vaught-hemingway

Vanderbilt-Ole Miss: My First Adventure Into SEC Country

This is the hardest column I’ve ever had to write. But don’t worry it’s not for any bad reason. I promise.

Nobody died. Nobody was hurt. Nobody lost their job (however, Houston Nutt is inching closer to that by the day). Nothing like that. Quite the opposite actually.

You see, over the weekend, I went down to Mississippi to take in the Vanderbilt-Ole Miss football game. To take in the sights and sounds. The culture of South. To take in everything that is SEC football.

The problem is that these last couple days turned into something much bigger than football: It turned into one of the best weekends of my life.

Which is why this column is so darn hard to write. There are no words in Webster’s to truly express the amount of fun I had Friday and Saturday. No words to fully commemorate the friends I made and the gratitude that I owe everyone for making the trip a life experience, not just a football one. Nothing I put down on this screen in front of you will be good enough.

But I’m going to try anyway. This is my best attempt at capturing my weekend in Mississippi from the heart. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

For those of you who actually saw the game I attended on Saturday, well, shame on you. Life is too short to put yourself through the kind of misery that was Vanderbilt-Ole Miss. Especially when you could’ve been doing better things with a beautiful afternoon, like I don’t know, spending time with your family, following other games or watching paint dry. I’m pretty sure cutting your toenails would’ve been more exciting than watching Vandy-Ole Miss. Just my opinion anyway.

If you didn’t see the game, the box score pretty much told the whole story. Ole Miss had more yards of offense, more first downs, and controlled the time of possession. Yet they still lost. Which is probably the toughest part if you’re an Ole Miss reading this today: It is one thing to lose to a better team. It’s quite another to beat yourself.

But make no mistake, just because the final score didn’t turn out the way most of the 50,000+ at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium hoped for, doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time. That’s the farthest thing from reality.

The game was everything I’d assumed my first SEC game to be. There was great tailgating, beautiful girls, and a whole lot of Southern hospitality. And the lead up to it all sure didn’t disappoint.

When it comes to the pregame, I suppose I should start with “The Grove.” Because besides Archie Manning and the campus’ 18 mph speed limit, The Grove might be what Ole Miss is best known for.

The Grove is the tailgating spot, not only at Ole Miss, but maybe in the entire SEC. It’s a sea of red, white and dark blue tent tops, where guys sit around in their shirts and ties and women in their sun dresses, drinking bourbon and socializing, with the smell of exotic foods filling the air. Basically The Grove is Heaven on Earth, some combination of your neighborhood backyard barbeque, Mardi Gras and the Rose Bowl all rolled into one. Except, maybe just a bit more fun.

What impressed me most about The Grove though, was the complex simplicity of it all (And if you’re wondering, yes I made up that phrase. And I love it!).

To the untrained eye (mainly mine), it seemed like The Grove was a never ending maze of blue and white, liquor and sundresses. Yet everything in The Grove seemed to be moving in harmony, like a colony of ants or something. It was incredible. Everybody seemed to be going somewhere, but nobody ever seemed in a hurry. Everyone had a cup of alcohol in their hand, but nobody seemed drunk. Everyone was talking, but none of the interaction seemed forced. You could tell that when it came to tailgating at Ole Miss, it wasn’t anyone’s first rodeo.

(And just for the record, when they say that “Ole Miss may lose the game, but they never lose the party,” that couldn’t have been any more truthful. The Grove is the first place I’ve ever seen a tailgate better after the game, than before it)

All the same things that made The Grove the place to be on Saturday afternoon, made the town of Oxford great to walk around in on Friday.

On the night before games (and I’m assuming most other nights too), everyone convenes downtown, in an area known as “The Square.” What The Grove is to tailgating, The Square is to a Southern city: Exactly what you’d picture it to be.

It’s full of tree lined streets and older, Victorian style buildings (at least I think they’re Victorian. 18th century architecture really isn’t my strong suit). There are no shiny new strip malls full of Ikea’s, Starbucks and Best Buy’s, but instead mom and pop storefronts and family owned restaurants. Walking through the Square, you really do get the impression that it’s not all that much different today than it was 100 years ago. At least until you pull out your iPhone to text a friend, or adjust your fantasy lineup for the weekend (Not that I did that or anything. I swear!)

Maybe my favorite part about The Square though, is that it had the same vibe as The Gove. Everyone seemed to get along perfectly.

What I mean by that is, I’ve traveled enough now to know that just because you’re in a college town, doesn’t necessarily make things fun, especially when you’re not in college. It doesn’t help when the streets are filled with packs of overserved frat guys looking to mark their territory like dogs peeing on trees. I’m not saying it happens at every college, but I’ve seen it enough where I’m always wary of anyplace where a lot of young drunk people get together in tight quarters.

Either way, Oxford was nothing like that.

While it most certainly had the ambiance of a college town- loud music, girls wearing skirts their fathers wouldn’t approve of, guys hopping out of cabs with Bud Light cans in their hands- you didn’t actually need to be a college student to enjoy the scene. I mean, sure there were college kids around, but not any more so than young parents pushing strollers into ice cream shops, and older couples enjoying a night out on the town. The Square really is a community in the truest sense of the word.

Anyway, let’s get back to the game for a second, since after all, that was the story of the weekend. Unfortunately for the home team, the story didn’t have a happy ending.

Again, the Rebels stumbled and fumbled their way to a 28-14 loss, blowing more second chances over four quarters than Lindsay Lohan has in the last four years. Everything that could go wrong did. Dropped passes. Defensive lapses. Missed field goals. The loss really was that bad.

Still, it’d be easy to look at the final score, and simply say Ole Miss just isn’t that good. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. They’re good, but through three games I just don’t think the Rebs know exactly who they are yet.

The proof is in the pudding, and the problem is in the way that Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt is using new quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. It’s not Nutt’s fault entirely, but at the same time, he was handed the keys to a Ferrari in August, and three weeks into the season still hasn’t figured out the handle on it yet.

Masoli is a supreme athlete, one who’s at his absolute best when all hell breaks loose. When he can stop thinking and start reacting, Masoli is as good as they come. Honestly, there’s no one you’d rather have.

The problem is for all the skills Masoli has, none of them really compliment those of his new teammates. He may have been a perfect fit at Oregon, but right now he’s a square peg in a round hole in Mississippi.

Basically, Masoli is like a young puppy in the park, it’s probably best just to let him loose and do his own thing. Except the problem is, that everyone else on the roster was recruited to play in a much more traditional offense, played in that traditional offense with Jevan Snead at quarterback last year, and were expecting to do the same with Nathan Stanley under center in 2010. Then Masoli showed up, Stanley got hurt, and Nutt ended up in a rut.

Even after a quarter of the season, it’s obvious that Nutt still isn’t sure how to feature his quarterback, without fear of taking away the strengths of the other 10 players on the offense. Masoli on the other hand is itching to let loose, but you can tell he doesn’t fully know or trust his own teammates yet. He still hasn’t figured out where the line of taking over a game begins, and the line of stepping on his teammates’ toes ends. It’s going to take time for all that to happen, and hopefully it won’t be too late.

In the end, I still believe that Masoli is as good a quarterback as he was last year (when he was a potential Heisman Trophy candidate), and I still believe that Ole Miss is going to be a lot more dangerous team in mid-October than they are now. But again, it’s going to take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this offense won’t be either.

Finally, let’s get back to my original starting point. Because as I mentioned before, the Southern hospitality I experienced, wasn’t a myth, but from what I can tell a major source of pride.

I went into this weekend thinking I was going down to Mississippi for a football game, but really it was about so much more. It was about meeting new people. It was about experiencing new things. Honestly, it was about everything but football.  Simply put, I’ve never felt so welcomed by a group of people I hardly knew than I did this weekend.

My hosts Rick and Ramelle (I won’t use their last names because I know they’d be embarrassed if I did, but truthfully there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. They’re as good a people as you’ll ever meet), their daughter Jennifer and her husband Jeff and everyone in section 516 showed me the time of my life. These are people that have been going to six or seven home games a year together for a long time, and probably know each other better than they know themselves at this point. Yet, when I showed up as a stranger in their section last Saturday, they embraced me, introduced me around, and treated me like I’d been their friend for years. I cannot thank them all enough.

Beyond that though, if anything, this trip proved to me what I’ve suspected for a long time: It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what your net worth is, or if you’re black, white, brown or green: There are a lot of incredible people in this world. I was lucky enough to spend my weekend with some of them. I may go to a lot of football games over the course of my life, but I doubt I’ll ever have an experience quite like the one I had this weekend again.

So to Rick and Ramelle, thank you again. Thank you for showing me a great time. Thank you for taking me into your world and being incredible hosts. Thank you for giving me an experience that I’ll remember forever.

Although really, like I said at the beginning of this article, there really aren’t words in the English language to explain to you how grateful I am.

I just wish I could’ve gotten your team a win in return.

(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree with something Aaron said? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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