When a family member of mine decided to relocate from New Jersey to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I immediately thought it would be a perfect opportunity to visit for an LSU game. I checked the Tigers' schedule, and pinpointed October 25 as the best game to accommodate my schedule. Ole Miss was the opponent, and with the Rebels being an intra-division rival, I was excited at the possibility of seeing a Tiger Stadium crowd at full force. Combine a rivalry game against an undefeated foe during Homecoming at night, and you have the perfect formula for what many have called the loudest and most intimidating place to play in all of college football.
The day started when I arrived on campus at 8 AM CT, although it turns out I was two hours late to the party, as the entire tailgating scene was already buzzing well before I had my first beverage at around the same time. College Gameday was already well underway, and as I made my way to my host, I learned an interesting tidbit: it seems most of the fans are annoyed by the presence of Chris Fowler & Co. Personally, I was excited to see the whole production in person, since it'll take a magical season for the crew to set up shop in Piscataway. Furthermore, I've seen lots of reader mail on other blogs ask in gleeful anticipation whether Gameday would consider their campus for a particular weekend, so I figured it was something special to have Kirk, Desmond, and Coach Corso visit.
My host then proceeded to explain that Gameday takes up valuable space that has been used by tailgaters for decades, only to be used for a silly mascot head prediction schtick. Made sense, although I can surely tell you that if Gameday ever decided to visit Rutgers, I would still welcome them with open arms (it would most likely mean RU is undefeated or close to it as well, but I digress). The glamour of Gameday had clearly worn off with the Tiger faithful.
A couple hours later, ESPN wrapped up production, leaving us with about seven hours until kickoff. That wasn't a problem, because nearly every tailgate had a flat-screen TV with satellite-dish capability. From the gigantic RV mansions-on-wheels to the simple pickup truck flatbed, almost every tailgater had a screen worthy of a living room, some complete with surround sound. This would have made it simple to watch Rutgers-Nebraska at 11 AM central time, but it was quite difficult to find anyone who was remotely interested in watching Big Ten football (did not see anyone with BTN, unsurprisingly).
The food was plentiful and delicious all around. The smell of cajun spices lingers throughout the air, and if you're not into a healthy dose of spice then I imagine you'd find it somewhat difficult to enjoy the best that Baton Rouge has to offer. Our particular tailgate cooked up a the biggest vat of spaghetti and what looked and tasted like sausage of some kind. I wish I had taken a picture to show you the sheer magnitude of the cooking aparatus; it was about as big as a wide barrel cask and filled about three-quarters of the way with pasta and meat. Alas, I did not think to capture it on camera. I was admittedly a tad inebriated at this point, enjoying the food and campus atmosphere to its fullest.
EDIT: Fortunately, another tailgater was able to provide a photo:
Around 4 PM local time, many fans had begun to make way towards the stadium to see the traditional marching band parade. At this point, the fervor of kickoff was building fast, and it seemed as if every single ticket-holder decided to enter the stadium at the same time. For those who complained that High Point Solutions Stadium's concourse is too small, Tiger Stadium seemed even smaller, which is absurd considering it's double the capacity. Once I found my seat, I could see the passion from the crowd already. The student section was already nearing capacity with over an hour to go until kickoff:
As for the rest of the crowd, the stadium filled up well before the players' entrance. It was a night game, so that's not really a fair comparison considering #TheBirthplace had no problem reaching capacity by kickoff during the Penn State and Michigan games, but after conversing with the Tiger faithful around me, I learned that every fan almost certainly made it to his seat before the Mad Hatter leads the players out of the tunnel, no matter the broadcast time.
From the first snap of the ball, you can easily see why it is so difficult to play in Death Valley. I can assure you I was skeptical at first, but the sound generated from the fans on any down - not just third - is deafening. And it didn't matter the age of the fan - each person did his job to scream at the top of his lungs to will the players to force a stop. In fact, this nice older-aged lady served as an unofficial yell leader to the fans around us, poking and prodding young 30-somethings to get off their asses and support the Tiger defense. It should also be noted that from the start of the second quarter to the beginning of the fourth, this was a stinker of a game, filled with turnovers (mostly by the Tigers). However, the fans did not let down much, if at all, and when Anthony Jennings threw the TD pass to take the lead in the fourth, the crowd went to 11, so to speak.
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The passion in Death Valley is undeniable, but that's been stated before. What was surprising to me was that there was nothing particularly unique to the fans, or the stadium. And I don't mean that as an insult; on the contrary, it makes the experience even more impressive in hindsight. Tiger Stadium is way too cramped for the amount of people it can hold, and the concessions were mediocre at best (had the nachos and sausage, both didn't have much taste). There is no gimmick like the Jump Around, the Gator Chomp, or the Seminole chant. What the fans do is simple: they show up, are loud (ridiculously loud), and give opposing teams their worst nightmare.
You shouldn't take this as a serious comparison to Rutgers, because to be quite honest I would find it difficult for any venue to seriously compete with Tiger Stadium. This isn't meant to demean other crowds, as there are tons of other stadiums I would love to visit (only money and time prevent me, but other than that...). Death Valley is a special place though, and its one of those venues where the fans are worth the price of admission.
A very special thank you to PodKATT for hosting me on this expedition to the Bayou. Truly an experience unlike any other.