.
When tickets went on sale last December, 5,000 sold within two hours. A total of 20,000 were purchased by the end of January.
“We really haven’t marketed or networked this to anyone but our students and the alumni and families,” said Mike Urtz, Cortland’s athletic director. “You’re talking about two campuses that together add up to 12 or 13 thousand together. It shows that our rivalry is special, it’s strong.”
An estimated 35,000 alumni live near New York City, and plenty appeared eager to see a game played in their neck of the woods. Most tickets cost about $15 to $35.
Since the early 2000s, aided by the proliferation of social media and video streaming, alumni from both Ithaca and SUNY Cortland have organized viewing parties in New York City and other major American cities like Washington and Los Angeles. Some of those gatherings have swelled to nearly 1,000 people.
Marc Hudak, who leads the New York City chapter of the National Football Foundation, an organization that has pushed for broader support of the sport on a number of fronts, was instrumental in moving the game.
Hudak was a captain on the Ithaca team that won a Division III national title in 1988, and he pitched the school’s leaders on taking the rivalry to the East Rutherford, N.J., home of the N.F.L.’s Jets and Giants. Cortland quickly agreed, seizing it as a rare opportunity for athletes at a level where athletic scholarships are not awarded.
“These guys who are playing Division III football are as committed as the guys playing Division I football,” Hudak said. “Maybe they were a tenth of a second slower than they needed to be, maybe they were a couple inches shorter or a couple pounds lighter, but these are guys who play the game well.”
The National Football Foundation provided travel stipends to the schools. Ithaca College chartered 16 buses from its campus to New Jersey for almost 850 students; 580 students planned to bus in from Cortland.
“I haven’t had anybody say a negative thing about it to me, and trust me, a lot of people walk up and give their two cents about a lot of things,” said Dan Swanstrom, Ithaca College’s football coach. “I’ve heard everything you could ever imagine coming off that field, every suggestion, every single play call, every single detail has been questioned, but this has not been questioned.”
The Cortaca Jug matchup signifies the end of the regular season for both teams.
Ithaca (7-2) leads the Cortaca Jug series, 36-24. Cortland (8-1) won the game for seven straight years starting in 2010, but Ithaca has taken the last two.
Swanstrom’s track record with quarterbacks — Wahid Nabi set a school record with six touchdown passes in the Cortaca game in 2017 — enticed a new starting quarterback, Joe Germinerio, to join the team this fall. Germinerio, an All-American who graduated from SUNY Brockport last spring, transferred to Ithaca for his final year of athletic eligibility.
Regardless of the talent on the field, the rivalry’s popularity and reputation guaranteed demand from fans. Fervor for the game has long manifested in sellout crowds, apocryphal stories of spectators watching in trees — and even a minor riot in 2013.
The crowd expected at MetLife will be part of a wider trend for Division III. The five biggest Division III football crowds gathered within the last four years.
The record before Saturday was 37,355 fans, set in September 2017 at the Tommie-Johnnie game between the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University. It was played at Target Field in Minneapolis, a neutral site, like MetLife, that allowed for larger crowds. The Tommie-Johnnie game before Saturday boasted four of those five largest Division III crowds.
Glenn Caruso, the football coach at the University of St. Thomas and an Ithaca College alumnus, believes rivalries like these foster solidarity that goes well beyond the bonds between players.
“In a day and an age all the more devoted to style over substance, people are starving for things to be physically connected to,” Caruso said. “There’s still very few things that draw a visceral response of attachment like being at a game on Saturday afternoon, in the fall, with 30,000 other people. Or 10,000 other people or 5,000 other people.”