Pigskin paradise: SEC orientation for newcomers Mizzou, Texas A&M
Welcome, Missouri and Texas A&M, to America's premier football conference. You've joined a club that offers huge rewards (six straight national titles) and daunting challenges (you have to play the teams that won the past six national titles). In the Big 12 you traveled to big stadiums and faced future first-round draft picks. In the SEC you'll learn how 93,000 screaming LSU fans can induce claustrophobia in the open air and how genetic freaks seem even faster when they don Georgia's silver britches. You'll marvel at how a bucolic college town can be so serene on Friday morning, then morph into a cauldron of bloodlust by Saturday afternoon. Fear not. You'll love it.
Before beginning SEC play, keep these facts in mind. Though you played in an excellent football conference before, you'll find things work differently in the SEC. In the Big 12, only Texas and Oklahoma tried to field top-level defenses on an annual basis. The other programs attempted to win by breaking the scoreboard. That rarely happens in the SEC. The best SEC programs have made defense their No. 1 priority. Last year the SEC produced four of the top five teams in the nation in total defense. LSU won its first 13 games in 2011 on the back of its defense, allowing just 11.3 points a game. Then LSU lost the BCS title game to conference compadre Alabama because the Crimson Tide had an equally good defense and (on that night) a much better offense.
Aggies, this message is even more important for you. You've entered the SEC's West Division, home of those nasty, offense-smothering LSU and Alabama teams. Your new coach, Kevin Sumlin, is a magician with a spread offense, but he'll need every trick to break through the walls erected in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. Missouri, you've caught a bit of a break in the long term by landing in the SEC East, but don't expect to knife through opposing defenders the way you did in the Big 12. After all, you do have to play Alabama this season, and when you meet Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, you'll truly understand what you'll be up against year after year.
Yet fielding suffocating defenses has not kept SEC programs out of the end zone. Arkansas, for one, can fling the ball around as well as any of those elite Big 12 offenses. You folks in College Station know this after Razorbacks QB Tyler Wilson torched A&M for 510 passing yards last year. In the East the Tigers must keep Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Georgia's Aaron Murray from barraging them with touchdown passes.
Also, when Florida comes to College Station on Sept. 8, show the Gators the way to sway. In Gainesville the faithful rock side to side while singing
Mizzou, you're not strange in any way. Get weirder.
Strap up and strap in, because you're about to enter an entirely different realm of football experience. The Texans and Oklahomans you left behind in the Big 12 love their football and play it well, but no group cares as deeply about the game as the people in SEC country. Don't believe it? Listen to a few minutes of the Birmingham-based radio show hosted by SI.com contributor Paul Finebaum, which, in the Internet age, has become the sounding board for the entire league. (Oh, and remember, if you call in to request that your coach be fired, the first word from your mouth must be Paaaaaaaaaawl.)
It may take a while to learn all of the SEC's idioms -- for example, the one conference game each week that kicks off at 12:30 p.m. will forever be known as "the JP game" in honor of former television title sponsor Jefferson-Pilot -- but you'll manage. You've joined a football fraternity that offers a lifetime of joy, heartbreak and slobberknockers.
As new kids in these parts you might get hazed a little at first. But after a few years you'll feel as if you've always been here. Like everyone else within the SEC's borders, you'll live for those perfect Saturdays from September to November when nothing else matters but the scoreboard and the temperature on the smoker.
Welcome to football paradise.