There's tailgating. And then there's tailgating.
"When I was at University of Florida, there were people who got there at 2:30 in the morning cooking a whole pig on a spit," says Taylor Mathis, author of "The Southern Tailgating Cookbook: A Game-Day Guide for Lovers of Food, Football and the South" (University of North Carolina Press). "It's great to see that kind of dedication, to get there 17 hours before kickoff."
Mathis saw dedication writ large during his gridiron-infused culinary tour of 35 college stadiums — from a Halloween game at the University of Kentucky with mummy-shaped apple slices floating in cider, to a University of Washington crowd hosting a Midwestern fish fry with Great Lakes fish sent by their University of Michigan pals.
"One of my favorite things was seeing how creative people could get with themes," says the 28-year-old University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate.
Mathis devoted a chapter of his book to an "eat your competition" theme. (Beer can chicken when your rivals are birds; a mutton dish when Rams are the opposition; souped up hot dogs when you're facing a team of Bulldogs.)
"Take the disdain you feel toward the competition and channel it into a delicious and creative meal that will inspire your fellow fans and intimidate the opposition," he writes.
Some teams require more creativity than others.
"You're not going to eat tiger, obviously," he told us. "But you could make a red cocktail and call it tiger's blood."
Regardless of your theme — or the number of tailgates under your belt — let the food take center stage, he suggests.
"Go for quality over quantity," Mathis says. "Pick one or two great dishes and do them well."
Because once you walk into that stadium, greatness is up for grabs.
"You can't control how your team performs on the field," he says. "All you can do is throw the best pregame celebration possible."
Here are recipes to get your season started.
Chicken-sweet potato kebabs
Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 12-15 minutes
Makes: 12 kebabs
Note: Adapted from "The Southern Tailgating Cookbook" (University of North Carolina Press, $30), by Taylor Mathis.
2 1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each: coarse ground black pepper, ground sage
1/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size cubes
1 each: red bell pepper, yellow bell pepper, orange bell pepper
1 medium yellow onion
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into bite-size pieces, parboiled, cooled
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon each: salt, Dijon mustard, coarse ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil