As John Ward likes to say, “It’s football time in Tennessee.” And, friends, you know what that means. Time to trot out all those bitter rivalries. All those ancient, Balkan hatreds. All those catty jokes about one’s SEC brethren and sistren, such as:
Q. In Arkansas, what do tornadoes and divorces have in common? A. Either way, somebody gonna lose a mobile home.
Or: Q. Why do Florida grads put their diplomas in the back windows of their cars? A. So they can park in the handicapped spaces.
Or: Q. What’s 40 feet long and has 11 teeth? A. The front row at a UT pep rally.
Or: Q. What causes Alabama boys to have red eyes after sex? A. Mace.
All of these jokes, of course, are interchangeable. Just insert the name of your chief rival, and you’re off.
Around the SEC, everybody thinks the fans of his nemesis are the sorriest, most worm-ridden bunch of people in the world. In the minds of Big Orange boosters, Florida fans have supplanted Alabamians as God’s gift to jug-sucking goobs. Tide rooters point to Auburn fans as Satan’s agents on earth. One normally objective friend claims that Kentucky is the hookworm capital of America.
The competition for misanthropy in these parts is so fierce that even the locals sometimes trash their own bad selves. “Ours are the worst,” a member of the sideline crew at Arkansas once told me, with equal parts embarrassment and admiration, as death threats rained from the stands toward the refs. A New Orleans friend, meanwhile, fretted that LSU’s lofty preseason ranking would unhinge the Tigers: “The guys on the team who can read will read about it and get the big head,” my pal Boeuf reasoned. “And then they’ll read it to the guys who can’t read, and they’ll get the big head. And then those guys will call up the guys in prison and they’ll get the big head too.”
You can appreciate how difficult it must be to sort out such rival claims objectively. So to kick off the season, instead of merely rating the teams on the field, we’ve brought together our usual panel of way, way insiders.
Drawing on experience, TV images, and anecdotal evidence, our panelists have compiled a quasi-scientific evaluation of the football fans who help make this league the country’s most brutal (in the true sense of the word). With malice toward all, and charity toward none (and if we somehow missed offending you, it’s only because we ran out of space), here’s how our surveyors handicapped the SEC.
N.A. Vanderbilt. After being informed that Calvin Coolidge was dead, Dorothy Parker quipped, “How can they tell?” Fortunately, Dorothy never saw a game at Dudley Field, where the football atmosphere often has the whiff of Forest Lawn and formaldehyde. Showing up fashionably late (if at all) and exiting early, Vandy fans are like absentee landlords who rent out their beach house most of the year, leaving the place to eager visitors.
11. Kentucky. One theory holds that fans are most offensive when their team is their state’s only source of pride. The pride of Kentucky is basketballto whose rooters the aforementioned rule applies marvelously, freeing Wildcat football fans to be the SEC’s most innocuous.
10. South Carolina. For a team whose mascot, the Gamecock, evokes the ultimate white-trash spectacle, Carolina fans aren’t nearly as offensive as they have a right to be. Which made our panelists wonder: Are they still playing football down there? (We’re checking.)
9. Mississippi State. You can live with the cowbells. But you have to be leery of any place where the coach uses a calf castration to fire up the team.
8. Auburn. It’s tough being Bama Jr., but that’s the role Auburn fans were born to play. Unable to decide whether, like their rivals, to invest heavily in RVs with fight-song-blaring horns, they take the middle roadthey’re the Presbyterians of SEC football. They’re No. 2. They need to try harder. On the plus side, they hold their own in IQ (Ignernt Quotient)as reflected by an Auburn diploma holder who swore there’s no such language as Italian. (“Those people speak Frainch.”)
7. Ole Miss. Next to Vanderbilters, the Rebs are the most preppily dressed bunch in the league. But they can taunt with the worst, and they cling defiantly to their flaga symbol, to many, of subjugation and slavery.
6. Tennessee. No fans are more devoted; nowhere else are orange overalls and His and Hers warm-up suits so voguish (and garish); and nowhere will you find so many homes whose decorative scheme, including commode seats, is “UTay.” Despite these promising signs, Vol fans are surprisingly hospitable by SEC standards. Unfortunately, the warmth doesn’t extend to struggling coaches like Bill Battle, to whose home a moving van was once dispatched.
5. Alabama. There’s the Cult of the Bear, which ensures eternal turmoil in Tuscaloosa (since no coach can compete with a god). There’s the obsession with red-elephant objets d’art, and the fans who begin parking their RVs outside the stadium on Monday. But our pollsters pointed especially to one revealing play during last year’s Alabama-Vanderbilt game, when Vandy’s defensive penetration left the Tide runner nowhere to break but outside. Despite his efforts, the back was tackled for a loss.
“No-orth and sy-outh!” screamed one Bama fan. “Run north and sy-outh! Whutsa matter wichu?”
“Now you can understand,” remarked one overhearer, “why the Confederacy lost the Civil War.”
4. Florida. Thousands of UT fans can’t be wrong. Like their coach, Florida fans appear to have been born without a MUTE button. If they could only equal the fashion effrontery of Georgia or Arkansas fans, they could become the most reviled in the SEC.
3. LSU. Baton Rouge on a Saturday night may be the most intimidating (not to mention intoxicating) spot in the whole SEC. So intoxicating, in fact, that half the fun is watching Tiger fans beat up each other if the team starts losing. Another ratings booster: Nobody, not even Alabama, has elevated van art (in electric purple and gold) to such an expression of culture.
2. Georgia. They adorn themselves with Bulldog boxer shorts outside their pants. They wear hand-activated boxes that play the first bars of their adopted fight song. Without warning, they’ll plop to all fours and bark like dawgs. Trust us, you don’t want to know more.
1. Arkansas. True, they’ve mellowed since having a native son for president has given them another rooting interest. Still, witnesses have seen Arkansas fans angrily hurl ice onto the field and curse the refswho dared to flag an offensive lineman for jumping three yards downfield before the snap. They’ve been observed threatening rival fans who ventured through sections where Hog Callers were concentrated.
In the old Southwest Conference, rival schools almost never brought their bands to Fayetteville, citing concerns for safety. And, of course, even after all these years, those red piggy hats remain unsurpassed as tacky fashion accessories. A strong, strong showing.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Syracuse 27, Tennessee 23
Mississippi State 23, Vanderbilt 10
Penn State 23, Southern Mississippi 13
Kentucky 34, Louisville 21
Alabama 21, BYU 17
Ole Miss 21, Memphis 13
South Carolina 30, Ball State 10
Georgia 42, Kent 10
Notre Dame 17, Michigan 14
Ohio State 24, West Virginia 20
Arizona State 26, Washington 20
Oilers 24, Bengals 21