Technically, autumn begins Sunday night at 11:55 p.m. But for the thousands of Yale students, employees and fans who will descend on the Yale Bowl tomorrow, the greatest of all fall rituals will take place Saturday at 1:00 p.m. –the opening kickoff of the college football season.

Few students will realize it when the Bulldogs and Toreros of the University of San Diego meet tomorrow, but Yale was once the nation’s premier college football program. Legendary player and coach Walter Camp 1880 is known as the father of modern college football, and Yale was the winningest team in college football history until Michigan surpassed the Elis last year.

Sadly, attendance has decreased over the decades, and the Ivy presidents’ move this summer to cut the number of football recruits reflects a growing de-emphasis of the game at Yale.

But if you look hard enough, you can see that the history is still there. This summer the National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed to move the Heisman Trophy — college football’s most coveted prize –to the Yale Club of New York City. The trophy will now reside with the alma mater of two of its first three winners: Larry Kelley ’37 and Clint Frank ’38. Another of Yale’s legends, former head coach Carm Cozza, was honored this summer with an election to college football’s Hall of Fame.

Despite the program’s tremendous history, most Yale fans will turn out tomorrow to focus on the Yale’s 2002 squad. The team is an inexperienced one at most skill positions. Quarterback Alvin Cowan ’04 has seen little playing time, and starting tailback Robert Carr ’05 appeared in only a few games last year before being hobbled by injury.

Despite the dearth of veterans at the skill positions, the Bulldogs have shown promising signs in the preseason. They whipped Union in their annual scrimmage, putting up five touchdowns while shutting out the Dutchmen offensive squad. Cowan led the way on offense, and fellow junior Ron Benigno emerged as the quarterback’s favorite target. On the other side of the ball, Barton Simmons ’04 showed himself to be the All-Ivy candidate many predicted, picking off two passes and running one interception back 44 yards for an Eli touchdown.

It’s tempting to say that this is a team that is still a year away from reaching its full potential. The talented junior class will be even better as seniors, and promising freshmen like wideout Chandler Henley and offensive lineman Michael McDaniel could be among the league’s top players once they’ve gained a year of experience. That said, this year’s team has a solid, if not glamorous, core of seniors led by captain Jason Lange ’03, and the squad just might surprise a few teams this year.

The Elis face a challenging non-conference schedule, including games against Holy Cross, which upset Army last week, and Lehigh, which boasts the nation’s longest winning streak.

Still, critics would be wise to remember head coach Jack Siedlecki’s 1999 squad, which many predicted was “one year away” from contending for the championship. Yale eked out a tough win over San Diego early that season, and went on to win the championship. Needless to say, Yale fans are hoping this year’s squad will be able to pull off a similar feat.