With its unbridled passion and age-old rivalries, its proud and often whimsical traditions, its animal mascots and secular cathedrals, college football is, to my mind, this country's most compelling sport. Where best to soak up the experience? Having covered the game for SI for 15 years, I submit this list of my favorite places to catch a game
SI FANS' BEST GAME DAY
Notre Dame 9.2%
WHEN TO VISIT
Sept. 24: OKLAHOMA STATE
Oct. 29: MISSOURI
Nov. 24: Texas
WHILE NO campus is more friendly (the school's official greeting is Howdy, for gosh sake), few venues are more hostile to opponents than the maroon bowl of Kyle Field, where the eardrums of visiting players are under constant assault from the Aggies' 12th Man—the nation's best-drilled student body. Standing throughout the game, responding to hand signals from five yell leaders, A&M fans shout such intimidating—and perplexing—phrases as "Hullabaloo Caneck Caneck!" and "Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem, Rough! Tough! Real Stuff! Texas A&M!"
The Aggies aren't always so martial. When the lights go down at Midnight Yell, students with dates steal kisses, or mug down in Aggie parlance. Just as Midnight Yell is better when you have a date, A&M's grand traditions are grander still when the team is up, as it should be in 2011. The Aggies may be back, but the 12th Man never left, never so much as took a seat.
WHEN TO VISIT
Sept. 10: OREGON STATE
Oct. 1: NEBRASKA
Nov. 26: PENN STATE
DOES ANYONE have more fun than Badgers fans? They've got cheese curds and brats, washed down by suds at the beer gardens on Regent Street. Once inside Camp Randall Stadium, they've got waves of all kinds: slo-mo, double-time and even split (two waves, breaking in opposite directions). They've got the rowdiest three minutes in college football—amped undergrads pogoing to House of Pain's Jump Around between the third and fourth quarters—to say nothing of the Fifth Quarter, in which the Wisconsin Marching Band takes the field, win or lose, and rocks out for 20 minutes.
These people are having such a good time, they barely need a football team. That was a good thing in the late '60s and '70s, when they barely had one. With the team going 10 years without a winning season, band director Michael Leckrone came up with the concept of the Fifth Quarter. That was before Barry Alvarez resurrected the program in the early '90s and won three Rose Bowls—before Camp Randall became, for visitors, a House of Pain.
MIKE THE TIGER
WHEN TO VISIT
Oct. 8: FLORIDA
Oct. 22: AUBURN
Nov. 25: ARKANSAS
FAMILIES LIVING near Tiger Stadium ran from their homes in fear when a giant roar arose on Halloween night 1959. There was no emergency—Billy Cannon had just returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown against Ole Miss. The noise emanating from Death Valley has only grown louder through the decades: The din unleashed by a game-winning touchdown over Auburn in '88 jiggled the needle on a seismograph in LSU's geology department.
Opposing players must walk past an actual caged tiger (a Bengal-Siberian mix named Mike VI). But it seems that LSU's most formidable weapon, aside from a perennially stocked roster, is nightfall. Since 1960 the Bayou Bengals are 219-60-4 in night games, compared to their 21-26-3 record by day. Rather than squander daylight hours, many LSU fans spend them ingesting adult beverages. The result, according to everydayshouldbesaturday.com, is a game day experience "peerless in terms of demonstrated intensity, lunacy, commitment, flair, and menace."
WHEN TO VISIT
Sept. 3: SOUTH FLORIDA (Welcome Back, Skip Holtz!)
Oct. 22: USC
Nov. 19: BOSTON COLLEGE
YOU CAN feel it the minute you leave the Indiana Toll Road at Exit 77. You have entered the Domer Dimension, a realm of virtue, tradition and iconic architecture, from the Golden Dome to the Grotto to the Word of Life mural—a 134-foot mosaic otherwise known as Touchdown Jesus, looming over the north end of Notre Dame Stadium. But the mystique of this place is created most of all by students and alumni, a classy (if occasionally smug) contingent that has little use for the verbal abuse heaped on visitors at other schools. Between walk-through and kickoff, opposing players hear it a hundred times: "Welcome to Notre Dame!"
Even when the Irish are down—and this year they are not—they have one intangible no other school can claim. "God doesn't care" if the Irish win or lose, Lou Holtz once allowed, a twinkle in his eye, "but I believe His mother does."
BEVO AND THE SOONER SCHOONER
Red River Rivalry
BEST NEUTRAL-SITE GAMES
Sept. 3: LSU-OREGON, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Oct. 29: FLORIDA-GEORGIA, EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Dec. 10: ARMY-NAVY, FedExField, Landover, Md.
THIS ANNUAL blood match between the Longhorns and the Sooners is contested in the recently renovated Cotton Bowl, with the State Fair of Texas as a gaudy, cacophonous backdrop. Before entering the divided stadium—burnt orange on one side of the 50, crimson on the other—partisans of both programs are free to admire prizewinning livestock, ingest infarction-inducing foodstuffs (deep-fried S'mores Pop-Tart, anyone?) and take a stomach-dropping ride on the 212-foot Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in North America.
In '03, I saw a Texas partisan lean over a wheelchair-bound Sooners fan and shout in his face, "OU sucks!" Perhaps it was poetic justice that OU drilled the Horns that day 65--13—the fourth of five straight wins over UT. Two years later Vince Young returned the favor, leading the Longhorns to a 45--12 win over OU and then to the national title. College football has long been a figurative carnival. Once a year, in Dallas, it is a literal one.
WHEN TO VISIT
Oct. 15: FLORIDA
Oct. 29: OLE MISS
Nov. 26: ALABAMA
I'VE BEEN to Athens and Tuscaloosa, Rocky Top and Tiger Stadium, but the most malevolent SEC crowd I've ever heard was in the orange canyon of Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. (This was Oct. 14, 2006, and the home team had upset Florida, that season's eventual national champion.)
Before the coin toss, fans are whipped into a frenzy by the flight of the Auburn eagle. As they roar, "W-a-a-a-r!" and opponents look on in trepidation, a trained raptor pounces on what appears to be a helpless rodent. The crowd booms, "EAGLE!"
Auburn victories are punctuated by the rolling of the majestic oaks at Toomer's Corner with bathroom tissue. That tradition has been jeopardized by the poisoning of the trees last year, allegedly by an Alabama fan. Experts won't know until the spring if the oaks will survive. Meanwhile, the rolling of Toomer's Corner will go on this season. If you've never seen it, you may not get another chance.
ALBERT E. GATOR
WHEN TO VISIT
Sept. 17: TENNESSEE
Oct. 1: ALABAMA
Nov. 26: FLORIDA STATE
FORGET, FOR a moment, the sweltering heat, the sheer size of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (listed capacity of 88,548) and the advantage the fans give the Gators (who are 113--13 in the Swamp since 1990). For now let's just give former Florida coach Steve Spurrier his props for coining one of the best stadium nicknames in sports. "The Swamp is where Gators live," he noted at the end of the '91 season. "A swamp is hot and sticky and can be dangerous."
Following a montage of alligators on the video screen accompanied by the theme from Jaws, the Florida players burst out of the tunnel. It's one of the game's great goose-bump moments. As is this beyond-cool tradition: Between the third and fourth quarters, Gators faithful drape their arms around the shoulders of their neighbors, swaying and singing We Are the Boys from Old Florida, "where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest." And, we might add, where the noise is oppressive, the fans are aggressive and the conditions are hot, sticky and dangerous.
HARRY THE HUSKY
WHEN TO VISIT
Sept. 24: CAL
Oct. 15: COLORADO
Nov. 5: OREGON
SAILGATING, ANYONE? Many Washington fans choose to arrive at Husky Stadium by boat. After mooring in Lake Washington's Union Bay, these purple-clad argonauts are ferried ashore. Third-year coach Steve Sarkisian has breathed life into this program, which means that the imposing stadium, one of the nation's most spectacularly situated football venues, is once again one of its loudest. In 1995, Army defensive tackle Al Roberts compared watching a game in Husky Stadium to standing on a runway next to a C-130 transport.
The team's improvement under Sark will be matched by major renovations to the stadium, a crumbling beauty scheduled for a $250 million face-lift after this season. Among the upgrades: The running track will be removed, putting fans that much closer to the field ... and the opposing team's bench. One of the most hostile venues in the nation is about to become more hostile.
WHEN TO VISIT
Sept. 17: WASHINGTON
Oct. 8: OHIO STATE
Nov. 25: IOWA
STROLLING THROUGH Lincoln on home football Saturdays, I'm always struck by this: When a traffic signal flashes DON'T WALK, Nebraskans ... don't walk. They are civically virtuous, and loyal to their beloved Big Red, which explains how Nebraska has sold out every game at Memorial Stadium—311 and counting—since Nov. 3, 1962. The program's maize-flavored traditions have a homespun charm: the pivotal role played by walk-ons; the crowd-pumping pregame video aired on two HuskerVision screens, artfully fusing Cornhuskers glories past and present; the mass release of red helium balloons following Nebraska's first score. But the coolest thing about a game in Nebraska is the Nebraskans. These are the people who gave Ricky Williams a standing ovation after he helped Texas snap NU's 47-game home winning streak in 1998. These fans prove that it's possible to show sportsmanship, competitiveness and respect for opponents while wearing an oversized plastic ear of corn on one's head.
WHEN TO VISIT
Oct. 6: CAL
Nov. 19: USC
Nov. 26: OREGON STATE
PARK ON campus, then stroll over the footbridge above the Willamette River to recently upgraded Autzen Stadium, where Larry Kroger had a midfield milestone. (Yes, Animal House was filmed on this campus.)
It's all a kick: the dizzying uniform color combinations; the sideline presence of Nike chairman Phil Knight; stadium announcer Don Essig's repetition of his catchphrase, "It never rains at Autzen Stadium." But what this place is really about is noise. Autzen's occupants are the loudest fans, larynx for larynx, in the country. Situated on the banks of the Willamette, this single-deck, 54,000-seat bowl is capped on its south side with a cantilevered roof that traps sound and sends it back toward the field. The result: a slew of illegal-procedure and delay-of-game penalties for visitors. The unique experience offered by Autzen ensures that no Oregon student ever laments, as John Blutarsky did, "seven years of college down the drain!"
LUIS LEYVA/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (REVEILLE)
BRETT DAVIS/US PRESSWIRE (TEXAS A&M)
MIKE MCGINNIS/ICON SMI (BUCKY BADGER)
MIKE MCGINNIS/ICON SMI (WISCONSIN)
DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE (MIKE THE TIGER)
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES (LSU)
RUSSELL TRACY/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL (LEPRECHAUN)
RICH CLARKSON (NOTRE DAME)
ALBERT PENA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BEVO)
JOHN PYLE/CAL SPORT MEDIA (SOONER SCHOONER)
JEROME MIRON/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM (RED RIVER RIVALRY)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (NEBRASKA FAN)
JOHN REED/US PRESSWIRE (AUBURN)
DALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE (AUBIE)
GARY BOGDON (FLORIDA)
JOHN RAOUX/AP (ALBERT E. GATOR)
JOHN FROSCHAUER/ICON SMI (WASHINGTON)
RED BOX PICTURES (HARRY THE HUSKY)
ELAINE THOMPSON/AP (NEBRASKA)
JOHN S. PETERSON/ICON SMI (HERBIE HUSKER)
STEVE DYKES/GETTY IMAGES (OREGON)
ROBERT BECK (THE DUCK)