- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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It is the kind of week that makes the Big Ten seethe, the Big 12 grit its teeth and the Big East wish that basketball season would hurry. It is a week in which the two best games of the week, and two of the best games of any week, will be played in the Southeastern Conference.
No. 3 Alabama plays at No. 20 Ole Miss at 3:30 p.m ET on Saturday. No. 1 Florida plays at No. 4 LSU at 8 p.m. ET. How big is the game between the Gators and the Tigers? CBS has the contractual right to televise one SEC game in prime time this season. It chose Florida at LSU.
With or without concussed Gator quarterback Tim Tebow, the game represents the first time that the winners of the last three national championships have played against each other since 1990, when Notre Dame beat Miami 29-20.
The traditions that surround these two SEC games have more to do with the home teams than the rivalries themselves. Both Oxford and Baton Rouge are known for their tailgating. Oxford is known for treating its guests well. The reaction of visiting fans coming into Baton Rouge is respect bordering on wariness.
LSU fans manage to yell "Tiger Bait!" at the invaders while inviting them to share in a slice of cochon de lait, the roast suckling pig slowly turning at the tailgate. The only thing more intimidating than a stroll past the lair of Mike the Tiger outside the stadium is the noise of the well-lubricated Tigers fans inside Death Valley after a daylong pregame.
As football goes, the LSU-Florida rivalry is long on importance and short on tradition. The Tigers of the SEC West and the Gators of the SEC East play each other every year. Every SEC team has one annual opponent in the opposite division; the other five teams in the opposite division rotate onto the schedule.
"We started down the list," retired SEC commissioner Roy Kramer said Monday. "Arkansas and South Carolina came into the league together. That would be a permanent game. Tennessee-Alabama and Georgia-Auburn went together. Florida and LSU were sort of left on the table. As it has turned out, it's a very significant game."
Not until 2006 did both teams come into the game ranked in the top 10. Before that time, LSU and Florida had pressed few memories in the SEC family bible. They didn't begin playing regularly until the 1950s. In fact, Florida played at Harvard and at UCLA before it ever played at LSU (1937).
"A lot of the bigger state schools would not play us before the stadium was built," Florida athletic historian Norm Carlson said. "Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia ... were big-time football programs and we weren't."
The Crimson Tide and the Rebels have longer histories of success, perhaps in part because they did a thorough job of avoiding each other. Legends Bear Bryant of Alabama and John Vaught of Ole Miss, coaching only 180 miles apart for 15 seasons, played only six times in the regular season. Bryant won four.
Though they professed to be friends, Vaught railed against Bryant's knack for exploiting loopholes in the rules of the game. Twice in the 1960s, the Crimson Tide scored on a tackle-eligible pass to narrowly defeat the Rebels.
Vaught joined the NCAA football rules committee in 1966. As the committee's 1968 meeting drew to a close, wrote Dave Nelson, the editor of the rulebook at the time, "John left the table, went to the door, put a chair under the door knob, and said, "We are not leaving this meeting until we do something about that damn tackle-eligible pass."
The committee tossed the tackle-eligible pass out of the rule book. That fall, Ole Miss defeated Alabama 10-8.
Crimson Tide fans don't take kindly to losing to the Rebels, which has happened rarely (Bama leads 45-9-2). In 1988, after Ole Miss ruined Alabama's homecoming with a 22-12 victory, someone threw a brick through the office window of Tide head coach Bill Curry.
Since that season, Alabama is 16-2 against Ole Miss. Even in 2000, when Alabama began the season in the top five and finished 3-8, the Crimson Tide beat the Rebels 45-7.
Football in Oxford has never based its appeal on the success of the Rebels. The appeal lies in the experience that begins at 6 p.m. Friday night, when the Grove is opened for fans to stake out their tailgating space. The Grove is to tailgating what Augusta National is to golf, or St. Patrick's Cathedral to Catholics. The most beloved 10 acres on the Ole Miss campus are a shrine still in use.
"We don't tailgate. We picnic," said Tim Walsh, head of the alumni association and unofficial Grove master. Walsh said that because cars are not allowed on the Grove. How it became such a pregame festival dates to a run of bad weather in 1990. A torrential downpour left the Grove so sodden that the university closed it to cars.
"It's ironic," Walsh said. "People complained. Change comes slowly to people in the South. From then on, it actually blossomed. Take the cars out and you can get a whole lot of people in."
Some 30,000 by one estimate. Oxford on a football Saturday is a unique place. The city of 16,000 known for its love of good books and good food makes room for at least four times that many on game day. John Currence, the owner/chef of City Grocery and three other restaurants in Oxford, estimates he will serve 4,500 meals this weekend.
They'll be good, too. Currence won a 2009 James Beard Foundation Award as the Best Chef in the South.
"It's nothing short of amazing," Currence said. "Being from New Orleans, I sort of compare it to Mardi Gras. We start cooking on Thursday and don't stop until the last person goes on Sunday. It's going to be exhilarating. That's just the way that it is."
Alabama has won the past four games between the schools by a total of 13 points. These days, the football is as entertaining as the tailgate.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dAndrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna