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Ahh, fall: leaves turning into warm shades of happiness, the weather pushing you to find that comforting blanket, your favorite foods and drinks infused with hints of pumpkin, and hating your best friend for going to a rival university. It’s the time of year when college football returns to force us to watch crazy fit 20 year olds run back and forth for points. Hopefully, that friend of yours didn’t go to Alabama; but if he did and has taken you to an SEC game, you’ve experienced the pinnacle of college football.

RELATED: 10 reasons why Chattanooga is the real Tennessee gem

Whether you’re a fan of the SEC or avid follower of one of those “other” conferences, it’d be nearly impossible to argue that nobody tailgates better than they do in the South. From The Swamp to The Grove, an autumn weekend in the SEC will convince you to buy some new Saturday colors. Buy some orange clothing because the first stop on your SEC travels should take you to Knoxville. Winter, spring, and summer, it’s like any other mid-sized city but come autumn, it’s inhabitants bleed orange, the community triples in size on Saturdays, and everything turns all Tennessee Vol. Here’s what to expect.

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UT College Campus and Neyland Stadium | Photo cred: UTK.edu

Thursday
Excitement in Knoxville starts on Wednesday for the Saturday game, however preparation begins on Thursday. Drive down normally empty Cumberland Avenue (aka The Strip) in the fall on a Thursday and you’ll see football-themed RVs in fast-food parking lots, orange streamers hanging from light poles and Power-T flags flying. Tailgaters fight for spots throughout campus, students celebrate the upcoming home game, and the anticipation builds. Check in at the Tennessean Personal Luxury Hotel or the Knoxville Marriott and the concierge will greet you with a “Go Vols” while they hand over your room keys. The view of the nearby campus is breathtaking, and as you climb into bed you notice the excitement is contagious—the butterflies just won’t go away. 

 

Friday
Depending on the rivalry, some classes at the university may be canceled so the campus starts to buzz early in the day. The Pride of the Southland marching band starts practicing mid-morning so you’ll likely hear “Rocky Top” echoing through campus. When you first set eyes on the colossal Neyland Stadium, which seats over 102,000 people, you’ll start to wonder if the university built the entire college around the stadium. The quad, normally littered with studious young adults, is now packed with brightly colored tents, BBQ pits, generators and televisions. Tailgating at UT is one of the coolest experiences and set up takes some time. If the weather is nice, hit the golf course to enjoy the sweet Southern air. There are 36 square miles of gorgeous courses in the greater Knoxville area. Book a tee time and buy an orange polo and you’ll fit right in. 

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Neyland Staduim | Photo by Rocky Top Talk

Saturday
By sunrise, the tailgating has already started. For those who’ve never experienced a tailgate, it’s a glorified picnic where everyone is dressed in the same colors, people are eager to invite you to their piece of tailgating paradise, burgers and hotdogs are forever on the grill, and the drinks are flowing. Walk anywhere on campus and you’ll see members of the band playing, cheerleaders greeting fans and food. A regular picnic brings to mind sandwiches, fruit, and chips. A SEC picnic (tailgate) includes BBQ, deep-fried anything, and a huge assortment of soul food. Regardless of team preference, fans in the SEC are very generous with the incredibly large amounts of food, so bring an appetite.

The quad you drove past yesterday, which was at the time occupied only by tailgate equipment, is now packed with women in sundresses and guys in suits, both with drinks in hand. Hopefully you’re wearing the home teams colors; if not, it’s going to be a long day. Grab a cup and a plate and make friends, everyone around you will be incredibly welcoming. Mention it’s your first time tailgating in the South and get ready for an overwhelming amount of generosity. The music is loud and the drinks are plentiful over the next few hours leading up to the game, making for an afternoon that’s impossible to forget.

UT’s campus is built on the waterfront and that means the party spills onto the river. One of the coolest part of a Tennessee tailgate is the Vol Navy. Sometimes arriving at Volunteer Landing days before the game, boats from small to large dot the water. From the river, they have a perfect view of the stadium and can see the fireworks every time the Vols score a touchdown! 

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Vol Navy | Photo by UTK.edu

 

The fifth largest in the US, Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee boasts a capacity of 102,455. When you leave the tailgate and head into the stadium, you’ll notice the overwhelming size immediately. The experience is bar-none. As the band begins to play, and the team runs through a “T” made by the band, you’ll find yourself considering a trip to a nearby souvenir shop and buying a wardrobe full of Vols clothing. 

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A  sea of orange (and white) at Neyland Stadium | Photo by UT Sports

The tailgating doesn’t end after the win. After the game, everyone heads back to their tailgate spot or to the bar to continue the party. Once the sun goes down, Cumberland Avenue fills with what seems like all 25,000 of the university’s students, their friends and every member of their family. The camaraderie is infectious and celebrating a win with thousands of new friends is an experience like no other. Walk into one of the bars to get the full college town experience. The celebration of the win (or drinking away a loss) will continue on into the wee-hours of the night.

Sunday
Congratulations, you’ve experienced and survived an SEC weekend! At this point you probably understand why your friend has always wanted to bring you to a game, and why you’ll want to bring someone else. The SEC has tried to perfect the football weekend, and most would agree they’ve succeeded. As you leave campus and drive past the quad that was packed so full just yesterday, you’ll notice its cleaned up; not a tent, BBQ pit, or TV in sight. Like Cinderella, the UT campus and the city of Knoxville, transform back to a normal city at midnight.

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