- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's note: During Week 12, 10 ESPN.com reporters changed conferences to experience college football in unfamiliar territory. Here is what they learned.
Recall last month that the ESPN reporters flipped out for a few days and ventured to parts of the country unknown to them.
This Southern California boy was transported to a different South. Not going to lie -- most of what I knew about the South I learned from catching snippets of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour on TV. I could already see the "you might be a redneck" texts coming from my buddies. My cable guy neither looks nor talks like Larry.
But that wasn't what I got. Instead, I was welcomed with open arms by warm people who love their food, love their friends and love their football. I spent a great deal of time with a group called "The Ultimate Tailgaters" who wouldn't let me leave with an empty stomach or empty arms. There were hugs all around.
I saw Florida fans and South Carolina fans mingling -- and talking a little bit of trash. I saw cocktails toasted, toured a Cockaboose and learned a great deal about a region of the country I knew little about.
Excited but admittedly a bit apprehensive about what I'd encounter, I'm happy to say I left richer for the experience.
Best meal: A good burger in Southern California is a good burger in Columbia, S.C. So checking out Pawley's Front Porch in Five Points with a few of my new USC friends was all well and good. But honestly, the best food I had was wandering from tailgate to tailgate trying out the local fare. From boiled peanuts and fried gator tail to the briskets, ribs and sausages, the tailgating grub was outstanding. And I do find it humorous that I can get better pulled pork in the Columbia, S.C., airport than I can in San Diego.
Must-see sight in Columbia: I loved the history of the region (which I'll get into in the next section). But aside from seeing good football and some great historical sites, one absolutely must take a stroll through The Horseshoe -- the old part of campus. It's obvious why "College GameDay" picks this venue to set up at when it visits Columbia. The leaves were turning and it was simply beautiful. I could picture myself 20 years ago as a student, parked under a tree with a cup of coffee furiously trying to make sense of Immanuel Kant.
Biggest surprise: As noted, I found the history of the area fascinating. I'm no Civil War buff, but it always interested me. In Pac-12 country, when we talk about the Civil War, it refers to Oregon's recent dominance over Oregon State. But hearing how most of the college was spared during the Civil War because it was converted into a hospital, and seeing the George Washington statue in front of the state house (allegedly once used as target practice for Confederate soldiers) was engrossing. So the biggest surprise to me was how much the Civil War is still such a part of the daily culture and community, for better or worse. It's something we simply don't think about on the West Coast.
Biggest difference from the Pac-12: The football wasn't all that different. The SEC has speed. The Pac-12 has speed. In fact, there was a play when Shon Carson broke off a 58-yard run and got caught from behind by two defenders in the open field. I remember thinking to myself, no way Ka'Deem Carey or Bishop Sankey or De'Anthony Thomas gets caught from behind (SEC fans, no doubt, will attribute that to the league's superior defensive speed).
I have been to many Pac-12 games hours in advance where the lots are only half-full. But eight hours before kickoff in Columbia, the traffic on Bluff Road rivaled the 405 at 5 p.m. on a weekday. SEC folks come out early and make it a full day. There are some Pac-12 fans who do as well, but a lot more in the South.
They said it: My outstanding tour guide for one of the days was Cory Burkarth, a member of USC's sports information department. I asked him how folks from South Carolina refer to Californians like myself. To which he replied: "You're not from the South. You're not a Yankee. If you're from the West Coast, you're a hippie." I laughed and bought him a burger.
If I could go back: I'd sit in the student section and jump up and down during the players' entrance to "2001: A Space Odyssey" and wave my towel every time "Sandstorm" is played before a kickoff. I was on the field for it, several times, but the vibe and energy coming from the stands was intense. And, next time around, I'll be sure to refer to our USC as Southern California. Lesson learned, Columbia, and thanks for the hospitality.