THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP
Here we go. A balmy December day inside the Georgia Dome. Seats in the open air press box smack on the fifty yard line for the SEC Championship between LSU and Tennessee. The dress code? Suits and seater vests, apparently. But no one sent Going South the memo so we're here, representing in our tattered jeans, and Waxman's latest thrift shop jumper. We stick out like thick thighs in mini-skirts. And you know that's the way we like it. Life couldn't taste any sweeter if you made it with Splenda.
To be honest, the championship game is unlike anything we've been to. Though each stadium and game day is unique in its own nuanced way, the overall experience of an SEC game is generally the same. There's the home crowd, the visiting RV-ers, the local sporting press, and a college town which seems to have been founded for the sole purpose of hosting the civilized debacle otherwise known as a SEC Tailgate. Even in the neutral Jacksonville games, the city is small enough that it feels like the Tailgate Invasion is overwhelming.
Here, though, in Atlanta, the game seems to be a part of the big picture, and not the whole thing. Yes, signs of the game are visible, but it certainly would be possible to spend the weekend here and not realize that the biggest game of the season was taking place in the city's sportsplex.
So what does this mean? It means that here, everybody is a bit of outsider. For the first time all season, fans find themselves slightly out of their element. They seem to be a little caught off-guard by the notion that life hasn't quite ground to a total halt on account of the match. And for the first time, it's not quite a press box party. In regular games, you can expect to see the usual suspects - the guys who cover their teams all season, who know not only their assigned seat, but the seat of every other local journalist. Here, these guys are interspersed with more national press, and working outside of their normal stomping grounds seems to put a damper on the traditional socializing.
Mike the Tiger prepares for the final charge.
Which, as the perpetual outsiders, is fine with Going South. We're known affectionately in SEC press circles as "the guys from New York" or "the guys on the trip," and our fellow hired geeks are always very welcoming and informative, but it's glaringly obvious that two of these things are not like the others. That's not to say that we'd have it any other way, but it is interesting to experience an environment that's not oozing tradition and local familiarity out of every pore.
The weekend has been interesting in another way: it's functioned as a sort of "Going South: This Is Your Life." It's amazing the number of people we've met along our travels who have convened in Atlanta. Sports information directors, subjects like Derek Ramsey and Tim Townes, random reporters and fans.
Beyond being the conference championship, the game seems to hold another significance to the people here. It's a kind of farewell, a swan song to the past thirteen weeks. A way for people to bid adieu to their second religion, and ready themselves for the nine months of football famine that are to come. Because in the end, what we've learned, what these people knew long ago, is that there really is nothing like a game day in the SEC.
Matt and his one true love: the hot sauce.