BY MICHAEL QUIRK
We are one competitive football game away from finding ourselves in the dog days of sports. Sure, there is the March Madness in a few weeks. Of course, we have The Masters in April. The MLB season, NBA Playoffs, and Stanley Cup Playoffs are nothing to sneeze at, either. That said, nothing supplants the crisp fall Saturday and Sunday afternoons filled with nothing but hearty food, bringing the upstairs TV’s downstairs, napping during Cardinals-49ers, and tying a bow on things with some Bud Lights during the night game.
With the football season coming to a close in five days, putting us on a six-and-a-half-month hiatus, it’s the hearty food portion I want to focus on. Nothing screams the Deep South quite like SEC football and cheap, store-bought chicken. Sure, Jim Harbaugh may be against it, but he also has not won a meaningful game since the lights went out in the Super Bowl. With that said, here are the SEC football programs as described by fast food chicken.
They are the dominant chicken franchise in the game, at the moment. They have many would-be challengers. Popeye’s tried to come for the crown with that chicken sandwich but it only made Chick-Fil-A stronger. They have everything going for them: breakfast, price, deliciousness, service, one on every corner, and even God. Alabama football has everything going for them these days and if there was a god of college football, it would be Nick Saban.
Arkansas: El Pollo Loco
Few things explain Arkansas quite as well as “The Crazy Chicken.” In the land of Tyson Chicken, Arkansas has no shortage of crazy: Bobby Petrino, Hognoxious, Ryan Mallett, and of course, Jerry Jones. Now, like Arkansas football, it’s certainly not good all of the time. When the suggestion gets thrown your way from your dining partner, you may say, “no, that does not sound good at all.” But once every 5-10 years, for whatever reason, it does sound really good and hits the spot. Not unlike your once-per-decade top 10 stay from the Razorbacks.
Auburn: Raising Cane’s
When you take a bite into Cane’s, you think, “man, this is about as good as it gets.” Is it as good as Chick-Fil-A, Zaxbys, and others? Maybe. But there’s just one thing missing: they only have one sauce, and it isn’t even buffalo. Kind of like Auburn football. They recruit well, have a beautiful stadium, a raucous fanbase, and a recent national title. Yet, they seem to have something missing, as each coach seems to flair out spectacularly in one way or another.
Publix is good. It is always very good. It’s a little different than the others, though, just like its football counterpart. Publix is a supermarket rather than a drive-thru, while Florida is chock-full of Italian-American Northeastern transplants because their parents got tired of the cold and moved them down to Boca when they were in high school. Still, Publix has been here from the beginning, and if you’re going to make a list of best quick and cheap chicken, they have to be on every list, every year.
Zaxby’s was founded in Statesboro, Georgia in 1990, but like most things that originate in Statesboro, they preferred Athens, where they are now headquartered. Zaxby’s is very popular, has a different take than its competition, and seems to always be on the threshold of becoming No. 1. Hell, every street corner you see a Chick-Fil-A, a Zaxby’s never seems to be far behind. We’re still waiting on that throne to be overtaken, though. Any day now. Any day now. Actually, let’s be honest, if it has not happened by now, it may never.
Is it sacrilege to not anoint Kentucky as KFC? Maybe, but you’ll see why I didn’t later in the piece. Some people go to McDonald’s for chicken, but not many. They prefer the other offerings McDonald’s has which has made it world-famous. The chicken used to be absolutely horrible. Now, it’s actually not bad. It’s not great, like others on this list. But hey it is progress, and “McDonalds” fans are happy with just OK chicken, so long as the burgers always remain the primary focus.
Listen, let’s put aside the obvious for a second and look at the macro of it. Popeyes loves to compete with Chick-Fil-A and sometimes rises up and takes down the aforementioned chicken giant. They’re quite popular, and there are many circles that prefer Popeyes to Chick-Fil-A. Hell, it’s definitely a spicier way to do things. Unfortunately, they will always be running behind Truett Cathy’s cows.
Mississippi State: Church’s
Church’s was the first fast food chain to hire a woman as the president of the company. Mississippi State made their own monumental pioneering hire when they brought in Sylvester Croom over a decade ago. Church’s has also paired itself with KFC, White Castle, and Harvey’s in some markets to defeat the competition, just like Mississippi State occasionally teams up with LSU and Florida State to the NCAA in efforts to take down their rival Ole Miss. Church’s don’t typically find themselves next to upscale outdoor shopping and Ruth’s Chris-adjacent, while Mississippi State prides itself on being a blue collar agricultural school. It’s a match made in heaven.
They’re new on the scene of chicken. They used to compete in a whole different league, going against the top burgers in the fast food mix. They had some pretty good immediate success and everyone was impressed. Then, everyone remembered, “oh wait, you’re Wendy’s. You’ll always be a burger place.” Sorry, Mizzou, you’ll always have 2013 and 2014, but we will also always think of you as our odd cousin from the Big 12.
Ole Miss: Krispy Crunchy Chicken
If you have ever ventured to Oxford, Mississippi, then you have likely taken in chicken-on-a-stick from the iconic Chevron gas stations near the Oxford Square. If you had chicken from a gas station on your way to Oxford, then you without a doubt had Krispy Crunchy Chicken, the staple of the gas station fried chicken community. If you’re from outside the South, then you may not have an idea of just how good Krispy Krunchy Chicken really is. Now, if you’re in a pinch, say you’re starving and there’s no other food for miles, or if Alabama and LSU are having down years, then you are in need for some Krispy Krunchy Chicken or Ole Miss football.
South Carolina: Bojangles
If you’re in the Carolinas, Bojangles is everywhere you look. Not unlike Gamecock fans. The chicken is good, but it’s the fixings that do the trick. Just like how the Gamecock quarterback or running back may be fine, they always seem to have a cornerback or guard or defensive tackle who is out of this world. And just like the USC fanbase, some parts of the Bojangles menu can get extra salty.
Remember the 90s? If you wanted fried chicken, there was one place to go: KFC. It was a simpler time, and one that KFC longs for again. The competition was either weaker, or non-existent. Now, they make desperate attempts, trying anything they can to grab the public’s attention, and get back to those glory days of the 90s. Now…who does that sound like?
Texas A&M: Wingstop
Texas A&M has always stood for one thing in football: winning. I’m just kidding. It’s that they have an assload of money. Whether it is under-the-table to Eric Dickerson or over-the-table to Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies have more money than they do male cheerleaders. Wingstop is no different, as they are less than 30 years old and have a valuation of close to $1 billion, already. The Aggies rose up the ranks in 2020, finishing as the first team looking in on the College Football Playoff. Wingstop is on the rise, as well, ranking as the third-fastest growing fast food chain in the country per a 2015 report.
Vanderbilt: Chicken Salad Chick
You may be thinking, “Chicken Salad Chick? They don’t belong on this list. God, they’re so pompous and look down on everyone thinking they’re so much better. They don’t fit in, at all.”