The South: Where Football is a Religion

There's an old saying that in the south, football is a religion. This year's opening day proved it, as the faithful gathered in stadiums all over the region, clad in their teams' colors and fervently dreaming of gridiron glory.

As an Air Force brat, I've lived all over the country and the South is where football traditions come to life in glorious Technicolor. People in South Carolina, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Mississippi -- in every Southern state -- live for football. Their children are steeped in it and they grow up to passionately support the "family team."

I'm currently dividing my time between San Antonio and Columbus, Georgia, where I work at Aflac. The Aflac Duck is a familiar icon to gridiron fans, because we advertise heavily during games and also sponsor "Aflac Trivia" that features little-known football facts.

Since coming to Georgia three months ago, I've been reminded of the South's passion for pigskin. Yesterday -- game day -- brought it fully into focus. My husband and I visited the local Winn Dixie (by the way, I love grocery shopping at Winn Dixie) and the SEC fans were out in full force. Game day apparel was everywhere, with the loyal Auburn, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee fans sporting their colors with pride.

Later in the day, when we went out to dinner, the story was the same. I sported my "Carolina Girls -- Sweeter than Sweet Tea" shirt and was surrounded by a sea of SEC fans (some of whom congratulated me on my team's Thursday night victory before rushing off to catch their own teams' kick-offs). Here's something that's true of SEC fans: We support our individual teams first and our conference -- including our rivals --second. It's the way we roll.

So, that said, how did SEC teams fare in their 2009 openers? Fine and dandy, thank you very much. The Florida Gators, as expected, recorded an easy 63-3 victory over their under-matched victims from Charleston Southern. As one acerbic sportscaster put it, the Gators essentially took the day off.

Two other SEC teams -- Alabama and Georgia -- took a different route by facing ranked opponents in their first showings. The strategy paid off in spades for fifth-ranked Alabama as a flurry of fourth-quarter points put the kibosh on No. 7 Virginia Tech, with a final score of 34-24. It looks like the Crimson Tide, which went 12-0 last season before falling to Florida in the SEC championship game, is the real deal and the team to beat in the SEC West.

The then No. 13 Georgia Bulldogs employed the same strategy as Alabama, taking on ninth-ranked Oklahoma State, but experienced a different result. The Bulldogs looked dominant in the early action, taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, before OSU woke up in the second and eventually claimed a 24-10 win.

The remainder of the teams in the SEC emerged victorious. In the SEC East, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt enjoyed easy Saturday wins; as did the SEC West's Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. LSU's victory over Washington was a bit narrower than the rest with a final score of 31-23, but -- hey -- a win is a win.

Just a couple of personal notes from Saturday's football extravaganza:

• Add the OSU Cowboy to the list of creepy humanoid mascots. That giant plastic head -- reminiscent of the Burger King "King"-- is enough to give me nightmares.

• That iPhone application that makes my phone chime every time an SEC team scores was a mistake. It sounded like a Las Vegas slot machine Saturday as the teams racked up points like crazy.

• No wild first-game upsets like last year's Appalachian State victory over Michigan. Sure, Oklahoma fell to BYU, but that was after the Sooner's Heisman-winning quarterback, Sam Bradford, injured his shoulder (leading sportscasters across the nation to ask whether he should have chosen the NFL draft over another year of college ball). And I felt a little sorry for Navy in its loss to Ohio State. What a great game -- and what a lucky finish by Ohio State!

For more of Ronda's unique Southern voice, go to Ronda Templeton

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