5 Auburn University
“Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,” is a line from the 1770 poem Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith. Although originally written about a town in Ireland, the people of Auburn, Alabama, have adopted the term and lovingly refer to their university town as “The Plains.”
Indeed, the entire town is bedecked in blue and orange on any game day weekend in the fall. Like many other southern universities, proper attire for college football runs the full spectrum from shirtless covered in body paint, to bowties and pearls. Whatever they are wearing, Auburn fans come early and ready to make some noise.
One of the highlights of pregame activities is the Tiger Walk, where thousands of fans line the streets two hours before game time to cheer on their team as they walk from the Athletics Complex to Jordan-Hare Stadium. This year there is some extra electricity in the air as the beloved tradition of rolling the trees at Toomer’s Corner will resume with the 2016 football season. The new oaks replace the ones that Harvey Updike poisoned in 2010.
Fans visiting Auburn may also want to stop at Toomer’s Drug Store to try their famous lemonade. Whatever your beverage of choice, just shout a hearty “War Eagle,” and you will be instantly welcomed as family.
4 Clemson University
Things are heating up in Clemson. Coming off an undefeated season that was only marred by a loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game, the ACC Champion Tigers are hungry. Tickets to Memorial Stadium or Death Valley will be even tougher to acquire. Luckily there is plenty of football atmosphere to soak up outside the stadium.
On game day, nearly every inch of grass is covered with pop-up tents for tailgating, and parking lots open as early as 6 a.m. to get the party started for early games. Ninety minutes before game time, head up to the amphitheater on Fort Hill Street for the Kickoff Concert led by the Clemson Marching Band. From Tiger Rag to Tiger Fanfare, the band has more than fifteen ways to play the school’s fight song, also known as, “the song that shakes the Southland.”
The music and cheers work the fans into a frenzy which culminates in a parade down to the stadium. Fans can join their voices to the maddening throng, cheering as the football team runs down a steep ramp to the stadium in a beloved tradition called Run Down “The Hill.” This tradition was born of necessity since before the west stands of Death Valley were built, the football team had to run down the hill from Fike Fieldhouse to the field. Some people call it, “The most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
Once inside the stadium, it is a sea of orange. Just like the fans, the football players have their game day traditions too. As they enter the stadium, each player touches Howard’s Rock, a rock brought from Death Valley, California, to Death Valley Stadium in South Carolina. The rock’s name and this tradition date back to 1966 when Clemson’s Coach Howard told the team, “Give me 110 percent or keep your filthy hands off my rock.”
To catch the football spirit off campus, you only have to walk a couple of blocks from the stadium to the Esso Club, traditionally considered the hottest spot off campus. Additionally, College Avenue is home to a row of restaurants and bars that are great stops for a bite to eat and a cold drink either before or after the game.
Long considered an afterthought in the national football conversation, the Clemson Tigers are finally getting the respect and recognition they deserve. While other teams may have hogged the limelight in years past, the Tigers are now perennial favorites and giving their faithful fans plenty of reasons to cheer.
3 University of Michigan
Despite one of the wildest endings in football history to their in-state rivals Michigan State, there is no doubt Michigan Wolverines football is on the rise. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has created a buzz in Ann Arbor that, frankly, has been missing for quite a while. Michigan finished 2015 with a record of 10-3, including a HUGE New Year’s Day win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl.
While many of the magazines, ranking services and sports networks aren’t giving much love to the Wolverine’s on-field prospects for 2016—ESPN doesn’t have them in the Top 25 at all—the fact is, we don’t care. At all. The Big House is simply one of those pilgrimages all college football fans ought to have on their short list. Furthermore, with Harbaugh at the helm running his mouth left and right, even getting under the skin of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, we predict Saturdays in Ann Arbor to be a heck of a lot of fun this fall, even if the Wolverines aren’t serious contenders for a National Championship.
Michigan is one of those programs that is great for college football when it’s healthy and vibrant. Rich in tradition, history and folklore, Michigan football is deserving of inclusion in the top four college football experiences. Consider these facts:
- Michigan is the all-time leader in wins for all levels of college football with 925 victories.
- Michigan Stadium is the largest stadium in the U.S., the second largest in the world (behind Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea).
- Michigan Stadium hosted the largest crowd for a college football game in 2013, as 115,109 fans witnessed the Wolverines defeat Notre Dame 41–14.
- Future U.S. President Gerald Ford was MVP of the 1934 squad.
- Michigan won the very first bowl game ever played, a 49-0 win over Stanford in the 1902 Rose Bowl.
As for game day traditions, few college football programs can match those that make up the culture and atmosphere in Ann Arbor. One of the most superstitious traditions is a custom known as the Goal Post Toss. During the marching band’s pregame performance of the fight song “The Victors,” the drum major tosses his mace over the goal post crossbar of the north end zone. Legend has it that the football team will lose the game if the mace is dropped.
Another beloved tradition is the tunnel walk and touching the banner, which occurs as the Wolverines enter the stadium at the 50-yard line. While the band plays “The Victors” each team member reaches up and touches a banner reading “Go Blue: M Club Supports You.”
Of course, the tailgating at Michigan is awesome as well. If you’re in town for a game and want to relive your college days, make plans to hit the student tailgates along State Street from South University to Hoover Avenue and along Hill Street. There you’ll find members of the fraternities and sororities grilling burgers and playing intense games of beer pong.
Even the business school loosens up on game day. Located at the Fingerle Lumber Company parking lot across from Ebel Field at Hill Street and Fifth Avenue, you’ll find a battered maize and blue school bus with giant speakers blaring music and a dance floor on the roof. “The Bus” picks up business school students at 6 a.m. during home game Saturdays and drags them to Angelo’s for breakfast. After that, it’s on to the pregame tailgate party of about 1,000 people. Tailgating at “The Bus” is open to anyone for just $5.
2 University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
Ole Miss is synonymous with tailgating excellence. A virtual lock for a top 5 spot on any tailgate list and, consequently, a nobrainer for our Tailgate Playoff. The Grove gives Mississippi legendary status and is a symbol of the campus’ controlled chaos. Oxford is rowdy, yet refined. Crazy, but classy. A passionate pack of Rebels masked by southern hospitality and elegance that’s simply on a level unmatched by their fellow tailgating brethren.
Ice sculptures, formal wear, furniture, elaborate food buffets and, of course, those iconic tent chandeliers. UM regulars almost uproot their entire living rooms only to rearrange them on The Grove. Something that truly has to be seen to be believed. It all starts with dedication and ends with preparation.
Gone are the days of fans reserving their spots on Ole Miss’ famed Grove with blankets, tents and the like. While students and fans are welcome to congregate on Friday afternoons and evenings before game days, all participants must vacate the premises with their belongings by 6:30 p.m. With the exception of approved University-sponsored tents, all spaces are first come, first serve. This gives every Rebel an equal chance to reserve their spot beginning at 7:30 p.m. where everyone rushes the ten plus acre field for the choicest real estate. Staying patient while waiting for some of college football’s most hallowed ground takes serious dedication.
It’s hard changing up tradition (especially in the SEC), but Mississippi’s Senior Associate A.D. for Communications and Marketing, Michael Thompson was pleased with how fans adapted to the new rules. “It was a remarkable year for The Grove and our fans were awesome,” said Thompson. “We tried to come up with solutions for different scenarios during the offseason and I’m happy to say there were very few incidents.”
Ole Miss has also added to its game day tradition by implementing The Pavilion, a brand new state-of-the-art basketball arena they premiered at the beginning of 2016. By the time fall arrives, the university plans to give Rebel fans access to its North lobby and make the area outside the facility the new site of their Rebel Fan Fest for even more pregame amusement. This addition, along with more rows added to The Grove and The Circle (another tailgate locale) will ensure everyone who arrives in Oxford for the weekend will be easily accommodated.
UM has one last surprise in store for the 2016 football season. Over the last several years, additions have been made to VaughtHemingway Stadium and one could say those plans have finally rounded into shape. “The amount of facility upgrades this year will be incredible. Three new video boards, a new stadium-wide sound system, new lighting, new grass turf, as well as bowling in the North end zone,” says Assistant A.D. for Marketing and Fan Experience, Jason List. That’s right, Rebels. Say goodbye to those old bleachers because Vaught-Hemingway will finally become a bowl!
Tradition reserves Ole Miss a seat at the table, but their innovation will keep them there for years to come. A true contender worth consideration for the best in the land. Not to mention they’re going on three straight victories against a certain other university also vying for the coveted “No. 1” spot on our list.
1 University of Alabama
Imagine watching your favorite team run onto the field while you’re surrounded by as many as 50,000 of your closest friends. Wait, you don’t think that’s impressive? Are you thinking about how many more people your stadium holds? Hold up, because we’re not talking about a stadium. At the University of Alabama, demand for tickets so significantly exceeds supply that tens of thousands of fans remain on the quad after kickoff.
The Triangle Tailgaters are sometimes among them. This season marks the 11th for that crew, which includes Kim and Braxton Vincent. The couple has a pair of season tickets, but between their children and their friends, there are always more than two people angling to get inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
When you’re the reigning national champions (and a 16-time winner at that), you’ve got plenty of teams with you in their sites. The Triangle Tailgaters play off those rivalries for each week’s theme. They hold a second line parade when LSU comes to town and decked out their tent with chandeliers and floral arrangements when Ole Miss arrived. (For their daughter’s 25th birthday, the family also coordinated 25 men—including the Million Dollar Band’s tuba section, a tailgate favorite—who each delivered her a single rose.)
And though they may find inspiration from an opponent’s traditions, Kim says the group welcomes fans of all stripes: “We usually have someone who joins us from the opposing team. We’re not close minded,” she says with a laugh.
Roger Myers, too, says opposing fans are welcome at his gatherings. After all, his cousins are LSU fans, and his family has plenty of food and libations to share. The Myers-Roberts tailgate includes five tents set up outside Bidgood Hall: a bar tent (with bartenders), two food tents and three televisions in separate tents. The setup serves as a regular stopping point for the people Roger has met over the years— former employees, people who have rented a home from the Myerses, former Crimson Tide baseball players (he’s an active supporter). If Roger spots someone wandering around the quad looking lost, he’ll issue an invitation. “Unless they’ve been a couple of times, they don’t know where to go,” says Roger, whose tailgate in effect serves as both welcome wagon and reunion gathering.
The couples have tailgated for 20 years, seeing the Crimson Tide through good times and bad. It’s just about in Roger’s blood. He was raised in Tuscaloosa, he lives in legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s former house and his first two years at the university included the 1978 and 1979 national championships.
Although true Tide fans will hold on through feast and famine, championships are an important part of what sets Alabama celebrations apart. In times when the state hasn’t had a whole lot to brag on, it’s always had football. The Crimson Tide is a tie that binds.