When I saw that Bleacher Report was ranking the “toughest football environments” in the Southeastern Conference, I made one of those little bets I frequently make with myself: LSU would be ranked toughest.
I don’t have much respect for most of the stuff that comes from Bleacher Report, and when I saw its list it did nothing to elevate my opinion. Here is how they had it:
- LSU, 2. Alabama, 3. Florida, 4. Tennessee, 5. Georgia, 6. Auburn, 7. South Carolina, 8. Ole Miss, 9. Texas A&M, 10. Mississippi State, 11. Arkansas, 12. Missouri, 13. Kentucky, 14. Vanderbilt.
Notice that the better football teams of recent years are at the top of the “toughest” ranks, and the traditional doormats are towards the bottom.
That is the difficulty – futility, even – of making such a list. Good teams are tough to beat in their home stadiums because they are good. Bad teams are easier to beat in their home stadiums.
Does anyone think that Vanderbilt would be appreciably better year-after-year with LSU’s home stadium atmosphere?
Since the beginning of SEC play, here is Alabama’s record against LSU in Tiger Stadium:
Alabama 23 wins, LSU 8 wins, and 2 ties.
Under Paul Bryant, Bama’s record in Tiger Stadium was 8-1. Under Nick Saban it is 3-1. (Incidentally, the Tide was 1-2 in Baton Rouge when Saban was head coach of the Tigers from 2000-2004.)
So, you say, “How would you rank them Mr. Smartypants?”
I have been in every SEC football stadium, some of them many, many times, and have never had the feeling that there is a home field advantage that can overcome better players and better coaches. I have noticed that when Alabama is on the road and the home team has a dramatic play that puts it in the lead, or even in contention, in the fourth quarter, that the level of noise is elevated. I have also noticed the trudge of opposing fans leaving stadiums in the fourth quarter when their teams are hopelessly beaten.
To reiterate, the stadium’s “toughness” is proportional to the quality of the home team in it. When Florida was Florida (before the Gators became relevant in about 1990), a game there had all the intensity of a volleyball game on the beach. It became tough when the self-proclaimed Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, got good players and coached them well.
Some stadiums have rowdiness, but a general lack of fan understanding of the game, so the intensity is misplaced, usually directed at the officials. Think Mississippi State.
There are a few places where fans are out of control mean, even before the game, notably Georgia and Auburn.
As for stadiums where the fans are most enthusiastic regardless of the chances of success by their teams against Alabama, I would say the top three are South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Tennessee.
But the toughest places to play are where the toughest teams await.
So what’s next from Bleacher Report? Best tailgate environment? That will be the most overrated, the Grove at Ole Miss. Once upon a time, maybe. Today it’s like saying the best transportation atmosphere is a New York subway at rush hour.