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June 22, 2006

SEC's Most Difficult Places to Play

The Sporting News' Matt Hayes opens Pandora's box a little early this year with a provocative column on the toughest places to play in the SEC. First I'll nit-pick his list, then compile my own.

[Photo: Two men enter, one man leaves]

Too many of Hayes' justifications reference the coaching staff of the respective schools (Florida, LSU). Hayes also doesn't explain his evaluation criteria, but I think when evaluating the relative advantage a stadium provides you measure "objective" criteria (size, crowd, noise, aura)--which is to say the difficulty of playing in a stadium is an advantage independent of the coaching staff or opponent talent level.

Tiger Stadium is just as hard to play in as it ever was, you just face a more talented and better prepared team under Saban (now Les Miles) than you did under Gerry DiNardo. Same goes for his comments on Florida. To quantify home field advantage, you should isolate variables like coaching. I tried to think of it thusly: if you were leading your team on the road against the same coach in every stadium in the conference, which stadiums would be the most hostile?

Hayes says the most-difficult stadium is Jordan-Hare. It's a tough place to play, but I think this is a little high. Obviously I'm biased, but I agree with him UGA has the best facility in the league. But, there's no way Georgia is a more difficult place to play than LSU.

Disclaimer: I've been to every stadium in the SEC at least twice, except for Florida. I rank Ben Hill Griffin based on the impression of some friends (dawg and non-dawg) who have been there in person.

1. LSU: scariest fans, loudest fans, totally intimidating. I sat in the upper deck last time and I thought St. Peter was going to show me to my seat. For my money there are two things in the SEC that always seem to call down crowd thunder. The first is the crowd response to the first four notes of hold that tiger.

Add 90,000 drunk, ornery cajuns, then wait for earth to quake.

2. Tennessee: The second loudest thing in the SEC? Splitting the T when the Vols run onto the field. Ok, so the cornpone fight song blaring at you is like aural rape. The structure itself may be an architectural dry heave--a asymmetrical patch work quilt of struts, beams, and low-rent engineering--but when it gets loud it's unbelievable. The flip side is 100,000 yokels clear out like someone let a skunk loose when you beat them 41-14. Seriously, did someone call in a bomb threat? Come back! The game isn't over...

Next time I'm bringing a can of paint. I mean, if we're going to own it we might as well maintain it.

3. Florida: I've heard its a great home advantage--the mullets may absorb some sound, but I understand the crowd is loud, boisterous and thisclose to the action. I heard Ray Goff talk about how Gator fans would throw piss cups on the opposing team. Come to think of it, I'm not sure how Ray knew that unless he was talking about Jacksonville, but I'm sure it is true of the Swamp too. When/if I finally make it there, this is where I expect it to a rank.


4. Auburn: I've always liked the scoreboard noise meter, and it can get really loud. The overwrought G'n'R "Jungle" stuff is lame, but Jordan-Hare at night is tough place to play. UGA's done well there historically, but it's never been easy. In fairness, they should probably be ranked above Florida, but this just confirms I'm part of the vast conspiracy designed to hold the program down.

5. Georgia: the fans seem to have gotten louder in the last 10 years, but our bowl shape--though aesthetically pleasing and the finest setting in all of college football-- allows too much sound to escape instead of holding sound in like a barking echo chamber.

6. Alabama: Bryant-Denny can get loud; it's a great gameday atmosphere. I always get a chuckle out of how the first few notes of "Sweet Home" can whip the crowd up. I enjoy the pre-game video with clips of the Bear too. The history of the place and the program can even feel oppressive sometimes (unless you're 'man enough' to handle it).

Dig him up. Prop him up. Roll Tide Roll.

7. Arkansas: you owe it to yourself to see a game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. With the expansion, the place collects a respectable crowd, but I think the hidden advantage is because Fayettenam is so far from everywhere else, the visiting crowd is whittled down to just the die-hards. It feels like your looking out at the Roman Coliseum. Plus, 70,000+ fans calling the hawgs is--though perhaps not intimidating--a spectacle to behold. You probably get a different reception if you're Alabama or from Texas, but on my trips I've found Razorbacks to be ridiculously friendly and the town to be quite charming.

8. South Carolina: The stadium looks like an exterminated cockroach, but the interior is nice enough. All in all, it's a respectable facility. The crowd is usually into it for at least the first half, and can occasionally get loud. Check out these gameday photos. If they played college football in Beirut, it would probably be indistinguishable from the SC fairgrounds and Williams-Brice. I hear the campus is nice, but never really cared enough to find out.

Well, at least they've got a new scoreboard.

9. Mississippi: Though we usually manage to play poorly there, I'm pretty certain it has nothing to do with the stadium or the crowd. I've missed playing Ole Miss every year, but only because the return trip to Oxford is one of the best trips in college football. I always thought Vaught-Hemingway was named in partial recognition of Oxford's love affair with alcohol and its literary roots--that, or Ernest Hemingway coached at Ole Miss.

Ole Miss. As intimidating as a Garfield plush doll.

10. Kentucky: this place could be loud, if they cared. It's a pleasant enough place to see a game, but it just has no soul--it is the shape of tepidness and mediocrity. The fans don't seem to feel like the stadium is a special place to them, and it shows. Moderately tougher a night, but still not a big deal. That's because this is a basketball school, you say? I have a pet theory that Kentucky fans don't really like basketball, they just like winning. That's a much longer blog post for another day. If you ever get a chance to see Rupp Arena, however...

11. Mississippi State: Scott Field's recent expansion means it's bigger and louder than the last time the Dawgs were there, but it's no Temple of Doom. Friendly fans who are too in touch with reality to go through the motions of mass delusion of invincibility that characterizes South Carolina fans.

I've got a fever for from Starkville, and the only prescription is more cowbell.

12. Vanderbilt: structurally it's a nice facility with no bad seats. And there's always plenty of seats for Dawg fans. Seriously, I don't think I've ever been there when Vandy fans outnumbered us. God Bless'em. Rumor has it there's a foghorn when they score a touchdown...

Argue amongst yourselves.

Bureau Chief, Stadium Inspections
Georgia Sports Blog


Anonymous said...

Interesting comment about the feeling of tradition of Alabama being "oppressive."

I once saw Bryant-Denny described as having a "semi-messianic fervor."

I'm probably one of the few Bama fans that feels we occasionally suffer under the weight of our own tradition.

Kanu said...

Nice writeup. I have been to all of the SEC stadia except 3: Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Vandy. But that's OK since I am not here to talk about the bottom of the list.

I went to Gainesville for UGA-UF 1994. All I can say is holy shit that place was loud, and unvelieveably intimidating. Been to Neyland 3 times (1993 ,1995, 1997), but Foley Field was even more intimidating. Part of that has to do with Spurrier - I thnk during his tenure most all would agree that the Swamp is easily #1 on this list. Anyhow, you definitely have the top 3 right, not sure about the exact order but it doesn't really matter.

I also agree with you (and disagree w/ Hayes) about Arbun. Been to Jerrdin-Hair 5 times (1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, and Auburn-Florida 1991 methinks) Intimidating & tough? Yes. As initmidating & tough as the aforementioned three? No. Clearly in the next group of 3, along with Sanford and Bama, in that order.

Final thought sponsored by Captain Obvious: Sanford in the Richt era is 5,000 times tougher to play than the Goff/Donnan eras, where many in the non-student section were frankly lame.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

Oh, I'm glad you brought up the 2003 UGA-UT game -- indeed, Neyland Stadium, while loud, can be quieted down plenty quick if you play your cards right. That was actually my first visit to the place, and everywhere but the visitors' sections was as quiet as a church by the time Clausen threw his second (or was it third?) interception. Which meant no "Rocky Top" until the Vols scored their gimme TD at the very end. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I think Ray Goff has experienced UF in Gainesville. If I am not mistaken he was the UGA coach when the Gator Bowl (now Alltell) was being renovated. It was only one time, but he was there, I guess...

Dawgnoxious said...

Anon: you are correct. Must have had a brain freeze. Ray was shitcanned after the 1995 season. He "coached" the team to a 1994 loss in Gainesville, followed by the loss that dare not speak its name in Athens.

Anonymous said...

My experience (assuming night games against good competition:

1. LSU (no one drinks like them)
2. Florida
3. Tennessee
4. Auburn (small town folks really get into it)
5. South Carolina (also drinks alot)
6. Arkansas
7. Alabama (might be better with the expansion)
8. Missisippi State (would be better with an improved team, Jackie's dawg pound used to get it rockin')
9. Georgia
10. Ole Miss (like Georgia too many preppies)
11. Kentucky
12. Vanderbilt

Anonymous said...

Interesting about Sanford stadium not holding in noise. I wonder if that will change when the entire stadium is eventually closed in to make a true 'bowl.' Of course, if this happens you'll have to park in Oconee county just to get to the game.

Dawgnoxious said...

Anon @ 10:55--The bizarro dawgs have a better homefield advantage in Starkvegas than Sanford Stadium? Valdosta High School has a better homefield advantage than MSU. Put the crack pipe down.

Anon @ 11:11--With the new parking restrictions that douchebag Adams has instituted, we'll all be parking in Oconee anyway.

Anonymous said...

I've been to both MSU and UGA when the home teams were good.

To get as loud, UGA needs more cowbell.

Unknown said...

Athens will never get as loud consistently as the swamp or neyland or baton rouge b/c of design issues far bigger than the open end of the stadium.

We have a gentle sloping lower deck that is just absolutely massive. 60+ rows stretching way, way, way away from the field to take advantage of the natural valley.

Neyland and the Swamp and Death Valley have the fans more on top of the action and closer. The grade is steeper.

That said....Sanford is 5x as loud now as it was when I was in school circa early 90s.


Anonymous said...

You couldn't be oppressed by the tradition in Bryant-Denny because there is none in the stadium. Bama always played their biggest games in Legion Field but the only oppression you'd feel there is maybe a gun at your back.

Worrier said...

Been everywhere except Vandy and Kensucky.

I think Florida's louder than LSU but not by much. I think both are in a separate league than the rest. Neyland can get real loud but also can be average even in a big game.

UGA/Auburn/Bama are similar.

Ole Miss was pretty loud when they went up on us a couple of years ago late in the game. Did love seeing the crowd go wild to Dixie.

Arkansas' stadium in Fayetteville can be loud and I think is a very nice stadium.

separate note Dawg: I know you've discussed in the past non-conference schedules but just saw an announcement today the Vols signed a home/home with Nebraska (2016/2017). That adds to an already pretty good list (Cal, UCLA, Oregon, Oklahoma).

ctrosecrans said...

i've been everywhere but lsu and uf... which still take my top two spots

1. florida -- the odd angles cause sound to bounce off all sorts of things and make it louder -- or so i've been told
2. lsu -- check out lsu's record in night home games -- that's what hayes meant when he said it was overrated. still, that thing they had where it could be measured on the richter scale? pretty impressive.
3. ut -- place is huge. don't know if i've heard anything louder than 2001. of course, a couple of seconds later i've never heard 100,000-plus sound quieter
4. auburn -- great venue
5. south carolina -- was there in 2000 and that was incredibly loud. and they have that screetching chicken sound which is probably more irritating than intimidating
6. georgia -- i love sanford, but a bit of a wine and cheese crowd and somehow just doesn't get as loud as other places. of course, the vast majority of the games i've been to were during the goff/donnan debacles
7. alabama -- depends on the game. the oklahoma game a couple of years ago? nuts. other games? not so much.
8. arkansas -- i was there pre-expansion (damien gary returning a punt for td -- flew back to athens and saw the flaming lips at the 40 watt that night. was awesome -- nothing beats a company jet)
9. kentucky -- it's a nice little stadium -- seems smaller than it really is. odd. but, yeah, it's kentucky.
10. mississippi state -- no cowbell
11. ole miss -- is still having wood from walking through the grove considered 'intimidating'?
12. vanderbilt -- well, one thing everyone agrees with

Wes Wolfe said...

Time to be the contrarian, again. Williams-Brice is the shit, for 15 minutes. Then the game begins. The start rocks, though.

Bryant-Denny is developing tradition. True, in the past the big games were played at Legion Field because LF had a much larger seating capacity. But, since the arrival of UAB on the scene and the expansion of Bryant-Denny ('98, and again this year) things are different. Anybody who watched the Bama-UT and Bama-UF games, even on TV, can tell you the crowd was out-of-control loud. With 93K+, it'll start to assume its rightful place as one of the top venues in college football.

Anonymous said...

This ranking discussion is fun but inherently subjective -- and only a few people have touched on one of the few objective points: home-field advantage has more to do with the home team than it does the home fans.

Example: Florida Field was the toughest place to play in the 90s, but it was rarely the loudest stadium if for no other reason than that the games were so rarely close. Seriously, how often is a crowd in a frenzy in the fourth quarter of a 41-10 ball game?

LSU has the reputation as the most difficult place to play, but check their historical home record (even at night). Look at what Alabama has done there. (LSU has beaten the Tide just once in Baton Rouge since LBJ was in the White House -- and it's an annual series.) UT had that amazing come back there last year. Auburn could have topped them. (Five missed field goals.) Florida turned the ball over multiple times and still lost by only four. A few years back, Florida beat LSU in Baton Rogue during the Tiguhs' national championship season. And in Saban's first year, the Tiguhs lost a night home game to ... UAB.

Look at Auburn in Athens. Georgia has beaten the Auburn in Sanford three times -- maybe four -- since 1980. Auburn, meanwhile, roughly splits with Georgia at home, but no better. Strange series. Neither team ever appears intimidated by anything in the opposition's stands in that one.

Auburn has won all three of the AU-Alabama games in Tuscaloosa since the series has gone to a true home-and-home.

Georgia is on a streak of owning Neyland Stadium. Tennessee also has been embarrassed at home by Auburn and Alabama at least once over the last four years.

Auburn lost to Ga. Tech last year at a night home opener. Alabama lost to, drum roll please, Northern Illinois at night a few years back.

So, yada yada yada, this talk of intimidation is largely for fun and largely a debate that fans have. We're intimidated/impressed when we walk into these places. And rightfully so. We're trying to put ourselves in the position of 20-year-olds having to perform in that atmosphere. We can't. But I suspect that has more to do with our own lack of football skills than with a geniune fear of loud crowds.

The best coaches know how to prepare their players (both practically in the form of hand singals and emotionally in general) to ignore the situation and keep their attention between the sidelines and goal posts.

One of my favorite examples comes from Bear Bryant. One year in Baton Rogue, he noticed his players oggling nervously at Mike the Tiger, whose cage was parked consipicously outside the visitor's entrance to the field. Bryant stopped behind his players and groused something to the effect of, "I don't know what the hell you guys are afraid of. He's 40 years old and drugged up."

From the Silver Screen, the best example is in "Hoosiers," when Norman Dale takes his Hickory Huskers into Indianopolis' mammoth fieldhouse, at least by 1952 standards, for the state championship against Central of South Bend. He walks them onto the floor and pulls out a tape measurer, instructing a few players to measure the height from the floor to the rim, then the length from the charity stripe to the floor under base of the rim. Told the measurements were 10-feet and 15-feet, respectively, he replies, "You'll find these are the same dimensions as our gym back in Hickory."

Message: Players make plays. Fans make noise.

That said, can't wait until my next few trips around the conference.

Ludovic said...

No doubt about it. LSU. It may not have the best percentage of home wins...but it definetly has the best game day atmosphere. The fans know how to tailgate from Thursday afternoon until Sunday Morning. I think it's the humidity in Baton Rouge that keeps the loud noise hovering so close to the field...but whatever it is..they've got it in dueces. I've been to games at Texas in Austin and people dress up and sit on their hands. Compared to LSU, The University of Texas is like going to a symphony and LSU is like attending a Rodeo.

lams said...

I have been to many of the stadiums minus lsu, msu and mississipi... i would say i was most impressed with South Carolina that place was so much louder than i expected... and i would say i was most unimpressed with georgia i fiured with all of their tradition it would be a much louder place however i have been their twice and neither time was i impresssed

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