The deeper you venture into the thicket of The Grove, the more it feels like the entire state of Mississippi has come together for one big Super Bowl or New Year's Eve party. Indeed, this bash will still be going well past midnight.
"The great thing about The Grove," said Wilson Hubbard, class of 1999, "is that everywhere you go, you see the people you haven't seen since you went to school here."
And a whole lot of people you didn't go to school with.
While The Grove feels a lot like an official Ole Miss reunion, not everyone who parties here went to school here. An incredulous first-time visitor surveys the scene, then screams into his cell phone, "I've never seen anything like it!"
A little more than two hours before kickoff, the festivities reach a crescendo as the Rebels players make their way through a famous arch of red brick and black for the Walk of Champions, during which players and coaches are cheered en route to venerable Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Players high-five their way along as fans bust out the "Hotty Toddy" ditty:
To get an inside look at the tailgating tradition at Ole Miss, click here for images of the party ... oh, and the after party -- the game itself.
Are you ready?
Hell yeah! Damn right!
Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty,
Who the hell are we, hey!
Flim, flam, bim, bam,
Ole Miss, by damn!
"Hotty Toddy" has no real meaning, but it means everything in Oxford. For students, fans and alumni, it is a greeting, cheer and secret handshake all rolled into one. "Hotty Toddy" is the spirit of Ole Miss.
This being the SEC, the visiting team is well represented, too. Speakers atop a crimson SUV blast Kid Rock's "All Summer Long," which samples "Sweet Home Alabama." Bama fans accessorize outfits with all manner of black houndstooth. Caps, skirts, sport coats and scarves all are fashioned from Bear Bryant's favorite fabric.
Lessons learned so far on this day: The Grove is awesome, and houndstooth makes everything look better.
After surveying the happenings at The Grove, the Alabama-Ole Miss matchup begins to feel like a sideshow ... until, that is, you walk through the gates of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which on this day establishes an attendance record of 62,657 but feels much more intimate. Were it not for contemporary sky boxes and a press box above the sidelines and the south end zone and the Jerry Jones-style giant video screen in the north end zone, the place could pass for something out of "Friday Night Lights."
And like in Permian, Texas, football is the only game in town. Oxford's population of 19,000 quadruples on game day.
Fifteen minutes before kickoff, the Ole Miss band plays "Slow Dixie" as fans pump blue and red pompoms that look like they were around when the school won those national championships in 1959, 1960 and 1962. The pompoms give the proceedings an old-timey feel, as if all those folks in their Saturday best hadn't already done so.
Nothing at Ole Miss takes you quite as far back -- or as aback -- as what follows the rendition of "Slow Dixie." Did the revelers really just chant, "The South will rise again"?
Yep, they did. (If Ole Miss chancellor Dr. Dan Jones has his way, they won't anymore. Jones banned the song "Slow Dixie" -- otherwise known as "From Dixie with Love" -- in November, when students refused to stop the "South will rise again" exclamation mark. "Here at the University of Mississippi, there must be no doubt that this is a warm and welcoming place for all," Jones wrote in a letter. "We cannot even appear to support those outside our community who advocate a revival of segregation. We cannot fail to respond.")
As the band prepares for the national anthem, the public address announcer invites attendees to remove their "headgear."
Nutt leads the team onto the field. Today's jersey color: Harvard crimson. A videotaped message on a board the size of a drive-in movie screen comes from former Rebels linebacker Patrick Willis, now with the 49ers, and asks, "Are you ready?" The answer, which comes in the form of a "Hotty Toddy" cheer, is a resounding, "Yes!" It's very loud.
Fans spike industrial-size soft drinks with miniature bottles of Jim Beam. The ensuing smell of whiskey mixes with that of Corky's barbecue and wafts through the seating bowl as fans nibble on pork nachos and hot dogs.
The lights are on from the opening kickoff, and so is the crowd. On every play. To the left is a prepster with a pledge pin and college tie; to the right is one of those Colonel Reb impersonators wearing a white suit and bolo tie.
You are from California and have no vested interest in today's game, but you find yourself caught up in the proceedings, even speaking in a bit of a drawl. Ole Miss will sneak up on you like that.
By halftime, Alabama leads 16-0. Many Rebels fans head back to The Grove to watch the second half on TV as the game by this point becomes a bit of an afterthought.
The second half is no contest. Eventual national champion Alabama dominates and goes on to hand Ole Miss a 22-3 loss. The Rebels drop to 3-2 and fall out of the Top 25. And inside Vaught-Hemingway, the Rebels' last national championship of 1962 seems like an eon ago.
But back in The Grove, Ole Miss remains timeless. And absolutely perfect.
Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.