On The Road Again

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After opening the SEC with two games at home, Florida will play its first road game in the league Saturday at South Carolina.
In honor of the road game (which I’m conveniently missing for a wedding in Tucson, Ariz.), I’ve decided to rate the 11 SEC road trips based on my three-plus years on the college basketball beat, taking into account atmosphere of the cities, travel convenience and basketball atmosphere.

1. Vanderbilt
If you’re a music fan or a karaoke addict, like I am, than Nashville, Tenn., is the place for wine, women and song. Live music abounds on Broadway and Second Street ” country, bluegrass, blues, rock ‘n’ roll. There are a couple of excellent karaoke haunts at Printer’s Alley, where the singers rival those in the clubs downtown. Uptown, Vandy is a picturesque college campus , with a good collection of bars and restaurants nearby. Ryman Auditorium, the original Grand Ol’ Opry downtown, provides interesting tours for those interested in country music history.

2. LSU
When you fly into Baton Rouge, it looks bleak and industrial, but there’s plenty of good food and good times. The LSU campus is scenic, with lakes and pristine green landscaping, in contrast with the chemical plants along the Mississippi River. It takes forever to get a table, but Mike Anderson’s is a must for Cajun cuisine. T.J. Ribs is a good lunch spot with LSU memorabilia. There are some casinos along the riverfront and you’re within driving distance of New Orleans, which is always a plus.

3. Ole Miss
Ole Miss gets high marks because I usually stay in Memphis, Tenn., about an hour-and-a-half drive from Oxford, Miss. It’s hard to beat Beale Street, Graceland and the Rendezvous for ribs. Just don’t let Wilford Brimley take you for a ride in his car (or slide you any compromising photos.). Oxford, too, is a quaint college town with good shops, good restaurants and pretty co-eds. Bars close at midnight, which is the only minus.

4. Georgia
Another great live-music town, where REM and the B-52s, among others, got their start. Bisset’s in an excellent restaurant downtown, featuring Cajun-style cuisine. Bars stay open ’til 3 a.m. and there’s plenty of activity after games. Wards is a good lunch spot, where you can get industrial-sized meat loaf and collard greens. The sign at the restaurant “Automatic for the People” was the inspiration for the title of an REM album.

5. Kentucky
If you like college basketball and horse racing, then you’ve reached nirvana. Hoops talk is 24-7 in town and horse farms line the landscape. Downtown area is OK with some good bars/restaurants. It’s fun sometimes to stay in Louisville, which is more hopping in terms of nightlife.

6. South Carolina
Columbia, S.C., never quite reached Charlotte, N.C., status, but it’s a good college town nonetheless. The Vista is a nice collection of downtown bars and restaurants near campus. As an arena, the Colonial Center is one of the most modern and nicest in the league.

7. Tennessee
Something is missing from Knoxville, Tenn., that I just can’t put my finger on. It gets high marks for scenery, with the Tennessee River winding through downtown. Calhoun’s along the river is a good place to eat. Cumberland Avenue has some decent watering holes and a good college vibe. Stay away from Michael’s, a cheesy, meat market where hairstyles are stuck in the 1980s. Cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena leaves a lot to be desired as a basketball venue, but Bruce Pearl is changing the atmosphere there a bit.

8. Arkansas
Bud Walton Arena, for atmosphere and amenities, is the best in the SEC. Fayetteville, Ark., is still developing, with corporate giants such as Wal-Mart and Tyson Chicken bringing in plenty of jobs. Dickson Street is home to a fun stretch of college bars. The drive from the airport into town is long, and it looks at points like you’re traveling through a third-world country. The nicest hotels are in Springdale, about a 10 minute drive from campus.

9. Alabama
There are only so many times you can go to Dreamland for ribs or the Bear Bryant Museum. Other than that, there’s not much to do in a town filled with dive bars and strip malls.

10. Auburn
Most Florida hacks choose to stay in Columbus, Ga., and drive into town the day of the game. I stayed in Auburn two years ago and wasn’t impressed. Toomer’s Corner? Not much juice there, unless it’s a football game. And the atmosphere for basketball inside Beard-Eaves Coliseum is terrible.

11. Mississippi State.
Starkville, Miss., is the town that time forgot. Yes, they just built a new, more modern hotel near campus, but you know things are bad when your own students drive an hour-and-a-half away to Tuscaloosa for a good time.