What’s the story behind college teams’ nicknames?

College football is back this week, with 129 teams in the the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision fighting for four playoff spots.

OK, the acronym FBS is way better than saying the full name of the division out loud. Thankfully, many of the nicknames for those dozens of teams are less mechanical and more of a rich tapestry showing off the tradition, creativity and history that makes the college game so much fun to watch.

But some of those names, while endearing, are a little out there on closer inspection. Here’s the story behind some of the more odd nicknames.

  • Crimson Tide (Alabama) The legend behind this nickname comes from a muddy 1907 game against archrival Auburn in which the soil turned a red hue, leading a reporter to write Alabama looked like a “crimson tide” in a “sea of mud.” The strangest thing on the Alabama sidelines, however, is Big Al, the school’s elephant mascot. Search all you want, but you’ll never find a pachyderm in the Deep South. The origins of the elephant stretch back to 1930, when a fan marveling over the Tide’s skilled linemen shouted from the stands “Hold your horses, the elephants are coming.” So was born the team’s unofficial nickname of “Red Elephants,” but Big Al didn’t make his first appearance until 1979.

AP Photo/Roger Steinman

Alabama mascot Big Al runs onto the field with the team during an NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Arlington, Texas.
  • Nittany Lions (Penn State) Sure, we all know what a lion is. But what’s the deal with Nittany? It’s quite simple, actually: Close to State College is Mount Nittany, where ordinary mountain lions once roamed. Inspired during a 1904 baseball game against Princeton – where a Tiger statue intimidates visitors – a Penn State student created the Nittany Lion as the “fiercest beat of them all.”

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

In this Oct. 24, 2015, file photo, the Penn State Nitanny Lion mascot walks on the field in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland in Baltimore. 

  • Buckeyes (Ohio State) Ohio State is one of the most successful programs in all of college football, even if their nickname isn’t exactly intimidating. But the tree has a special history in Ohio, known as “The Buckeye State.” Native to the state, especially in the Ohio…

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