DESTIN, Fla. - The anticipation for the next SEC football season will be different than usual this summer.
I thought about that as I drove through Georgia and Alabama on the way to the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla.
A convenience-store proprietor just off an exit on Interstate 75 talked on and on about the tornado damage not far north in Ringgold, Ga.
A hotel clerk in Dothan, Ala., said the tornadoes of late April didn't reach them, but an employee "lost a family member."
The reminders of the devastation are as stunning as a battered Tuscaloosa, Ala., on the cover of Sports Illustrated and as subtle as the plastic buckets behind the counters of convenience stores and hotels. "Tornado Relief Fund," they read.
The victimized communities are scattered throughout the Southeast in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee as well as Alabama and Georgia. If they can't get relief, they could at least use a distraction.
And they could use an SEC football game.
Games and tragedies seem out of place in the same sentence. But one can distract you from the other.
Coaches and players know that. They know because they visit hospitals and assisted-living centers. They know because they experience daily the importance placed on college football.
"Football is an outlet to so many people," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said at last week's SEC spring meetings. "It's a huge outlet.
"Every Sunday (in the fall), when people wake up, their day gets made when Alabama or Auburn wins."
Alabama coach Nick Saban has been right in the middle of his state's recovery efforts. He has contributed money and time. He has helped by organizing relief efforts as well as by simply showing up.
"We're trying to promote the concept to people in Alabama and all over the Southeast that got affected by these tornadoes to team up in a small group, pick some place and help build it," Saban said at last week's meetings.
He delivers that message at every speaking engagement in Alabama. He begins by saying, "I'm going to speak to you for a minute not as the head coach at Alabama."
But as the head coach at Alabama, he also can help by just doing his job. So can his players.
"We can't wait until this season" Alabama running back Trent Richardson said in an interview with espn.com. "We know how much this season means to a lot of people in Alabama, and we also know those folks need us."
LSU players probably felt the same way when they began the 2005 season shortly after Louisiana had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
SEC players don't need a catastrophe to remind them how much football matters.
But the catastrophic tornadoes this spring will remind them that some football seasons matter more than others.
And that the 2011 season can't get here soon enough.