Have you missed it as much as I have? From hot boudin and gumbo down on the bayou, to silver britches between the hedges, to elaborate tailgates complete with candelabras in the Grove (among other eye-catching sights in Oxford), to the Volunteer Navy on the banks of the Tennessee River, it's almost fall and with it comes the welcome return of a uniquely Southern tradition: Southeastern Conference football. Nowhere else in the country is the passion for what a group of 18 to 22-year-old men do on a field more pronounced -- and, yes, irrational -- than in the SEC. How many late-Saturday-night texts and phone calls have you exchanged, how many "we shoulda just run the damn ball more!" conversations have you had, and how many beverages have you imbibed, all because you were obnoxiously exuberant or downtrodden about the performance of your SEC football team? Surely I'm not the only one who's engaged in such admirable behavior. Right?
Optimism runs high as the season nears kickoff, and we're all hopeful about our team's prospects this time of year. And why not? A glance at the preseason polls reflects the SEC's dominance, with 32 SEC teams ranked in the top 25. (In all seriousness, will a third of all college football teams eventually join the SEC?) Heck, even Vanderbilt is undefeated right now. From Fayetteville, Arkansas to Gainesville, Florida, fans picture themselves making an early December trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship. Some confident -- delusional? -- fans may even have January hotel reservations in New Orleans, site of this year's BCS Championship Game. Admit it. You'd give anything to parade around the Big Easy like you own the town, heckling fans from some nondescript Midwestern school that seems to find its way into the title game every other year. Book that hotel room! A little optimism never hurt anyone. As Andy Dufresne wisely wrote in his letter to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, "hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
We hope 2011 will be another captivating campaign in the nation's finest football conference, and several questions loom large as the season approaches. Can an SEC team win the BCS national championship a mind-boggling six years in a row? Will the SEC produce the Heisman Trophy winner for a third straight year? More importantly, will CBS have to remind play-by-play man Verne Lundquist that he's calling a college football game and not the 16th hole at Augusta National? The guy's getting up there. What's the over/under on how many times Nick Saban will smile this season? Vegas says two-and-a-half. I'll take the under.
Every SEC team has its questions. Only the grueling conference schedule will answer them. With the season just a week away, let's tour the SEC as we pose the key questions facing each team:
Georgia: How many UGA fans think Mark Richt should do those Ford trucks commercials full-time? Phenom QB Aaron Murray and highly touted freshman RB Isaiah Crowell will ensure that Richt doesn't need to polish his acting skills anytime soon.
Florida: For a time there, it seemed like Will Muschamp could run for U.S. Senate in three different Southern states. Not sure why he's so popular, but it'll be interesting to see how the Gators look under the heralded rookie coach.
Tennessee: Derek Dooley -- sharp-minded ace to turn the Vols' fortunes around, or kinda geeky and in over his head?
South Carolina: What's stronger in Columbia? USC fans' desire for a conference championship, or Stephen Garcia's desire for a stiff drink?
Kentucky: Seems like every five years or so, Kentucky has a really big dude at quarterback with a rocket arm or a quarterback way too good to be at Kentucky. Is this one of those years?
Vanderbilt: Can anyone outside of Nashville name the Commodores' first-year head coach?
LSU: Will bizarre Les Miles quotes ("That decision was made prior to the time of understanding."), bizarre endings to LSU games (just pick one out of the Mad Hatter's hat), or bar-room brawls grab the headlines in Baton Rouge?
Alabama: Are Bama's frat-tastic fans required to sport Costa del Mar sunglasses with croakies, crimson plaid button-down shirts, ribbon belts, and boat shoes to every game?
Auburn: Will Cam Newton make more money in the NFL than he did at Auburn?
Ole Miss: What do the Ole Miss Rebels/Black Bears and the Vice President of the United States have in common? Both are in a perpetual struggle for relevance.
Mississippi State: When will the Bulldogs finally enlist Christopher Walken as their spokesperson? "I need more cowbell! . . ."
Arkansas: Would you be more surprised to learn that the Hogs' live razorback mascot is not actually a razorback, but a Russian boar? Or that Bobby Petrino bolts Arkansas for perceived greener pastures on the eve of the season?
Those are the burning questions on everyone's minds as we approach another SEC football season. Keep that optimism high and take in the best college football in the land, coached by the best coaches, played by the best players, and enjoyed by the best fans in this special place we call the American South. By the way, the new Vandy head coach is none other than James Franklin. Wonder if he's booked his hotel room in New Orleans?