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Tennessee travels to Florida this weekend for the 51st installment of one of the SEC’s great rivalries, and though the pundits will write it off as an assured blowout, it’s a game that always means more than just a final score.
The beloved orange versus orange matchup always comes early in the schedule, often accompanied by that first wisp of cool, crisp fall air in Knoxville, or that thick, delicious humidity of Gainesville, hanging heavy from hurricane season. It’s a benchmark game, a tone-setter, an opportunity to prove to lovers of either school that their precious program is speeding confidently through the marshland or taking on water.
As of late, it’s been Tennessee who has been flailing in the deep end, winning just one of the past 16 matchups in this SEC East slugfest. No matter, though; the dedicated Big Orange fanbase clings to the past like pop culture, itself, remembers MTV: a few decades of dominance followed by a slow and precipitous decline towards irrelevance. But where pop culture is fickle and apathetic, Tennessee fans are loyal and true; they have no interest in accepting mediocrity, and no desire whatsoever to abandon their beloved Rocky Top. No, the burden of true fandom comes with the unspoken agreement that there will be days like this, and Volunteer faithful answers the call year after year, like their ancestors before them, always choosing the checkerboard over the peace of indifference.
And it’s that unwavering UT loyalty that surely makes the winning streak so delicious for Gator fans, too, as they get to rip the hearts out of their determined rivals year after year. Another proud fanbase, themselves, that has fallen on relative hard times in the age of Saban, the Florida faithful expect their boys to “out-nasty” every opponent like a true Gator—to drag them into the muddy water, take a bite, and never let go until the deal is done. In a state that’s as diverse as America, herself, Florida fans are purely and unconditionally SEC to the core; a union of beautiful, sticky, sweltering Southern hospitality that wants to rip you limb from limb as much as it wants to take you in and treat you like family.
To venture into their Swamp means to know the stakes and be crazy enough not to care. Gator faithful can be as loud and nasty as any fanbase in the nation as their whiskey-laden yells reverberate off the peeling paint and towering walls of their famed home stadium. The pageantry of a game in Gainesville, complemented by the addition of a true historical rival from the mountains of Tennessee, serves as a perfect example of why in the SEC, it really does mean more. Like a family of brothers who fight each other tooth and nail, but will collectively wail on any outsider who tries the same, the SEC, or really the South in general, simultaneously loves and hates each neighboring state like true kin. It’s a family thing, and if you’re not a part of it, you’re simply Gator bait.
The outsiders will never understand the shared experience of a Southern community, oft ridiculed or looked down upon by the ignorant elitists that surround them, but that’s fine. Being understood never mattered as much as being respected below the Mason-Dixon line. And where I’m from, respect is earned, and not necessarily just by winning or losing. SEC football is a fraternity of warriors, bound by passionate intensity and the loving disdain of interstate rivals. When Tennessee sets foot in that musky, nasty Swamp this weekend, winning or losing will certainly matter, but not so much as the shared experience of being a Southerner in the greatest country in the world.
So buckle up, my fellow football fans, for today marks the true beginning of the SEC football schedule. Emotions will run high and postgame judgments will fly, but no matter the outcome, fans of these two storied programs will only love them more, like a parent loves a child. Good days will come and go, and sometimes the future is brighter than the present, but it’s the love of football, the feeling of camaraderie, and the love of family that binds us all.
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