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Q&A: ESPN College Reporter Samantha Ponder discusses College Gameday and Northwestern football

As Northwestern fans prepare for a wild Saturday of college football, leading off with College Gameday in the morning and culminating in the No. 16 Wildcats’ primetime matchup against No. 4 Ohio State, campus is awash in anticipation. ESPN sideline reporter and College Gameday host Samantha Ponder is likewise excited to cover her first game at Ryan Field, and if you frequent InsideNU, you have the privilege of finding out why. I spoke with Ponder this week for a few minutes about her experiences as a Gameday host, a few general college football topics and some Northwestern-related story lines. Check out her bio on ESPN Media Zone, and follow her on Twitter @SamSteelePonder.

Here’s a video of Ponder interviewing Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald during his August 1 media ‘Car Wash’ at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.

CJ: Of the campuses you’ve visited for Gameday, which did you enjoy the most?

SP: This year has been crazy, because every location we’ve gone to has been so different, and I think it will also be like that this week at Northwestern.

The Fargo experience at North Dakota State – it was almost like I was in a movie. They basically shut down the downtown area, and it seemed like everybody came out. So, that one was fun just because of the level of excitement in that town.

Clemson was crazy, Michigan,…Everywhere we’ve gone this year so far has been insane. Obviously at [Texas] A&M, just the excitement for the game this year against Alabama, it almost felt like it was some sort of playoff game or championship game.

CJ: Which Gameday location that you’ve visited over the past two seasons had the most passionate fans?

SP: I would guess it would be one of the SEC schools we went to this year. Although, I will say this: the Clemson fans are just insane, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. I don’t know that there’s been a school that we’ve gone to for Gameday where I wouldn’t say that the fan base was passionate and crazy. That’s kind of what Gameday elicits.

It will be interesting this week with Northwestern, just because I’ve never done a Northwestern game before, and to see what the fan base is like. Obviously, they’ve got plenty of reasons to be excited, but every school is different.

I grew up watching Pac-10 games, because I’m from Phoenix and went to ASU for a little bit, and obviously, even when a school like Stanford is playing great, you’re not going to get the same fan base that you get even out of a Mississippi State team that’s struggling. At an awesome Stanford game, the fans aren’t going to be the same as a struggling SEC team’s. A lot of that just has to do with the culture and that environment.

CJ: What is the hardest part about being a host on College Gameday?

SP: There’s nothing that can prepare you for the screaming behind you while someone is talking in your ear, while you’re trying to listen to whoever the analyst is next to you, while keeping the audience at home in mind. It’s just a lot going on all at one time.

And I’m used to doing sideline stuff, where you’ll have fans screaming in the stands, but it’s just different on Gameday – the number of things that will happen. It’s all so unpredictable, that there’s really no way to simulate that environment.

If I went to the best broadcast journalism school in the country, and had the best professors, or even the best job before that – there’s just no way to simulate that. It’s such a unique environment that even the craziest stadiums I’ve been at where fans are screaming doesn’t fully prepare you for what it’s like to be out there when those fans [on Gameday] go nuts.

So, I think logistically, that’s the hardest part about hosting anything there – expecting the unexpected and knowing that, no matter what happens, you’ve just got to go with it, because it’s live TV and it’s unscripted. I think that’s one of the things that people don’t know – I certainly didn’t know before I started doing the show – that it’s all unscripted. We don’t have prompters.

That’s why Chris Fowler doesn’t get nearly enough love and credit for his abilities. To host a three-hour show with no prompter – obviously he works hard to prepare for that, but it’s really, pretty incredible.

CJ: Do you know which mascot head host Lee Corso is going to pick before the show?

SP: I actually am super-sneaky, and I usually figure it out. But it’s not something that is announced in a meeting. We have a guy every week whose job it is to keep the headgear. During the segment where Corso picks, he’s actually crouching down behind the desk with the headgear – or whatever else it’s going to be: a chicken or a bulldog, or whatever kind of craziness coach comes up with. I usually kind of figure it out ahead of time, but it’s even somewhat secretive around our camp.

CJ: Where do you think the Big Ten ranks among the major conferences?

SP: I think a lot of it is going to depend on what happens towards the end of this year. So many people are doubting Ohio State despite what is an incredible record. I’ll say this: no matter what anybody says about the conference, just to win that much with all of the things you can’t expect…

I think people are waiting to see if Ohio State is the real deal, and if they end up coming through on the other side and going to the national championship, and certainly if they win the national championship, I think that will completely change what people have been saying about the Big Ten – especially over the last two years.

Right now, because so few teams have played other great teams – and that’s a whole other issue in college football right now – it’s really easy for people to say, ‘Yeah, Ohio State is undefeated, but they don’t really play anybody.’

Well, if it turns out that they are as good as some think they may be, then I think that will really help the reputation of the conference, because then people realize, ‘Oh, well maybe the win over Wisconsin makes Wisconsin look a little bit better now that we know Ohio State is better than Alabama.’ And I’m not saying that’s the case, but if something like that does happen, I think that’s what will really help the reputation of the conference.

CJ: Do you think Northwestern should be considered the favorite in the Legends Division?

SP: I think they [Northwestern and Michigan] have certainly both shown inconsistencies, and I don’t have a strong argument for one or the other. Both teams have struggled to get into the kind of offensive consistency that I think both of their coaches would expect.

I think a lot is going to be shown this week against Ohio State. If Northwestern’s secondary can hold up against Braxton Miller, then I think they’ll quiet a lot of people. But when you have issues with teams that, on paper, people aren’t even necessarily looking at the score [i.e. Akron and Maine, Western Michigan], because they just assume you’re going to blow them out, I think that’s when people have questions.

I think both of those teams are in similar situations.

CJ: What’s your prediction for the OSU-NU game 

SP: There are so many opinions and predictions out there, that I’ll just leave that to the rest of the guys.