Besides helpful suggestions for where I need to rank certain teams, the bulk of my writer-reader interaction involves food. Eating is a critical part of the college football experience, so it only makes sense that one of the most common questions I get is this: Which school has the best tailgating?
The answer is easy. LSU. Give an LSU fan an ice chest, pots and pans and an open flame, and you will find yourself eating Heaven Sauce Piquante for a weekend. But last week in Baton Rouge, I happened upon a roving band of tailgaters who could go grill-to-gumbo pot with the locals. And when they aren't setting out a feast for 80, they're putting on the most influential television show in college football.
When Big and Rich assault your eardrums every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. ET to alert you that ESPN's College GameDay has come to your citaaaaaaaay, they never mention that Tommy Marshall is the guy who drove GameDay -- or at least the mobile studio that produces the show -- to your citaaaaaaay in a 53-foot trailer. But Marshall is a critical cog in the GameDay machine, not just because he coordinates the hauling of the entire production across the country but because he also runs the Roadkill Grill.
What's the Roadkill Grill? It's the ultimate tailgate meal, and it happens every Friday afternoon. Marshall, stage manager Justin Endres and a group of crew members spend Friday mornings procuring and cooking a feast for the 75-person crew. Even the on-camera pretty boys get a plate. For example, Lee Corso loves the beef tenderloin, and the Roadkill Grill serves him up healthy-sized piece unless his wife complains that he needs to eat more vegetables. Last week, Marshall, Endres and Jumbotron technician Mike Roberts cooked up their usual offering of tenderloin, beer-can chicken, bratwurst, sautéed mushrooms and bacon-wrapped jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese. Then, because they always try to add some local flavor, they also cooked up gumbo, crawfish etouffee and jambalaya with Andouille sausage and tasso ham. This week, with GameDay in San Diego to honor the U.S. military on Veterans Day weekend, they'll be adding deviled eggs, carne asada, pollo asado and at least one fish dish.
So how did Marshall become a world-class tailgater? He wanted to get to know his new co-workers. In 2004, Marshall was one of the most respected lead drivers in rock 'n' roll. He had hauled major shows across the nation for 28 years. During that time, a fellow trucker within CB range could have asked if the Mayor of Rock 'n' Roll had his ears on, and Marshall's voice would have crackled in reply. Marshall once ate Thanksgiving dinner with the Rolling Stones. He attended crew parties where the members of U2 tended bar. Marshall's granddaughter knows Kid Rock better by his real name, Bob. But at the turn of the century, the music business was changing. Tour budgets were tightening. Meanwhile, friends in the business told Marshall mobile television was about to boom. Marshall could see why. Every time a production truck rolled in to film a show on a tour he worked on, he'd have to move heaven and earth to accommodate it. Even better, the schedule was far more accommodating than the rock tour lifestyle, which sometimes required Marshall to be away from his Columbus, Ohio, home for months at a time. "They said, 'You can be home 10 days a month,'" Marshall said. "I said, 'You've piqued my interest.'" So Marshall got a job with Game Creek Video, one of the leaders in mobile television. In 2005, he was assigned to College GameDay. (Most of the GameDay crew members are independent contractors or, like Marshall, work for a vendor that sells its services to ESPN.) Marshall came aboard with several other newcomers, joining a core group that had already been together for almost 10 years. So, to help everyone get to know each other, Marshall suggested a cookout.
It began with one dinky grill and some brats, but the staff lunch soon expanded so much it needed a name. "How about the Roadkill Grill?" Marshall said. "You kill it. We grill it." Now, Marshall dons his apron and hot dog hat, and the guy who once hauled gear for AC/DC mans the grill. In Endres, Marshall found a kindred spirit. As a student, Endres had helped run the kitchen that fed hundreds at a camp. He had studied hospitality management at Central Michigan before realizing his future lay in television. When he isn't making jambalaya in Baton Rouge, pan-frying alligator tails in Gainesville or cooking three different types of salmon in Eugene, Endres helps manage GameDay's massive stage setup. Endres is also part owner of WestRiver, the company that builds the stages. Last week in Baton Rouge, the two went shopping, and an ESPN staffer plopped down a Disney credit card for almost $1,000 at a grocery store and several hundred more at a specialty shop that featured giant shrimp and boudin balls. Those prices aren't bad. Catering a meal for 75 probably would cost more, and it would engender the same esprit de corps the Roadkill Grill does.
Even the suits have pitched in. When executives at title sponsor Home Depot realized the Roadkill Grill could occasionally get significant on-camera time, they offered grills from the store's stock. Last week, Marshall proudly showed off a Weber that easily handled the beer-can chickens and the tenderloin with room to spare. And at each stop, the grillmasters accumulate more gear to make even more elaborate meals. Last week, they needed rice to serve under gumbo and etoufee. "Did you get a rice cooker?" one staffer asked Endres. "We got two rice cookers," Endres replied with a wicked grin.
After the Roadkill Grill on Friday, the crew will prepare to stage a little live television for millions of viewers. Once the show wraps Saturday at noon, they'll break down the set, pack it up and wait. Sometime late Saturday or early Sunday, they'll learn their next destination. They may have to cross a few states, or they may have to cross the continent. Though ESPN officials won't choose the site until after Saturday's games, the crew is rooting hard for a trip to the Stanford-Oregon game in Eugene. They would make the 1,000-mile haul up Interstate 5, stopping at one of their favorite spots, Heaven on Earth in Azalea, Ore., along the way. During the drive, Marshall and Endres will plan the next great tailgate feast.
So as you watch GameDay this Saturday, note how well fed everyone seems. It's partially because of the recovering rock 'n' roller in the hot dog hat who might just be the best tailgater in America.
• Arkansas at South Carolina: South Carolina's Kenny Miles started at tailback as a freshman in 2009. In 2010, Marcus Lattimore showed up, and Miles became the second banana. Instead of sulking or transferring, Miles kept working. He pitched in well after Lattimore tore his ACL last year, but Miles himself was hampered by a wrist injury. With Lattimore out again after a horrific knee injury suffered against Tennessee, Miles is healthy and ready to prove he can be a top-line back in the SEC. "He's been the ultimate team player all the way through this," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier told reporters this week. "He came to me and asked if he could come back if he wanted to [for this season] and I said sure. He enjoys it here and is a super Gamecock. I think our fans and all of them Gamecocks appreciate that he's stayed for five years."
• Northwestern at Michigan: Brady Hoke remained mum on the subject of quarterback Denard Robinson's availability Thursday during an appearance on Detroit's Stoney & Bill radio show. If Robinson can't play, Devin Gardner will start for the second consecutive week. "I don't know," Hoke told the hosts. "If I knew, I'd tell you. The plan is to go out and win a football game." Meanwhile, the Wildcats are playing for their Legends Division lives. Northwestern would still need a lot of help, but the Wildcats won't lack for motivation.
• Missouri at Tennessee: One of these teams went to Gainesville last week and hung with Florida for the entire game in a 14-7 loss. The other gave up 721 yards in a 55-48 win against Troy. Which performance inspires more confidence? The loss or the win? The Tennessee fans who keep showing up at Neyland Stadium dressed as empty seats want coach Derek Dooley gone, and a loss in these final three games should get their wish granted. Of course, Tennessee could win these next three, win a bowl and have an eight-win season. That still doesn't meet Tennessee's traditional standard, but after all the recent upheaval in the program, continuity could be helpful. If Dooley can promise an improved defense by either firing coordinator Sal Sunseri or by working with Sunseri to shore up that porous unit, it might be better than starting from scratch for the third time in four years. But if Dooley can't beat the three worst teams in the SEC East -- which would, by default, make Tennessee one of the three worst teams in the SEC East -- the empty seats may have their way.
• Oregon State at Stanford: How did Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan move from third-string to starter so quickly? By providing the team with a new wrinkle. After the Cardinal narrowly escaped from Washington State two weeks ago, it became clear that an elite defense would eat Stanford's offense alive if the Cardinal didn't diversify. Enter Hogan, who can keep plays alive with his legs and force opposing defenses to prepare for more than handoffs to Stepfan Taylor and throws to the tight ends from Josh Nunes. The Cardinal weren't going to beat Oregon State playing the other way -- especially given the added motivation for the Beavers provided by The Farm's proximity to several In-N-Out Burger locations. Now Stanford has a chance.
• Arizona State at USC: Hopefully, USC has purged its organization of all rogue student managers. Still, if the Trojans fall to the Sun Devils and check out on this season, the nickname Flat Balls Lane may stick. Remember when the Trojans didn't need surreptitious jersey switches or poorly inflated footballs to compete? It wasn't that long ago.
• Texas A&M at Alabama: Nick Saban is worried about this one. No, really. And he should be. Not for the immediate future -- Alabama is better now and should win Saturday -- but in the next few years, the Aggies have the coaching acumen and raw recruiting materials to build a program that can slug it out with Alabama and LSU on an annual basis.
• West Virginia at Oklahoma State: We don't endorse gambling here, but we do endorse using Las Vegas sharps as research tools because they act with their wallets instead of their hearts and therefore provide more rational analysis. West Virginia opened as a 7.5-point underdog to Oklahoma State. Bettors hit the Cowboys so hard that the line moved to 9.5 points. The lack of faith in the Mountaineers is astonishing given where the team sat six weeks ago. But the only way to make Vegas -- and everyone else -- believe is to win again.
• Kansas State at TCU: The lack of information coming out of Manhattan this week isn't shocking. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has always been tight-lipped about almost everything, so it isn't surprising that quarterback Collin Klein's status remains unclear as the Wildcats head to Fort Worth. This game seemed dangerous for Kansas State even before Klein got hurt last week. But our friends in Vegas remain relatively unfazed. They still consider the Wildcats a touchdown favorite despite the uncertainty.
• Georgia at Auburn: Longtime Auburn beat writer Phillip Marshall of 247Sports site Auburn Undercover -- despite his employer's name, Phillip does not roam around the Loveliest Village on the Plains using Fletch aliases (G. Gordon Liddy, John Coctostone) and novelty teeth to unearth scoops -- wrote Thursday that Auburn president Jay Gouge is preparing for a possible coaching change. The chances the Tigers win either of their remaining games is about as thin as the average Victoria's Secret model, so this isn't particularly surprising. Any hope Auburn might have had Saturday is probably negated by Georgia's motivating factor. The Bulldogs clinch the SEC East if they win. They'll be on high alert.
• Notre Dame at Boston College: Pittsburgh pushed the Fighting Irish to the limit last week, and inattentive officials are probably the only reason Notre Dame remains undefeated. So can the Eagles one-up their future conference brethren and actually beat Notre Dame? No. Not a chance.
"I was trying to show her what a good swinger I was."
-- Georgia coach Mark Richt explaining to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz why he needs hip replacement surgery.
(And since I'm not a complete jerk, I'll provide the context. Richt believes an injury suffered in the '90s while attempting some acrobatics on a swing set during a Richt family picnic has festered for years and became aggravated when Richt started doing P90X. He's been coaching in pain this season, and he'll have the surgery after it ends.)
If you're a regular reader, you know I'm slightly obsessed with names. Back in August 2009, I introduced you to a safety from Hawaii named Wave Ryder. At the time, Ryder was considering Utah and Utah State, but in February 2010 he signed with the Naval Academy and produced the best marriage of player name and school in college football history. (The only thing that would have ever topped it is if Michael Stonebreaker had spurned Notre Dame to attend the Colorado School of Mines.)
Now, the union of Ryder and the Naval Academy has been immortalized in a Jeopardy clue. You know the All-Name Team has hit the big-time when Alex Trebek is talking about one of its biggest stars.
UCLA coach Jim Mora got pretty hot this week when someone with far too much time on his hands posed on Twitter as UCLA cornerback Randall Goforth on Monday and trolled USC players to stir up a rivalry that could get quite interesting next week if the teams face off for the Pac-12 South title. Mora backed off his stronger comments Wednesday, but he has a legitimate point. College athletes are especially vulnerable to fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, and if someone wanted to ruin a player's reputation badly enough, they could. I can only pray that the people who run the Randy Staples Twitter account do so in a semi-responsible fashion.
I had hoped to create a top-five list of college football-related Twitter parody accounts to show that not all Twitter fakes are evil, but then I realized the list begins and ends with the Fake Dan Beebe. FDB plays chess while his parody brethren play Chutes and Ladders. We hear the account is beloved -- most of the time -- even by the former Big 12 commissioner who inspired it. FDB spares no school, but saves his sharpest barbs for current and former Big 12 members. So pour a cup of Danny Dan Juice and enjoy FDB's greatest hits.
5. On The Eyes of Texas.
4. Sometimes he's not funny. Sometimes he's just correct.
3. FDB will never forgive Texas A&M for leaving the Big 12 -- or for existing in the first place.
2. Like his real-life inspiration, who is now a consultant, FDB often gives conference commissioners helpful advice on effective commissioneering.
1. FDB was not thrilled when the RDB got forced out by the Big 12 last year.
Marshall's description of the big-as-your head cinnamon rolls at Heaven on Earth makes me want to take a little 100-mile detour the next time I'm in Eugene for a game.