Every week, SB Nation is throwing out a theme to their web crews, because we’re all just on the hunt for eyeballs and those sweet clicks. This week’s prompt was, “MCU Week,” an exploration of the sports world through the lens of the most profitable and beloved movie franchise of our time. And much like Fat Thor, the appetite for #content is voracious. So I got to thinking — we all hate the rest of the SEC, right? Maybe not in the same way we hate that school just to the west of us, but at least in a performative sense. What if we were not only to view them as opponents... but villains?
Alabama as Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)
This is about as straight down the middle as it gets, and I don’t know how much more needs to be said. Thanos is basically an all-powerful god figure who spends the entirety of his time in the MCU hunting down weapons that will help him erase half of the universe. If that doesn’t mirror Nick Saban’s recruiting strategy, I don’t know what does. Like all villains, they’re beatable, but it’ll take you at least four or five tries (or seasons) to do so.
Arkansas as Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Maybe the memory is a bit foggy, but it feels like Guardians of the Galaxy was right around when people started to earnestly talk about Marvel’s villain problem. Kicking things off with Loki didn’t help things, as no one was able to match his powerful combination of charisma and danger. Having Ronan the Accuser helm Guardians — a film more concerned with the heroes and their chemistry than any real threat — was no boon either. Ronan is a loud, obnoxious, boastful character whose reputation skates by largely on accomplishments that took place off screen. When the time comes to actually do battle, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind — Ronan is losing, and losing big time.
Auburn as Hela (Thor: Ragnarok)
Auburn is no stranger to success. The Tigers have played in two of the past 10 national championship games, and their 2010 squad ranks as one of the best college football teams of the modern era. Their 2013 run, while not ultimately triumphant, also stands as one of the most memorable underdogs of their era, relying on unadulterated chaos to claw their way to the top of the SEC. This is partially why they track with Hela, the goddess of death and firstborn of Odin, but not entirely.
(Spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok!)
At the end of Ragnarok, it’s hard to say that Hela is, “defeated,” at least in the sense that most villains are. While Thor plays a hand in her undoing, it’s not by his hammer that she falls. Instead, it is Surtur who deals the killing blow, symbolizing the ultimate fate of Auburn — while they may be mighty and just as purely powerful as all the other supervillains in the SEC, they’re almost always beaten by someone bigger than them. Whether it’s Alabama in the Iron Bowl or the gumbo-gobbling feauxks down in Louisiana, Auburn rarely finds a way to summit the mountaintop. Are they just as scary as any villain you’ll see? No doubt. But that doesn’t necessarily put them at the top of the heap.
Florida as Killmonger (Black Panther)
Florida may not be the ruler of the SEC (or the SEC East), but... they sure look the part, right? The regality of a blue blood, the storied history of a champion — everything about Florida looks and feels like a program that should be ruling those around them. So why aren’t they?
Let’s look to Killmonger in Black Panther. Like his Gator counterparts, Killmonger is made of the stuff of kings, but lacks the compassion of a ruler. His ruthlessness, blind anger and need for revenge hamper his ability to understand his subjects, making him vulnerable to those who would seek to help others (like his sworn enemy, T’Challa) by underestimation. These traits may not be directly translatable to college football, but there’s no denying that something is just missing about Florida that makes them just a tick below the best. Is it a matter of bad happenstance or perhaps a series of missteps that away from the path of champions. There’s no way to tell, but until they’re able to right some wrongs, Florida will have the feel of a usurper rather than the king they could be.
Georgia as Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
When Missouri first entered the SEC, Sheldon Richardson made headlines talking about Georgia and, “old man football.” That may have rubbed some Bulldog fans the wrong way, but it’s almost a decade later and Richardson still isn’t wrong. Under Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs have become an ultra-traditional (if effective) ground and pound machine. They’re your granddad’s ideal of football success, much like the threat of a scary AI taking over the world is a classic form of villain. Isaac Asimov wrote I, Robot in the 1940’s, and Ultron is the realization of the, “gosh darn computers, they’re taking over the world,” point of view. Is the threat of AI still real? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly exciting.
Kentucky as The Vulture (Spiderman: Homecoming)
The Vulture is a hard-working, blue-collar family man. All he’s trying to do is make his way in the world. What’s so wrong about that right? He won’t be pushed around, but he’s also not going to go out of his way to push you around.
Much is the same about this Michael Keaton heavy and the Kentucky Wildcats, a program that has earned its place as one of the SEC East’s more formidable programs in the past few years. They look unassuming because, hey, who actually thinks they’re going to be that tough? It’s Kentucky! Basketball season starts the day after the first football loss. But don’t let appearances fool you — the Wildcats, if not quite as dangerous as an Ultron or Killmonger, are scary in their own right, if only because they know what it means to be down and don’t want to be there again.
LSU as Loki (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, etc.)
Is it just me, or is it kind of hard to hate Loki? Maybe it’s just Tom Hiddleston’s playful charm, but very few times in his numerous MCU appearances does he ever appear to be outright villainous. Sure, there’s that whole movie where he tries to prevent Thor from taking control of Asgard, or that other one where he tries to take over earth or that other one where he actively participates in the slaving and gladiator trade under the tutelage of the Grandmaster. But Loki’s backstory is also one of tragedy, lending him some emotional depth that is otherwise missing from most MCU villains.
So it goes with LSU. They, like Loki, always seem to be mentioned amongst the strongest of the strong, but have never quite reached the mountaintop... or had never before 2020. Their leader is this charming, exhaustingly Cajun man who won the hearts of the country simply by the fact that he wasn’t a robot-person building a super computer for a program. Will we eventually get tired of LSU if they stay at the top? Probably. But as long as they’re staying on the margins and helping keep the Alabamas of the world at bay, they’ll be everyone’s favorite super villain.
Mississippi State as Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War)
Mississippi State is one of my favorite types of villain, one that hides in the shadows and waits while it toys with the outside world. In Civil War, Zemo methodically pits Captain America and Iron Man against each other at every turn, orchestrating a perfect plan right down to a fight that nearly leads to the permanent erasure of The Avengers. Much like the Bulldogs, Zemo is unassuming (with the exception of the traditional cowbell), but is constantly waiting for his opportunity to strike. When he gets it, he can be deadly. In the same way, Mississippi State is almost never in the foreground of the SEC West or conference at large. But they’re almost always formidable, the type of school that will take advantage of the bigger guys when provided the opportunity. They’re not to be ignored, even if they’re not quite as intimidating as the Thanoses and Lokis of the world.
Ole Miss as Whiplash (Iron Man 2)
Be honest — when’s the last time you thought about Ole Miss or Whiplash? That’s not to say anything bad about Mickey Rourke, who certainly showed up to collect a paycheck for Iron Man 2. It’s also not meant as an insult to the University of Mississippi, a distinguished institution that has given us several Manning brothers and William Faulkner. But is there anything really memorable about either? Sure there are some parallels that could be drawn upon (Ole Miss, like Whiplash, is somewhat of an pushed aside underdog in the SEC West and carries a chip the size of a sedan on its shoulder), but really it comes down to this — no school in the SEC is as little discussed amongst Missouri fans as Ole Miss.
South Carolina as The Mandarin (Iron Man 3)
Ah, The Mandarin. That classic villain from Iron Man 3 that we all love to dump on. One of the comic’s more exalted supervillains, he was reduced to a gag in the third Iron Man installment, one that paid off horribly for some and comically for others (ex: me!)
And when you look at the SEC landscape, is there any other school with as much marketing glitz and as little actual firepower as South Carolina? They’ve got the prestige and feel of an upper-tier SEC school (the name-brand coach, the facilities, the history), but with the bite of a middling opponent. Since Missouri entered the SEC, they’re 58-44, the exact same record as the Tigers. If you’re going to pretend to be a big bad, you better be able to back it up.
Tennessee as Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy 2)
In my opinion, Ego is one of the best Marvel villains because he’s so fun to hate. Sure he’s got the powers of a god planet, but he’s also stuck in his ways, living off of his former glories to a point where there’s no forward motion. He’s got grand plans for the future, but they’ve stagnated to the point where he can’t get out of his own way. Such is life for Tennessee, a program stuck in the doldrums of SEC since Mizzou’s arrival, high off of their past successes with naught but hopes for the future.
Texas A&M as Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
Texas A&M, like Hulk and his MCU counterpart Abomination, is kind of a sleeping giant. We’ve seen in the not-so-distant past that Texas A&M is capable of competing with the Top 10 to 15 schools in the country — all they need is the right alchemy. They’ve got the coach, they’ve got the financial resources, and they’re in a rich talent ground. All they need is some luck before they’re a juggernaut once again. However, like Abomination, they’re more susceptible to powering down, becoming another manageable foe before they can find that right mix of circumstances once more.
Vanderbilt as Mysterio (Spiderman: Far From Home)
Let’s be honest: Mysterio isn’t all that intimidating. He wears a really luxurious cape, bulky armor and, thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Spiderman: Far From Home, gives off this self-conscious, anxiety-ridden vibe that makes him more annoying than anything else.
However, Mysterio is also undoubtedly the smartest MCU villain, especially if we’re talking book smarts. What he lacks in braun, Mysterio more than makes up for in brain, which fits Vandy to a T. Ask the 2019 Missouri Tigers or the version of Peter Parker who just really wants to kiss Zendaya — if you lose sight of what Mysterio is up to, he’ll kick you in the teeth and you’ll feel pretty embarrassed about it.