Best College Football Weekends
Maybe there's a better all-around college sports town -- we said as much last year -- but on any given Saturday in the fall, we know where we want to be: Knoxville
Updated: Tuesday September 28, 2004 12:49PM
By Matthew Waxman
Think your school's game-day experience is all that and a bag of chips? Universities like to carry the one definitive aspect of their programs around like a trump card. But Tennessee sees whatever your school is bringing to the table and bets the House That General Neyland Built that it's got you beat.
What's the competition holding? Washington shows its floating tailgate off Puget Sound only to have Tennessee match it with the Volunteer Navy. Next up is Georgia and its famous bulldog, Uga. Sorry. Compared with Smokey, Tennessee's unflappable bluetick coonhound, Uga looks as clichéd as a poker-playing bulldog.
Michigan and Ohio State put up the Big House (2003 average attendance: 110,918) and the pregame dotting of the i, respectively. Tennessee, however, responds with its own six-digit crowds ('03 average: 105,038), which detonate as the Vols run through the fabled T before the game.
The challengers keep coming: Auburn's Tiger Walk, Nebraska's Sea of Red and West Virginia's Country Roads. Tennessee answers: Vol Walk, Orange Nation, Rocky Top. And don't forget the fabled checkerboard end zone. King the Vols.
Total Score: 54
ATMOSPHERE: 10. There's plenty of local color, with the Fanta-flavored scene much like the line in Rocky Top: "Wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop." STUDENT SECTION: 8. Cargo-pocket roulette is a common method for sneaking Tennessee Mash into Orange Nation. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 10. Vols fans are notoriously loyal and will pay any price for a ticket. Good thing cops look the other way when it comes to scalping. GIPPER FACTOR: 8. Tennessee leads the nation in wins since 1926, when General Neyland took over. Phillip Fulmer has the highest winning percentage among active I-A coaches. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 8. Pregame, the Pride of the Southland Band forms the T through which Smokey and the players run. After big wins the quarterback often will conduct the band. EXTRACURRICULARS: 10. "Lookin' for a moonshine still?" as Rocky Top asks. Then you must have a pregame Volguarita at Calhoun's while overlooking the Volunteer Navy on the banks of the Tennessee. But don't miss out on Vol Walk, when players strut down Peyton Manning Pass to the stadium.
Total Score: 52
ATMOSPHERE: 10. "It's Saturday night in Death Valley," crows the P.A. announcer as the Tigers storm the field to a deafening roar. The Baton Rouge scene is Cajun-infused, and the 7 p.m. kickoffs leave plenty of time for the sauce to seep in. STUDENT SECTION: 9. Students line up at the stadium gates as early as 8 a.m. to secure the best seats, in the north end zone. After 12 hours of preloading, undergrads are primed and ready for maximum rowdiness, which includes a different music-accompanied chant for every down (third down: the band plays Eye of the Tiger as students pump their arms). GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 9. Purple-and-gold-adorned fans arrive from all over the state to help maintain a fever pitch, one that got so loud during an '88 win over Auburn that a seismograph in the school's geology department recorded tremors after LSU scored the winning TD. GIPPER FACTOR: 7. After a Tigers defensive stand the Golden Band from Tigerland plays the "Chinese Bandits" tune, an ode to the stalwart '56 defensive squad. The students follow with "We're not worthy" bowing. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 7. Mike the Tiger rides through the stadium in a cage topped by the LSU cheerleaders. He's then parked next to the visiting team's entrance and roars as the opposition tiptoes onto the field. EXTRACURRICULARS: 10. On top of the 90,000 fans in attendance, another 20,000 come to the stadium just for the tailgating. Crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, cochon de lait (pig roast) and other Cajun specialties give this tailgating scene a ragin' flavor.
3. TEXAS A&M
Total Score: 50
ATMOSPHERE: 10. The College Station experience begins Friday night with a 20,000-strong Midnight Yell practice to amp up for the main event. Come game time the spirit of Aggieland is so fierce that the fans have earned official 12th Man status. STUDENT SECTION: 10. Students make up half the 82,600-seat stadium and wrap from end zone to end zone. Those not into the game are called "the two-percenters" and are verbally abused like burnt-orange-headed stepchildren. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 7. Alumni known as Ol' Aggs set up shop as early as Wednesday for football weekends that ended in a loss only four times in the '90s. GIPPER FACTOR: 6. Bear Bryant coached here before heading to Alabama; 2004 marks the 50th anniversary of his Junction Boys. IN-GAME TRADITIONS 8. Yell leaders cue students when to "hump it" and when to lock arms and sway to Saw Varsity's Horns Off. After victories, yell leaders are carried across campus and tossed into Fish Pond. EXTRACURRICULARS: 9. At the end of yell practice, students "mug down" by planting one on their dates. Those without kissing partners hold up lighters to signal their availability. For postgame action, the 15 bars that span the three blocks of Northgate serve as decompression chambers.
Total Score: 49
ATMOSPHERE: 10. Both sides of the stadium rise almost vertically, keeping the noise in and the fans on top of the action. The Swamp has been called "the loudest, most obnoxious and notorious piece of real estate" in college football. STUDENT SECTION: 9. Students do the chomp in prime seats between the 25- and 50-yard lines. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 8. To every non-Gator lover who has set foot in the Swamp, admit it: The thought I might die tonight crossed your mind. GIPPER FACTOR: 6. Not much to brag about before the Steve Spurrier coaching era. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 7. Mr. Two Bits (a.k.a. George Edmondson, 77) brings down the house leading his homespun cheer. EXTRACURRICULARS: 9. Acts such as Jerry Seinfeld have performed at Gator Growl, the nation's largest student-run pep rally.
5. NOTRE DAME
Total Score: 48
ATMOSPHERE: 10. You just have to be there. Rather than try to explain the school's famed mystique, we'll cop to what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said when attempting to define porn: "I know it when I see it." STUDENT SECTION: 8. Students are as likely to attend home games as they are their own graduation. At the stadium, they conduct the 1812 Overture and start the "We are N-D" chant that sweeps around the stands. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 10. ND doesn't have an official homecoming weekend, because every game entices alumni to make the pilgrimage to South Bend. GIPPER FACTOR: 10. The Horsemen, the Heismans, Holtz and the helmets -- a legacy that even sub-.500 ball can't tarnish. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 7. Players tap the PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY sign on the way out to the field and, win or lose, toast the student section with a helmet-raised rendition of the alma mater. Notre Dame's fight song could be Billboard's No. 1 hit of all time. EXTRACURRICULARS: 3. That rare major football school where you'll get funny looks if there's beer coming out of your nose. Touchdown Jesus and the Grotto are cool, but South Bend is one dead town -- and Chicago isn't as close as you think.
Total Score: 47
ATMOSPHERE: 7. Memorial Stadium is located in the heart of campus, giving it an intimate feel. STUDENT SECTION: 6. When the gates open two hours before kickoff, students bum-rush the best seats and find props (sombreros, ThunderStix) awaiting them. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 10. From the Oklahoma fight song: "I'm a Sooner born and Sooner bred, and when I die, I'll be a Sooner dead." GIPPER FACTOR: 9. Seven national titles, four Heisman winners and the longest winning streak (47 games) in Division I history. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 8. The Ruf/Neks (SIOC, Sept. 9) fire shotguns into the air and blitz the Sooner Schooner around the field after scores. EXTRACURRICULARS: 7. Pregame tailgating is focused on Lindsey and Jenkins streets. For postgame libations, Campus Corner is the spot.
Total Score: 46
ATMOSPHERE: 8. Loud, undeniably proud and admirably one of the last schools in Western civilization that doesn't storm the field after big wins. But can we cut the blaring of Sweet Home Alabama to maybe, say, a mere 73 times a game? STUDENT SECTION: 6. The Greek section gets dressed up for an afternoon of launching Bourbon Bombs, spewing venom at the opposition and its cheerleaders, and even throwing haymakers at one another. The non-Greek section is still enthusiastic, but sitting there doesn't require earmuffs. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 10. Recent book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer chronicles the Ahab-esque monomania that possesses 'Bama fans. GIPPER FACTOR: 10. Each game is preceded by a Bear Bryant tribute, which can be deeply moving and eerily messianic. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 6. Prized alumni like Joe Namath present the game ball. The Rammer Jammer chant ("We're gonna beat the hell out of you") sets the tone early. EXTRACURRICULARS: 6. For pregame festivities, Crimson Tide alums roll into town in RVs and park in the Tutwiler and Coleman Coliseum lots. Families dominate the Quad, while students prefer frats and sororities near the stadium.
Total Score: 45
ATMOSPHERE: 10. Dubbed the Greatest Spectator Stadium in the South, Sanford Stadium is heaven for watchdawgs. The silver britches tussle between the hedges in a setting that balances quaint with big-time football. STUDENT SECTION: 8. There are two equally exuberant student sections: The west-end-zone section seats underclassmen while the section between the 20- and 30-yard lines is the preferred spot. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 8. A die-hard couple held a Georgia-themed wedding on campus prior to kickoff, then headed to the stadium to cheer their Bulldogs. GIPPER FACTOR: 6. Every football-playing youngster knows Pop Warner. What most probably don't know, though, is that the coaching legend began his career in Athens. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 6. An appearance by Uga VI, the English bulldog, drives the girls wild. Other crowd pleasers include the "Spell Georgia" cheer, the "Calling the Dawgs" chant and the "How 'Bout Them Dogs!" call. EXTRACURRICULARS: 7. Decentralized tailgating takes place all over campus. Most unlikely yet pleasingly cool spot: the cemetery across from the stadium. Postgame, it's off to ring the Chapel Bell before painting the town Georgia red.
Total Score: 44
ATMOSPHERE: 8. Wisconsin football is backed by the most eclectic fan base in the country, a diverse constituency that ranges from hippies to blue-collar townspeople. School motto could be: Even the stoners love football. STUDENT SECTION: 9. At Camp Randall Stadium students badger the opponents and even prey on their own young: Freshmen in Section O, prepare to be serenaded with "O sucks. Eat s---." GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 6. Known for traveling in large numbers, Wisconsin fans filled 70% of the Rose Bowl the last three times their team played in the game. GIPPER FACTOR: 3. Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin's portly ringmaster, has brought a swagger to a program that was a laughingstock pre-1990. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 9. Fans regularly link up for On Wisconsin and for synchronized rowing. They completely let go by moshing to House of Pain's Jump Around between the third and fourth quarters, resulting in perhaps the rowdiest three minutes in college football. EXTRACURRICULARS: 9. Alumni belly up to fenced-in beer gardens on Regent Street, while students prefer tilting back for story-high funnels flowing from porch parties on Dayton Street.
10. WEST VIRGINIA
Total Score: 43
ATMOSPHERE: 8. Mountain men and women emerge from the nearby hills to treat opponents like their personal spittoons. Visiting fans should consider themselves lucky if they escape without having been made to squeal like a pig. Last year security allegedly kicked and Maced students attempting to topple the goalposts after a victory over Virginia Tech. STUDENT SECTION: 7. All students get in for free. Hooligans prefer the lower section, while pure spectators head to the upper tier. Students get halftime passes to go refuel or pass out. GOD, COUNTRY, FOOTBALL: 9. On game day, the stadium (capacity: 60,000) becomes more populated than the largest city in the state. GIPPER FACTOR: 3. The Mountaineers have had three undefeated regular seasons, and with Miami's migration to the ACC, West Virginia is, for the first time, the premier program in the Big East. IN-GAME TRADITIONS: 7. The Mountaineer mascot is a burly, bearded senior wearing a coonskin cap who shoots off his musket after every WVU score and at the end of each quarter. In 1980, John Denver dedicated Mountaineer Field with a rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads, which has become the game-day anthem. EXTRACURRICULARS: 9. If furniture isn't removed from porches and lawns by the end of the week before a big game, the city confiscates it in an attempt to snuff out couch-and-chair-fueled bonfires that occasionally rage on Grant Avenue after wins.
Also: The Best of the Rest
Issue date: September 16, 2004