In the South, fall means football, and by the transitive property, that also means tailgating. Whether you’re the home team or the visitor, barbecue is always a good choice for an easy menu item for your pregame spread. Pick up a family pack of pulled pork with a selection of side dishes and a bag of buns or maybe a rack (or three) of hickory-smoked ribs, and you’ve got a meal that is simple to set up for fans of all ages. We’ve chosen one smoked meat emporium for each SEC city based on factors such as proximity to the stadium, reputation and variety of dishes. While these are all excellent choices for dining in or taking out, you probably shouldn’t necessarily take them as gospel. Everybody knows that two of the easiest ways to start an argument in the South are to debate who makes the best barbecue and who is the best football team. Combine those topics, and you’re itching for a fight!
Tuscaloosa, AL — Home of University of Alabama
Just the fact that the first Dreamland opened up in 1958, the same year that a young coach named Paul “Bear” Bryant took the helm of the Crimson Tide football program, should be reason enough to think of them first for your pre-game, post-game and tailgating needs. While there are now multiple Dreamland locations around the South, Tuscaloosa is their original home, and their hickory smoked pork spare ribs are still the real deal!
Fayetteville, AR — Home of University of Arkansas
The Arkansas Razorbacks open their season in Little Rock this year, but the rest of their home games will be played in Fayetteville. When you’re near campus, the clear barbecue choice is Penguin Ed’s. No, they don’t cook aquatic birds. The penguin nickname came from the fact that owner Ed Knight has collected the tuxedoed birds for years and decorates his restaurants with penguin figurines he has found or that fans have sent him. From humble beginnings cooking out of a tent to working out of a trailer to now operating three restaurant locations, Penguin Ed’s has earned a reputation for award-winning barbecue and a novel smoked chicken salad.
Auburn, AL — Home of Auburn University
If you arrive in town early for a Tigers game, Byron’s Smokehouse serves an excellent breakfast that won’t dig too deeply into your beer money fund. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying two meals from the same place on game day, and you should consider it because Byron’s specializes in bulk orders for pickup to make your tailgate party a snap. With ribs and pulled or sliced pork available by the pound and family-sized side dishes, you can plan a full meal without breaking a sweat. There’s just something comforting about ordering a gallon of mac n’ cheese.
Gainesville, FL — Home of University of Florida
After John Rivers retired from a career as a health industry executive, he dedicated the next chapter of his life to learning how to smoke meats like a pro. Starting out with a small cooker in his garage, John expanded his barbecue repertoire and output until he was finally ready to open his first restaurant. With more than a dozen locations now serving devoted barbecue aficionados across Florida, Rivers is the acknowledged king of the pit masters in the state. His Texas-style brisket is a specialty of the house that rivals some of the best of the Lone Star State.
Athens, GA — Home of University of Georgia
Like some of the best tailgate parties, Pulaski Heights BBQ is a BYOB establishment, so you’re welcome to pack in whatever you’d like to enjoy with your meal. Recognizing that not every pre-game party is as extensive as some of the more elegant soirees, Pulaski Heights offers three levels of catering at escalating prices. Choose from “good,” “better” or “best” offering varying amounts of choices among the menu, or just order meat by the pound and sides by the pint/quart/half pan/full pan for plenty of flexibility to meet your personal preferences.
Lexington, KY — Home of University of Kentucky
Kentucky is not especially well-known for their barbecue, and what they are most acclaimed for is an Owensboro specialty: mutton. If elderly sheep aren’t your thing, fear not, because Blue Door Smokehouse offers more straightforward barbecue dishes like smoked chicken, brisket, pulled pork and spicy sausages. Their baby back ribs are also quite popular and are available by the half rack or full rack. Choose from sweet, spicy or tangy BBQ sauces to accompany your meats, or just go crazy and get all three!
Baton Rouge, LA — Home of Louisiana State University
A husband and wife team (Piman and Yoli) owns this mainstay of Baton Rouge dining, which combines Mississippi Delta, Cajun/creole and barbecue cuisine. With a menu that satisfies the hungers of pretty much any LSU Tiger fan, the highlights include ribs, wings, brisket, sausage and pulled pork. But for a real treat, order a dozen smoked pork and beef tamales as an authentic Delta-style side dish. Call ahead for their family meal, a complete tailgater package with 1 lb. of brisket, 1 whole chicken, 3 links of sausage, 1 full rack of ribs, 3 quarts of your choice of side dishes and 6 slices of toast.
Oxford, MS — Home of University of Mississippi
Some of the best food in Oxford comes from the most unlikely places. In addition to the iconic “chicken on a stick” from the 4 Corners Chevron station, Handy Andy Grocery & Market serves up iconic burgers and barbecue. The atmosphere is decidedly casual, as is the walk-up counter service. However, if you’re not in a big hurry, this is the spot for the best pulled pork sandwiches and plates in town, and the lines of locals waiting to order should be proof enough.
Starkville, MS — Mississippi State University
What’s a “little dooey”? According to the owners of Starkville’s favorite barbecue joint, it’s a casual gathering of friends and family, exactly the atmosphere they create at this funky little converted service station. Dine in on Po’ Boy sandwiches, Mississippi farm-raised catfish and Gulf seafood, or order out from their catering menu of pulled pork, sliced brisket, smoked rib tips, turkey or ham, all priced by the pound. You can also order half chickens, smoked wings and slabs of ribs in bulk. And you should.
Columbia, MO — Home of University of Missouri
Shotgun Pete’s has grown up a little bit since the days when it actually was just a shack, but it’s still nothing fancy. A casual hang for Missouri Tiger fans before and after games, Shotgun Pete’s offers what they call a “do-it-yourself catering” menu that is perfect for laying out your own pre-game spread, as long as you give them at least three days notice. (Hey, perfection takes time, especially when smoking meats.) Delicious dry rubbed ribs are served by the slab with sauce on the side for customization, and hickory-smoked brisket, chicken strips, pulled pork and sausage are all available by the pound. Add a couple pans of their Vidalia onion vinaigrette coleslaw and hellfire hot pit smoked baked beans, and you’ve got a real feast!
Columbia, SC — Home of University of South Carolina
In the other Columbia of the SEC, Gamecock fans flock to Hites Bar-B-Que, a family-owned restaurant for more than 60 years. Carry-out is a big part of their business, and they offer a wide variety of smoked meats for tailgaters to pick from. Slabs of spare ribs can be dressed with either ketchup- or mustard-based BBQ sauces, and other smoked meat options include chopped pork, ham or chicken. For a South Carolina specialty, pick up a quart of tangy BBQ hash, a rich concoction that is made from parts of the pig that you’re probably better off not asking about. No matter the source, it is a delicious treat.
Knoxville, TN — Home of University of Tennessee
Outside of Memphis, the state of Tennessee isn’t really known for a specific barbecue style, but Sweet P’s is working hard to establish their own traditions. In addition to solid smoked brisket, pork and chickens, Sweet P’s pays special attention to their soulful Southern side dishes, which really makes them perfect to complete your pre-game menu. Creamy mac n’ cheese, spicy pinto beans, tangy coleslaw and rich, smoky greens might just make you forget about the meats. They might also make you want to take a nap and miss the game altogether.
College Station, TX — Home of Texas A&M University
Like more than one spot on this list, C&J Barbecue Market started out in a gas station. Selling fuel for your car and for your belly, the owners eventually noticed they were pumping less gas and smoking more meats and decided to go whole hog into the barbecue biz. Actually, beef is the specialty of the house in the form of chopped beef, brisket and jalapeno cheese sausage, but they also smoke some more than respectable pork loin, shoulder and ribs. Pigskin fans can order a complete “pick-up buffet” with a choice of meats and side dishes, plus bread, utensils, plates, sauces and tea. Go ahead and splurge a little extra for a tray of cobbler. Your guests will thank you!
Nashville, TN — Home of Vanderbilt University
While Nashville has a bounty of great barbecue choices, none is more convenient to Vanderbilt’s stadium than Hog Heaven, the humble little shack right across the street from Dudley Field and conveniently located next to the expansive green space of Centennial Park for your picnicking pleasure. You know it’s legit because you can smell the hickory smoke streaming through the front screen door from a block away. While the restaurant is named after a hog, don’t sleep on their excellent smoked chicken and turkey, especially with some Alabama white barbecue sauce on the side.
Enjoy your game day feast!
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