This weekend will be a game at least eight seasons in the making when Ole Miss returns to The Swamp to face Florida for the first time since 2008's game, which was punctuated with "The Promise." While I presume that game remains bittersweet for Florida fans, it is for me as well; that was supposed to be the game in which I visited the 12th different SEC stadium, which remains the only non-Missouri-and-Texas A&M venue in the SEC in which I have not seen a game.
Since 2001, I've actually been to the other 11 stadiums at least twice and, while returning to Oxford for games is always special, there's something about road games that has always held a certain romanticism. Along with a zeal for travel and new experiences, I also have a keen interest in stadium history and construction, which leads to an intrigue in looking at a stadium from a different way than can be done via television.
It's not that I did not intend to go to the 2008 Ole Miss-Florida game. A series of events -- including the game being selected for a JP kickoff, being demoralized after losses to Wake Forest (which my wife and I went to in Winston-Salem) and Vanderbilt and, most importantly, dropping (an unexpected) several thousand dollars on a new HVAC system for my house -- led to my wife and I deciding to not go to the late September game to sit in the end zone upper deck. My 2008 self figured Florida was favored by more than three touchdowns and, while I'd love to go to the game, I shouldn't be spending the money for gas and a hotel room for a game in which Ole Miss would likely be killed.
Fate, Jevan Snead, Shay Hodge and Kentrell Lockett intervened and, as I watched from my couch in suburban Atlanta, the combination of the joy of the win was intertwined with regret as I had tickets to what would go down as one of the most famous road wins in Ole Miss history. My unused tickets sat in the car as I was unable to even unload them at a loss.
Eight seasons on, I again have a ticket for an Ole Miss game in Gainesville and, barring some unforeseen event, I will be there. In a way, this trip has become a closure. It's not a complete closure because of the expansion of the SEC, but with the addition of College Station and Columbia, Mo., as SEC destinations those will hopefully be visited in the next few seasons.
In the meantime, road games at Auburn (2003 -- Obamanu dropped it), Arkansas (2008 -- Nutt's return to Fayetteville), LSU (2001 -- sophomore Eli Manning leads an 11-point win) and, most recently, Alabama (2015) have offered encouragement to keep going to road games to override the disappointment (South Carolina 2009, Alabama four times, Kentucky 2011, LSU 2002). The experience of being a fan of the road team and walking out with a major win is one that is difficult for me to top as a college football fan.
But aside from the games itself, traveling to different cities, interacting with opposing fan bases and visiting local establishments that have been a part of the gameday or college experience in those communities for two, ten or 80 years is as much of a draw as the game itself. From exploring Old Salem in Winston-Salem or eating at Rama Jama's in Tuscaloosa or Calhoun's in Knoxville or the Blue Marlin in Columbia, S.C., or exploring bourbon distilleries around Lexington, the locale has at times contributed as much enjoyment to road games as the game itself.
So this weekend, as I visit my 19th FBS stadium and 12th SEC stadium, more moments will occur that, win or lose for Ole Miss, will etch my memories of the experience. Entering this game, the expectations are completely different for both teams versus the 2008 meeting. Ole Miss has gone from being the hunter to the hunted, and this weekend's game could be another step in the direction the program has been inching towards, or a step back that requires a slight re-calibration in the expectations of the season. Either way, I look forward to the ride and the experience of being a fan and soaking up the entirety of that endeavor.