Tusk to Tail 2014: Losing the game AND burning the cheese dip

It sounds cliché, but the opening weekend of college football feels like Christmas for Tusk to Tail. Dale Cullins makes his list of tailgating supplies and checks it twice before he and Craig May load the sport utility sleighs with our goodies. The good kids with SEC Network got to open an early gift this year with a full slate of Thursday night games. And like a child, I cannot sleep the night before the big day.

Friday morning began with a half dozen Northwest Arkansas guys piling into Greg Houser’s truck to meet another six in Little Rock. In the meantime, my family was headed to my in-law’s house in Mobile before my son and I drove to Auburn on game day. Noticing I was the only Hog fan driving north to the game Saturday, it dawned on me that this was the sports equivalent of Charlie Daniels going to L.A. via Omaha.

Auburn is one of Tusk to Tail’s favorite road trips due to the gracious fans and their traditions. Southern hospitality oozes from the tailgates as the fans welcome you to “the plains.” If you have seen an Auburn game, live or on TV, you have likely seen their famous “War Eagle” that circles the field before kickoff. What you may not know is that the bird that saw Auburn win a championship in 2010 and play for another last year went talons up this summer at the age of 34.

Thirty-freaking-four years old! That means the bird that probably delivered bags of cash to Cam Newton and Bo Jackson was alive for Reagan’s first election, the Mount St. Helen eruption, and knows who shot JR. For my peace of mind, I need the animal kingdom to agree to a life expectancy of about 10 years. I’m willing to give a couple years leeway to various sealife and non-smoking tortoises, but the rest better step in line. I’m looking at you, Florida Gator.

Of course Auburn is also home of Toomer’s Corner, that quaint monument to victory and fanaticism. Fans once rolled the intersection’s ancient oaks with toilet paper for every victory until a crazed Alabama fan (redundant, I know) was tired of taking shit from a stupid tree, and decided to poison the grove and possibly the state’s water table. Most call it Darwinism. We spell it SEC.

Listening to sports talk radio Friday, it was clear the conference had struggled. South Carolina blew the nation’s longest home winning streak so badly to Texas A&M that their defensive coaches may have been updating their résumés at halftime. Ole Miss threw three interceptions and jumped offsides seven times in the first half before finally putting Boise State away in the 4th quarter.

And Vanderbilt … well, there is a reason the phrase “Same Old Vandy” exists.

Would the Tigers be the next contender to underwhelm? It seemed conceivable, considering Arkansas had won three of the last four at Auburn. But given the past two disappointing Razorback seasons, I was just hoping we could whelm.

The Tusk to Tailgate was already set up by the time my son and I rolled onto campus at 9:30 a.m. I dropped off the boy, a cooler, and our rain gear before heading off to park. I returned to see him and the sons of Craig May and John Scott being interviewed by Little Rock’s ABC affiliate. Statewide television coverage was a recurring theme of the weekend. When the crew arrived in Auburn Friday, Cullins and Houser were whisked into a suite to film a segment for KATV’s Razorback football preview. The same channel later interviewed May, his son, and his brother Chris for a separate news segment, and then returned the next day to shoot our tailgate in action. Little Rock’s KTHV also stopped by, shooting a lengthy piece on our tailgate that reportedly kicked off the 10 p.m. news.

It was easy to see why our party garnered such attention. Our traveling tailgate rivaled just about anything we saw from local fans. Two pop-up canopies offered 200 square feet of shade and shelter from the pending rain. One table was dedicated to the big screen television and Tailgater satellite dish, while others contained ribs and chopped pork from Mike & Ed’s Barbecue, a platter of Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets, a tray of brownies, and several bags of chips to accompany the large crock of Dale’s famous cheese dip. Still another table held enough liquor bottles to kill a family of goats.

As the morning sun began to swelter, May and Cullins called an audible to move our tents below the comfort of some shade trees about 100 feet away.  While the logic to do so was sound, our order and organization was never regained.  Boxes containing sandwich buns, sauces, silverware, and soft drinks were now strewn among the chairs and coolers beneath our canopy, turning routine tasks like making a sandwich into a drunken scavenger hunt.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that around this time, the Tusk to Tailgate lost some of its mojo. I won’t name names, but someone whose initials are Mark Wagner forgot to turn the temperature down on the crock of cheese dip before snapping one of Dale’s brand new chairs in two. The first wave of thunderstorms passed through shortly afterwards, removing all opportunity for Wagner to capture the pageantry of Auburn tailgating before leaving to shoot the game. It seems safe to say that Mark has had finer moments.

Cullins returned to his charred dip and fractured chair, and his frustration was evident. Our gang had essentially used his Mona Lisa as toilet paper. When Scott asked what to do with the steaming bowl of Velveeta magma, his son offered to film him dumping it over his head as the start of a new viral philanthropy challenge. Needless to say, the boy’s sense of humor immediately earned him elite status in our group.

I fear that Auburn’s recent success has spawned Tigers of a different stripe clamoring aboard the bandwagon. In my five previous trips, including the year they won all the Tostitos, I have never seen such large crowds at the gates of the stadium. Several longtime Auburn ticket holders echoed this observation, and the delay cost my son the chance to see the new eagle fly onto the field.

The warm and welcoming fans are still there, including the lady behind us offering our children water and cool towels in the oppressive heat of the stadium. But her hospitality was drowned out by the jersey-wearing bros swilling Fireball and Coke in Section 37. These boys seemed to enjoy taunting the fans of a 3-9 team and yelling “DUUUUUUUUUUKE” after one of receiver D’haquille Williams nine receptions more than watching the game itself. This type of Tiger is usually found among the bayous of Louisiana, not the plains of Auburn.

The rest of the game went about as expected. Arkansas has improved since last season, playing a solid first half punctuated to earn the draw at Intermission. Our run game ate up yardage in chunks, but we still allowed too many big plays through the air. Once suspended Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall returned to the game from his smoke break, the Hogs simply couldn’t stop him.

When officials suspended the game in the fourth quarter due to lightning, Auburn had a 17-point lead, effectively putting the game out of reach before adding a final touchdown once play resumed. Very few fans stayed through the 90-minute weather delay until the final gun, and those who did are worthy of Tusk to Tail’s praise, including Craig, Chris, and Lawson May; Ryan Glen; Jeff and Hope Laman; Denver Peacock; and Mark Wagner. You are all true Razorbacks.

Even if Mark did burn the cheese dip and break a chair.