ATLANTA, Ga.-- Heaven help us. The Big Orange multitudes have already begun descending on this fair, genteel Southern city. They're everywhere, taking over restaurants, hotels and bars. They're driving around town honking, yelling, screaming at passersby, singing Rocky Top.
Perhaps not since Sherman burned Atlanta in 1864 has the city seen this much orange.
They're in town, of course, to watch the Volunteers (10-1, No. 2 in the nation) take on LSU (8-3, No. 20) Saturday night at the Georgia Dome for an SEC championship (8 p.m. EST, CBS-TV). It's the final game of a college football regular season that has been full of twists, turns, thrills, spills and upsets. The Vols and Bengals collide to determine not only supremacy in the conference... but which SEC team has the most unruly, obnoxious, drunken fans. (Covering this game should be only slightly less hazardous than covering the war in Afghanistan.)
Cajuns vs. Convicts. Orange and White vs. Purple and Gold. Smokey the Blue Tick Hound vs. Mike the Tiger. Hillbillies vs. Hellraisers. Fulmer (Beelzebubba) vs. Saban (Satan).
The insufferable Vols surf into town fresh off a memorable, unexpected win over Steve Spurrier in that most formidable of venues, the Swamp. Tennessee made its bi-annual pilgrimage to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, site of so many disappointments in the past-- but this time the Vols didn't blink. Travis Stephens rushed for about a bazillion yards, and Fulmer's Felons won a 34-32 victory-- a win that that had the same effect on Vol fans that a stalk of bananas has when thrown into a cage full of chattering apes.
Meanwhile, last Saturday in Baton Rouge, LSU routed Auburn to win the "Doesn't anybody want this?" SEC West. Mike Saban's Tigers had been favored by most pundits to win the West, but after early losses to Tennessee, Florida and Ole Miss, their chances seemed to disappear more quickly than a bottle of cheap wine at an LSU tailgate party. But to their credit, the Tigers turned their season around and finished strong, finally spanking Tuberville & Co. in a game that amounted to a Western Division grudge playoff.
If you've ever been to a night game in Baton Rouge, you know how intimidating and out-of-control those LSU fans can get. From the sound of things, last week's LSU-Auburn game may have set a new record for number of off-the-field incidents. When it was all said and done, both schools ended up extending empty apologies to the other.
Both LSU and Tennessee feature absolutely outstanding talent at the skill positions. The Tigers must find a way to stop Travis Stephens-- but the trouble is, even if you find a way to do that, you must deal with Casey Clausen, Donte' Stallworth, Kelley Washington, Jason Witten, et al. By the same token, LSU presents a pretty amazing three-headed monster in Rohan Davey, LaBrandon Toefield and Josh Reed. Reed (who was recently named the Biletnikoff Award winner) is simply one of the best college receivers I've ever seen-- almost uncoverable.
Tennessee defeated LSU in Knoxville earlier this season; but last season LSU, behind Davey and Reed, edged the Vols in a memorable overtime game in Baton Rouge.
LSU is making its first appearance in the championship game. Tennessee hasn't been here since 1998, when it faced Mississippi State. The opposing quarterbacks in that game were Tee Martin and Wayne Madkin (who that year was a freshman-- even if you can't remember who won, you can probably guess).
When Tennessee has played in Atlanta before (1997 and 1998), Vol fans have had a big edge in crowd support. I'm hoping that LSU fans will hold up their end of the bargain in this Saturday's game. With the New Orleans Saints in town to face the Atlanta Falcons the next day in the Dome, fans from Louisiana have an attractive night/day double-header in Atlanta this weekend. For Tiger fans, the pre-game atmosphere may not exactly rival that of a Saturday night in Baton Rouge-- there's not much place to tailgate at the Georgia Dome-- but on the other hand, here's betting the folks from the bayou will figure out a creative way to consume plenty of beverages prior to kickoff.
CBS should draw great ratings for this game-- the only real competition is a figure-skating broadcast on NBC starring Tara Lipinski.
LSU is relishing the underdog role (Tennessee is favored by 6.5), but the game means a whole lot more to the Vowels, and and I think the Vowels will win. Pompous as they always are, the orange-clad fans really have their minds on bigger things-- namely the right to face Miami in Pasadena on Jan. 4 for a mythical national championship. The Vols would likely emerge as an underdog to Miami-- but hey, just getting to Pasadena would be a dream come true for the orange masses. The situation would be much the same as 1985, when Tennessee shocked highly favored Miami and Vinny Testaverde in the Sugar Bowl.
With three losses LSU can't make it to Pasadena, but with a win here the Tigers could still represent the SEC in a BCS bowl-- not to mention send the whole BCS system into a tizzy. If UT chokes-- a prospect almost too delicious to contemplate-- either Colorado or Nebraska will take the Vols' place in Pasadena, and either way there is likely to be weeping, wailing and whining of epic proportions.
Since Vandy's season is over, since the search for a new coach appears to be stuck in neutral, and since I happen to have a ticket in hand-- I'm planning on taking my life in my hands and attending the 2001 edition of the Roy Kramer Bowl. Vandy may not make it to the Championship Game in my lifetime, but that's not going to stop this Vandy fan from showing up and covering the game from a VandyMania perspective. (I'll be driving home afterwards, so pray for me.)
I'm not going to tell you who I'll be cheering for-- but I do plan on having a pre-game meal of crawfish pie and filet gumbo, if that helps you any.