— What does a lime green car running on vegetable oil have to do with the “Top 25 Ultimate College Football Game-Day Experiences?” It just so happens the smell of french fries propelled me across the fruited plain the past few years as I enjoyed the college pigskin at more than 60 of the game’s premiere venues.
What schools comprise the top college game-day experiences in my book? Strength in numbers for sure. But there's much more than that. There's the goose bumps factors such as the unbridled passion of the populace, plus the unique setting, and storied history, traditions and pageantry of each — from the spirited tailgating to the one-of-a kind, pre-game introductions to the bands, riveting fan atmosphere and more. Curious to see who made my “Top 25 Ultimate Game-Day Experiences”?
Before some of you scoot ahead to sneak a peak, here’s a baker's dozen that didn’t make the cut, yet are deserving of votes — plus, hints on who’s in my Top 25. North Carolina State (ACC) fell short, as did East Carolina (Conference USA). Big East teams Rutgers (birthplace of college football) and West Virginia (home to tons of great college football parties) get props for their pumped-up student sections. Kudos also to unheralded BYU and Utah, both of the Mountain West, who each play to 100 percent capacity crowds and spectacular mountain-backdrop settings.
Thumbs up as well to the magic blue carpet ride of Boise State of the WAC, and the Pac-10’s Oregon State, which can be an unwelcome place for guests (just ask USC). Arkansas and Kentucky of the SEC are well-known basketball powers, but each is among the most unsung college football game-day experiences in the country. And you can't go wrong visiting Iowa of the Big 10 and Missouri and Texas Tech of the Big 12.
As for my Top 25, SEC schools dominate with eight entrants, with four in the Top 10 and two in the Top 5. The South has 11 schools on the docket, with three of the ACC’s best also making the grade. The Big 10 has five schools in the Top 25 while the Big 12 and the Pac-10, have four and three, respectively. So without further adieu, a long-distance dedication to the recently retired Casey Kasem, let’s count ‘em down.
No. 25: Spartan Stadium, Michigan State (Big 10)
Among the most underrated college football fans in the country. The Spartans haven’t won an outright Big 10 title since 1987, but that hasn’t stopped the masses from coming out in droves. With a rabid student fan base and loyal alumni support, Michigan State continues to play to a full house annually — and this place can be wicked loud.
No. 24: William-Brice Stadium, South Carolina (SEC)
You’ve got to admire ‘Cocks fans for the noise they deliver and sheer loyalty, averaging 80,000 to see a mostly average product year in and year out. Your ears will be ringing for days after hearing the Mighty Sound of the Southeast along with the rooster crow.
No. 23: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Mississippi (SEC)
One of the oldest and most historic stadiums in the Deep South, opening in 1915. Ole Miss also has one of the biggest, best and longest tailgate parties in college football on “The Grove.”
No. 22: Doak Campbell Stadium, Florida State (ACC)
From Chief Osceola’s famously throwing his flame-burning spear into the ground at midfield before kickoff to the FSU Warchant (since ridiculously copied by other sports teams), this is one of most intimate and underrated venues, and a beautiful campus for tailgating.
No. 21: Husky Stadium, Washington (Pac-10)
A scenic and truly special waterfront location with floating tailgate fiestas, and one of the loudest atmospheres in college football. Husky Stadium is also home to some incredibly loyal fans, especially considering they averaged nearly 64,000 in 2008 during an abysmal 0-12 season.
No. 20: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, USC (Pac-10)
On the National Register of Historic Places for its great history and home to one the most storied programs in the game, it’s located in one of worst sections in the City of Angels. Still, when the cauldron is lit in the fourth quarter, you feel you’re in a special place.
No. 19: Memorial Stadium, Clemson (ACC)
There are few more impressive introductions in college football than when the Tigers rub Howard’s Rock and burst down the hill and onto the field to a deafening roar and an endless sea of orange-clad faithful.
No. 18: Autzen Stadium, Oregon (Pac-10)
It can be eight zillion times louder here than when toga-wearing Delta members sang and swayed together in Animal House, which was filmed in Eugene. You never know what color combination the Ducks will play in and when you need to relieve yourself, a “Welcome to the Wetlands” sign greets you at the door.
No. 17: Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech (ACC)
You might think after the Marching Virginians and cheerleaders play and dance to the “Hokie Pokie” you’d have major buzz kill, but not in Blacksburg, one of the most intimate environments around, yet also one of the most intimidating for opponents.
No. 16: Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Oklahoma (Big 12)
The Sooners fans are among the most respectful, knowledgeable, devoted and fiery in college football.
No. 15: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn (SEC)
The Plains’ gigantic edifice and the raucous fans inside it can instill mighty fear in opposing teams. Few small towns have a tighter connection to their school than Auburn, where fans and townspeople toilet-paper “Toomer’s Corner” after huge wins.
No. 14: Kyle Field, Texas A&M (Big 12)
With no female cheerleaders and a tradition known as “Midnight Yell Practice,” Aggieland is as unique as they come. Spend a quarter in the student section at the home of “The 12th Man,” and the atmosphere from Kyle Field will leave you happily dizzy.
No. 13: Michigan Stadium, Michigan (Big 10)
“The Big House” may have the biggest capacity in college football, but it doesn’t have the buzz factor of the Top 12. Still, it’s a fabulous, tight-knit, treasured setting, and it’s quite amazing they manage to get 108,000-plus Wolverines fans snug in here. And to think they’re expanding the stadium. Wow.
No. 12: Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin (Big 10)
The oldest venue in my Top 25, Camp Randall was a Union army training camp during the Civil War. Today, the patrons, including the flamboyant band and its “fifth quarter” end zone celebration, help make this place jump around. Every football fan has to experience Wisconsin.
No. 11: Sanford Stadium, Georgia (SEC)
Some of the most intense fans I’ve ever seen. They love to watch their football between the privet hedges that completely surround the field in Athens. When Georgia wins, Bulldog fans party even more insanely than they do the rest of the time.
No. 10: Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Texas (Big 12)
The ’Horns will reach the six-figure mark in attendance in ’09 thanks to more seating as a result of renovations. From endless tailgating in urban Austin to unfurling the world’s largest Texas flag before kickoff, everything is big, bad and unique, including the Longhorn band’s distinctly Texan threads and lids and the cheerleaders’ outfits.
No. 9: Ben Griffin Stadium, Florida (SEC)
Built below ground and muggy for much of the season, “The Swamp” has been sold out for every game since the Carter administration and lived up its billing where often only Gators get out alive.
No. 8: Neyland Stadium, Tennessee (SEC)
After enjoying a floating tailgate extravaganza on the river with the Vol Navy — when 100,000 sing that old folk “Rocky Top” song that you’ll never get out of your head for the next several days — you’ll get a tingle up your spine and think you’re in college football heaven. You are.
No. 7: Ohio Stadium, Ohio State (Big 10)
Like the L.A. Coliseum, it's on the National Register of Historic Places — and rightfully so. “The Horseshoe” is an absolute gem, with its cutting-edge design and some of the most educated, vocal and dedicated fans in college football. And this place is truly old school, still with no attached stadium lights.
No. 6: Beaver Stadium, Penn State (Big 10)
Other schools also emphasize basketball as part of their major athletic programs, but Nittany Lions fans really only eat, sleep and breathe football. Student tickets for the season sell out in mere minutes. Few stadium settings are better on a Saturday afternoon than Happy Valley, from the plethora of tailgating parties outside to pure White Out conditions on the inside.
No. 5: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama (SEC)
Never seen more people tailgating in more places than Alabama. Also, I’ve been inside no louder a stadium or seen fans more passionate. Cover model Southern Belles and overweight, pimple-faced freshman males have something in common — they all don replicas of Bear Bryant’s houndstooth hat. I’ll never forget the SEC opener of the ’07 season with “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring on the sound system and 90,000-plus stomping their feet — and kickoff was still 10 minutes away! And when the video board displays inspirational words from the Bear, oh boy. It’s no wonder they’ll be expanding this stadium to more than 100,000-plus soon.
No. 4: Tiger Stadium, LSU (SEC)
Florida may have “The Swamp,” but Death Valley feels like true hell for opposing teams, as LSU fans scream and shout beyond belief. Prepare to lose your hearing here after you’ve eaten and drank more than you ever have before. The fans have plenty of time to prepare to go bonkers as Tiger Stadium mostly hosts night games, enabling the tailgating to be extended down on the Bayou unlike most other venues.
No. 3: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame (Independent)
A timeless setting where no fancy school logo adorns the grass at midfield or the end zones — and no fancy electronic video board displays “fan cam or kiss cam.” Notre Dame is the Wrigley Field of college football, where the sport is so revered the school doesn’t boast a formal homecoming weekend because every game brings alumni back to this special place with its Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus mural, and the most notable fight song in college athletics.
No. 2: Memorial Stadium, Nebraska (Big 12)
The most loyal, respectful and knowledgeable fans in all of college football, as evidenced by the longest sellout streak in the sport, dating back to 1962. What’s more, this stadium is more than just a sea of red — it’s the most underrated venue in college football for its historical value. For example, in each of its four corners there are mottos to live by, such as “Courage; Generosity; Fairness; Honor; In these are the true awards of manly sport." Or another, just outside the stadium, “through these gates, pass the greatest fans in college football.” Indeed.
No. 1: The service academies — Army, Navy, Air Force
As great as the other 24 are, in my view there are no better settings where history, tradition and uniqueness meet an atmosphere that results in a tingle up the back of your spine or a tear in your eye then at the service academies on game day.
What amazing sights and sounds each delivers.
On the banks of the Hudson River, overlooking Bear Mountain and the medieval-style campus, Michie Stadium, at Army in West Point, N.Y., is absolutely breathtaking on a crisp, fall-foliage afternoon. No parade matches that of the Corps of Cadets as it winds its way through campus — itself a living history museum of America — before entering the stadium that opened in 1924, as a precision parachute team lands at midfield from the skies above, with U.S. flag and game ball in tow.
At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., you are mesmerized as all Brigade of Midshipmen and Midshipwomen come marching onto the field, with etched reminders like “Iwo Jima” and “Desert Storm” hovering above on the facade.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., Falcon Stadium warns its playing guests of “Lack of Oxygen” as they are competing 6,621 feet above sea level. Air Force fans drop dollar bills and candy down to cadets in the tunnel before the players take the field, which is located at the base of rampart range of the spectacularly scenic Rocky Mountains.