There’s this little barbecue joint in South Georgia that I hit every time I’m within an hour’s drive. It’s pretty much perfect — smoky minced pork, juicy sliced turkey, hot sauce that kicks you in the brain, Brunswick stew that could save a roomful of sinners.
I hope to heaven that the place never decides to expand and lose what makes it special. There are more than enough restaurants in America serving up lukewarm barbecue-related product — chewy ribs, bland sides, sauce sweeter than breakfast cereal — and we need to hang on to the few distinct outposts that still exist.
It’s an easy segue from barbecue to SEC football, so join me as we do exactly that.
As you’ve surely heard, Texas and Oklahoma are jumping from the Big 12 to the SEC. If you’re a fan of SEC football, this is great news, the conference inviting a couple cool new kids to a party that’s already the best in the country.
But if you’re a fan of college football as a whole, this is terrible turn of events, a grim sign of consolidation, boiling down hallowed traditions and longstanding rivalries into lukewarm college football-related product.
The Great Longhorn and Sooner Migration is going to dominate the sport for the next few years, but let’s start with the obvious: this is going to wreck the Big 12, and the conference knows it. You can’t lose your two biggest draws and just go on with business as usual. The conference will need to poach some big names from other conferences — hey Houston, u up? — or risk irrelevance and dissolution.
The move also accelerates the devastation of conferences’ distinct regional character. For decades, the draw of college football was that rivals occupied the same soil. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State fans, for instance, live among each other, work alongside each other, sometimes even (horrors!) marry each other, Bedlam always determining who owns the upper hand for the next year. And it didn’t stop with your rival; up and down the conference schedule, you knew people connected with almost every school.
Now? All due respect to the fine fans of, say, Texas and South Carolina, or Oklahoma and Vanderbilt, but there’s not a whole lot of casual crossover there. We’ve already got a football league where two disparate cities meet for three hours of bloodless, obligatory weekly competition. Now, the SEC — and all the downstream conferences — are fast heading in that direction.
Plus, there’s this: Texas and Oklahoma are about to cash in, but that lucre comes with a price that won’t show up on a spreadsheet. Where once they battled for superiority of an entire conference, now they’ll be battling for … third place in the SEC West. Welcome to the party, y’all … but don’t assume you’re getting into the VIP room just yet.
College football isn’t so much a sport as a roadmap for life. The seasons rise and fall, vanish and return, in a familiar pattern. The names on the roster are constantly changing, so it’s the traditions that must endure. Game days in Oxford, Madison, Lincoln, College Station and Athens are beautiful, smoke-and-beer-infused snowflakes, each perfect in its own distinct way.
Cheering for the NFL often feels like cheering Amazon for delivering your package on time, a satisfying but ultimately soulless transactional experience. Cheering for your college football team, on the other hand, is like cheering for your family, exhilarating and infuriating and pervasive all at once.
In the same way that Wal-Mart devours and replaces local stores, the college football kaiju that is the SEC will provide a safe, streamlined version of the traditional gameday experience. The games will go on, the tailgate parties will still erupt, the bands will play the old familiar fight songs. But the more that college football consolidates, the faster that something crucial and irreplaceable vanishes. And we won’t even realize what we’ve lost until it’s already long gone.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]
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