COLUMBIA, Mo. — All up and down the busy streets of this slightly crazed college football town, there's tangible evidence that a very big game is on the horizon. In the windows of all the elegant designer boutiques and more down-to-earth consignment shops, not to mention the upscale eateries and bustling student haunts all across the district, they are flying school colors, and splashing big black and gold SEC stickers in prominent locations for everyone to see.
The dress shops are displaying the sort of exquisite outfits that fit with the rich tradition of good ol' Southern football, where every Saturday is just an excuse to be decked out like it's a fancy cocktail party. So for every well-dressed Mizzou lady, there is the simple black dress, the tiger-striped scarf, to-die-for gold lamé skirt or glamorous designer sunglasses that will make them look like a gorgeous gridiron debutante.
And for the less fashionable, and slightly more traditional Mizzou loyalists, there are the "Gold Rush 2012" T-shirts on sale in any number of Tiger sports shops. In the Tiger Store on the north end of the stadium, they are selling these shirts that have the small "gold rush" logo on the front of the shirt, and a big, bold display on the back that commemorates the inaugural Southeastern Conference game for Mizzou, and it is the epitome of T-shirt trash talk.
With a graphic of Faurot Field's new artificial surface as the background, the official school-issued T-shirt proclaims "No Dawgs allowed on Our Turf."
So someone tell me why this is cool and clever and the official uniform for fans attending Saturday night's game, but when MU players have the gumption to a give us a glimpse of their bold competitive confidence with a little trash talk, this is somehow viewed in some quarters as the start of a horrid slide into a deep, dark cultural abyss?
Get over it, people. College football is supposed to be fun. And in the SEC, where even the coaches on occasion have no problem flapping their gums (Mizzou fans, meet Steve Spurrier), bold behavior is not only expected, it is often greatly encouraged.
So here we are just a day before Georgia versus Mizzou (6:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2), and it's starting to feel like Columbia has already made a seamless switch from a more sedate Big 12 town to the SEC's northernmost outpost.
"You feel the bigness all around town," gushed Max Copeland, the extremely expressive, hard-rocking Mizzou offensive lineman.
It's certainly not like the folks here are neophytes to big-game atmosphere any more than the players are. The Tigers have played their fair share of big games since Gary Pinkel arrived more than a decade ago, dead set on restoring the roar to this once-meaningful football program. But for all the reasons concerning the transition to the biggest, baddest conference in the land, there's a sense around Columbia that Saturday night's environment will even surpass the thrill of homecoming 2010 when the Tigers upset the BCS's then-No.1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
"There had to be more than 71,000 people in here for Oklahoma," said senior receiver T.J. Moe. "They said that for the fire marshals. There were folks all over the place, not an empty spot in the stands or on the grass. And I guarantee you that by the time they squeeze everyone in here on Saturday night, it will be a whole lot more than 71,000 for Georgia too. It will be a great atmosphere for football."
On Thursday afternoon, Jared Ater, general manager of Harpo's, was standing in the big back room of his famous establishment looking at the big color photo of the night of Oct. 23, 2010. It was an overhead color photo of the corner of 10th and Cherry streets, just outside this college town's most well-known drinking hole when it seemed like the entire stadium showed up at the front door. Less than an hour after Mizzou's big homecoming victory over OU, the streets flooded with a sea of gold-clad students who arrived in a euphoric (inebriated?) state with two goal posts floating on their shoulders.
That was the night when Ater remembered the advice the original owner of Harpo's passed on to him when it came to how to handle the student tradition of trying to bring the Faurot Field goal posts into the bar after a big game victory.
Never let them come through your doors with the goal posts.
"The way I remember it, the only thing that saved us was that the kids were out there with saws cutting it up into small pieces," Ater said laughing. "I think we paid off a few of the students and told them, 'Just give us a little piece and we'll bring that in.'"
And now the folks who like to bill Harpo's as the place where tradition lives are gearing up for the possibility of another delirious football Saturday night.
"I think it'll be pretty cool to see another set of goal posts coming down the streets on Saturday night," Ater said, chuckling over the sounds of a little Rolling Stones video blasting in the background.
One of the first things everyone has to get used to is how SEC fans come to town earlier and stay later. Already there have been several Georgia fan sightings around town. Hotels report a steady stream of guests from Georgia began arriving Wednesday, and Delta Airlines announced it has put together a special one-time-only nonstop flight on Saturday morning from Atlanta to Columbia to accommodate the rabid Dawg lovers.
No word on if they bothered to add an extra return flight.
This is football SEC style, where every week is a big game, where every opponent believes their team is the most important thing in the universe.
And now it seems like Mizzou fans have embraced the feeling, becoming rather quick studies of the passionate (did someone say "obsessive"?) ways of their new rivals from the deep South.
But here's what I'm waiting to see. What happens after Georgia? Do the swelling sellouts shrink down, then swell up depending on the names and reputations on the scoreboard? Do they show up in large numbers for Georgia and Alabama, then dwindle to more modest numbers for the likes of Arizona State, Vandy and Kentucky?
We're not only about to find out something definitive about the MU football program this season.
In the SEC, they don't do this Big Game stuff once or twice a season.
Remember what they say: Football in the SEC isn't life and death. It's much more important than that.