Odell Beckham Jr. cheered Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase two short years ago, enjoying every minute as the duo led their alma mater LSU to the national championship.
He also knew he'd be seeing both of them again in the NFL, though not even the Rams wide receiver could've predicted the first showdown would be in the Super Bowl.
“They’re born winners, so I always knew that we would see them again,” Beckham said. “I mean never could it be any better than this. ... I got into a little trouble at the national championship so I was banned from LSU, jokingly. But so they got their ring and all that, and it’s like now it’s our turn to get ours.”
Beckham faces off against his fellow Tigers in the Super Bowl on Sunday, which will have a very distinct Southeastern Conference flavor that goes well beyond Burrow and Matthew Stafford and their favorite targets.
The Rams have 11 and the Bengals 12 players from SEC programs, with seven more combined on the practice squads. So prepare for a few more reminders of the mighty SEC’s talent no matter how many folks are sick of hearing about the conference that has won 12 of the past 16 national championships.
Los Angeles left tackle Andrew Whitworth, says there's no doubt how much a boost playing in the SEC gives players once they're in the NFL. Playing at LSU in the SEC certainly helped him be successful in the NFL for 16 seasons.
“The really consistent narrative is the SEC has a ton of NFL football players that get really that practice of playing against other guys that have NFL talent throughout their conference so many weeks of the season — which can’t do anything but really improve your game when you start facing that kind of level of talent,” Whitworth said.
Nine of the SEC's 14 members are represented in this game with reigning national champ Georgia leading the way with six Bulldogs, two on the practice squad. LSU and Florida have five apiece, while Alabama has four.
Texas A&M has four, two on the practice squad. Rams linebacker Von Miller just missed out on the SEC experience with his Aggies officially moving to the SEC in 2012, after Miller's first season in the NFL.
Chase was one of 65 players drafted from the SEC last April, a record that conference seems to top almost yearly. He knows his rookie season was helped by Cincinnati reuniting him with Burrow as the fifth overall pick. The New Orleans native is a little prejudiced about the SEC.
“I'd say it's the best conference in college ...,” Chase said. “So when you get to the NFL, it's much easier. You know it made an impact on me, helped me a lot, and it's shown as my rookie year went by.”
Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah played at Auburn, and he knew Burrow would be an NFL hit simply by watching how the quarterback played in the SEC.
“Watching him in college just torch every single defense in the SEC, like, when his name was announced, I was like that's a franchise quarterback right there,” Uzomah said.
The high level of talent in the SEC isn't the only thing that prepares players for the NFL. Uzomah said he would never say what Burrow did about having heard louder stadiums in college when going on the road in the NFL. Burrow said he heard louder crowds at Baton Rouge.
“Being completely honest, you do,” Uzomah said. “The stadiums are bigger, there are more people that are in there. (Auburn's) Jordan-Hare has like 87,000, the max is like 89,000 when we played Alabama my senior year. For sure that helps in terms of just knowing what to expect from an away stadium from a hostile environment.”
Cincinnati rookie kicker Evan McPherson made the winning field goals in both the divisional round and AFC championship game on the road. He said the SEC experience of playing “obnoxiously loud games in the Swamp” helps a lot, even for a kicker like himself who's taught to block out all the noise.
He remembers his ears ringing after attending a game between Alabama and Mississippi State because of all the cowbells. One of the loudest games came in Death Valley when Florida visited LSU at night during that championship season with Burrow and Chase — and approximately 107,000 fans. Kyle Field at Texas A&M also came to mind.
“Those games really helped a lot,” McPherson said. “I texted Shayne Graham (who coached McPherson at Florida) after the game, and I'm like, ‘Arrowhead’s loud, but it's not near as loud as some of the stadiums I've played in in college have gotten.”
The Rams are playing on their own field even if Cincinnati technically is the home team Sunday at SoFi Stadium, with a capacity of 70,240. Only one thing will matter once the ball kicks off, and that's winning.
“Hopefully we can pull it off,” Beckham said, knowing that SEC players tend to get that chance in the pros.
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