The Southeastern Conference is home to some of the best college football in the country, and with it, some of the most passionate fans and enthusiastic tailgating scenes. At Ole Miss, the results on the field haven't been great in recent years -- the Rebels haven't won a conference title since 1963, before the days of Archie Manning -- but pre-game atmosphere is always first class. After all, one of Rebels fans' favorite sayings is, "We may not win the game, but we'll always win the party."
Oxford, Miss., was the town William Faulkner called home, and it's the perfect picture of a Southern college town. On game days, men in collared shirts and women in sun dresses populate the open-air parties around campus. Every school has tailgating, but the Ole Miss version -- centered around the Grove, sort of like downtown for a tailgating city -- is on a higher plane.
"There isn't anything quite like the Grove," said Bob Lynch, managing editor at SB Nation Ole Miss blog Red Cup Rebellion. "A lot of schools do tailgate very well, but what we do at Ole Miss is pretty unique and a definite must-see for college football fans. For those who aren't familiar, the Grove is a 10-acre park in the middle of the Ole Miss campus that, during the school week, is a popular place to study, eat lunch, throw a Frisbee, and other typical college campus stuff. During game day, though, it becomes a sea of popup tents, with students, alumni, and fans all gathering in what feels like a gigantic family reunion. Cars are not allowed in the Grove, so there is some creativity required that wouldn't be required elsewhere. People typically set up their tents on the Friday night before home games, and show up as early as sunrise to ensure there is enough food and drink for themselves, their friends, their family, and any random passers-by that they might decide to socialize with."
Flickr user calmenda
"Because it has more of a cocktail party/picnic vibe," Lynch says, "you won't see a lot of games (aside from children playing pickup touch football) being played or hear a lot of loud music, nor will you see many people wearing jerseys or gaudily logo'd fan apparel. It's often said that Ole Miss fans dress up for games, or that we wear our Sunday best, as if we're going to church, but that's not necessarily the case. Outside of underclassmen and fraternity pledges, you won't see a lot of the stereotypical Ole Miss blazers and ties. You will see, though, more fans wearing oxfords, Polos, or dresses than you would see at most college football games, which does add something to the atmosphere that is somewhat unique to Ole Miss.
"Also, because of strange, draconian, and antiquated drinking laws, Ole Miss fans drink their booze out of red plastic cups. Our blog's name is inspired by that, as if you all didn't know that."
A lot of the Ole Miss atmosphere sounds similar to the Southern cocktail party, set in the 1950s or '60s. While other schools feature grilling and barbecue, some rules and regulations in Oxford prevent fans from enjoying meats cooked on open flame.
"When most people think of tailgating food, they usually conjure up mental imagery of gigantic charcoal grills or, in the case of LSU, behemoth deep fryers cooking seemingly anything that can fit inside of them," said Lynch. "And while that's all good eatin', it's not what you'll find in the Grove. Because the trees and grass are under a lot of stress as it is -- a university botanist once determined that the spilled alcohol alone was causing significant health problems for the trees -- the university doesn't allow open flames in the Grove except for those tailgates set up along University Avenue. So most of the Grove's food situation is more on the side of hors d'oeuvres than grilled meats. Think of stuff your very Southern grandmother would serve to her guests, such as chicken salad finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, all manners of cakes and pies, cheese plates and the like. Also ubiquitous in the Grove are trays of Abner's, Zaxby's, or Chick-fil-A chicken tenders which, surprisingly, are just as good cold or at room temperature as they are hot.
"As far as drinks go, bourbon is probably the most common alcohol of choice, but in the case of earlier kickoffs you'll also see a lot of red cups filled to the brim with Bloody Marys or mimosas. If and when people are drinking beer, it's usually domestic swill, although I have been known to knock back a Lazy Magnolia Timberbeast or two as a part of my pregame celebration."
Flickr user lukeamotion
Tailgating at Ole Miss is a little bit of present day meets the past, and the nightlife in Oxford seems to be the same way. Only instead of throwing back to the '50s or '60s, think of a few decades earlier.
"Oxford is a town that's got a bit of an identity crisis, as far as its nightlife is concerned," Lynch said. "On the one hand, you have bars, restaurants, musicians, artists, and revelers who fancy the place as a tiny New Orleans. I've heard folks even refer to Oxford as 'the Little Easy' before. Then, on the other hand, you've got longtime residents, working professionals, and local administrators who would probably welcome the return of American prohibition. What this means is that Oxford has a great bar scene that shuts down well before the party can really get started. That said, the options are plentiful and diverse; just make sure you get a decent enough head start.
"The biggest and most popular bar in Oxford is the Library. Technically, it's three bars rolled into one, with the main Library being an 18-and-over club and live music venue, and the bars that flank it -- the Library Sports Bar and the Library Patio -- being 21-and-over establishments. On a game weekend, they'll charge a $20 cover; people will complain about it, but still pay the cover anyway as if there isn't another place in Oxford to drink. It's just one of those types of college town bars. Next to the Library is Funky's, a daiquiri bar frequented by Ole Miss student-athletes, and around the corner from that is the Levee, a cavernous dive bar popular amongst undergrads. City Grocery, Boure, and the Burgundy Room are all the upstairs bars of some of Oxford's more popular restaurants, and they don't have the raucous, fraternity party-like atmosphere of the other bars I've mentioned. They too get packed on game weekends, but more with senior undergrads, law students, and young alumni. Then, for Oxford's rapidly growing hipster crowd, there's the Blind Pig and Lamar Lounge. And if you're looking for what I consider the last true dive in town, check out the basement of Rib Cage.
"Just remember, the cops will shut everything down before it seems to even get started, so be on the lookout for house parties and other opportunities for foolish revelry outside of the bar scene. Such shouldn't be too hard to find during the Ole Miss vs. LSU weekend.
"As far as restaurants go, I'll recommend three: Big Bad Breakfast for brunch, Ajax for lunch, and City Grocery (you won't be able to get a table -- sorry) for dinner. All three do as good a job of celebrating Southern culinary culture and history as any group of restaurants in the country."
With LSU in town this weekend, the atmosphere at Ole Miss should be as good as it gets. Plenty of Tigers fans will make the trip and have their own Cajun culinary treats in tow, and despite the in-state rivalry with Mississippi State, many Rebels believe LSU is their biggest rival. With a kickoff under the lights, everyone wearing either Yale blue and Harvard crimson or purple and gold will have plenty of time to participate in the festivities.
"LSU fans travel to Oxford very well, and the Square and Grove will be crowded and lively from sunup to well past midnight on Saturday," said Lynch. "Bars, restaurants, hotels, and the like will probably be pushing some fire code violations. Since it's a night game, I expect the interactions between Ole Miss and LSU fans to be either incredibly amicable or incredibly vicious, depending on the fans themselves. That's what a longstanding SEC matchup will give you when you let the schools' fans marinate in their liquid vices for half a day. If the game is a close one through the second half, expect a very lively atmosphere in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and if the Rebels somehow pull out a win, expect the party to continue in the Grove until well past the game's final moments."