Pigskin paradise: SEC orientation for newcomers Mizzou, Texas A&M

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This article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.


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.

Do:Let your freak flags fly. Aggies, fans of the other Big 12 teams branded you as the league's weirdos because of your in-game chants and traditions such as smooching your date after each touchdown. In the SEC you'll fit in perfectly (though you might get some funny looks for not having female cheerleaders). Your collie, Reveille, will party with beloved canines Bully (Mississippi State) and Uga (Georgia). Just keep Reveille away from Mike, LSU's massive feline mascot who lounges in a cage on the sideline at Tiger Stadium.

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 We Are the Boys from Old Florida between the third and fourth quarters. They never make the entire stadium shake the way you do at Kyle Field. Educate them.

Mizzou, you're not strange in any way. Get weirder.

Don't: Dilly-dally outside Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium on game day. You'll want to be in your seats when the War Eagle takes flight from the upper deck. You won't find a better pregame spectacle anywhere.

Do:Sample the local cuisine. You haven't lived until you've fired a toothpick into the ceiling at Ajax Diner in Oxford during a visit to Ole Miss. Want to know how R.E.M. came up with "Automatic for the People" as an album title? You'll understand after you see the sign and then sample a plate of fried chicken at Weaver D's -- the soul food joint that has that phrase as its slogan -- in the band's hometown of Athens, Ga. Need sustenance to brave the crimson throng at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium? Cross the Black Warrior River into Northport, Ala., for a slab of ribs from Archibald's. Hungry after a game at Vanderbilt? Walk across Nashville's West End Avenue to Rotier's, order a cheeseburger on French bread, then wash it down with the chocolate shake that isn't on the menu.

Don't:Bring paper plates when tailgating in The Grove at Ole Miss. Pimento-cheese sandwiches taste that much better when eaten off grandma's china in a tent with a chandelier.

Do:Invite visitors to taste your own local delicacies. Mizzou, don't be afraid to challenge your guests to put down a dozen of the tiny, perfect burgers from Booches. Then load them up with Shakespeare's Pizza. Aggies, take visitors to nearby Snook, Texas, for chicken-fried bacon from Sodolak's Original Country Inn on Friday. Then, on Saturday morning, lead them on a pilgrimage to Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Texas. It's only open on Saturdays, and all the brisket and ribs are usually long gone by the time the early games kick off.

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.