America's Best College Football Stadiums
It’s foliage season in Ann Arbor, but the colors that really get locals excited each fall are blue and yellow—for the University of Michigan’s football team.
Every Saturday, millions of fans across the U.S. stream into college football stadiums like Michigan’s Big House to chant, cheer, and stomp for the home teams. While winning helps, the best places to watch college football are based on more than any record. The stadiums must be outstanding, whether for their history or sheer size, and the teams need traditions. Toss in rousing fight songs, stunts, and postgame hangouts, and you’ve got an experience worth traveling for.
The stadium attendance numbers speak for themselves. College football drew a combined 49.6 million fans in 2010—more than twice the number of the NBA (21.3 million) or the NHL (21.4 million) and nearly three times as many as the NFL (17.4 million). Major League Baseball filled more total seats (73 million), but its per-game average was a fraction of what big-time college football draws.
The comparison with pro football is especially telling. The NFL averaged 66,960 per game during the 2010–2011 season, the third straight year that attendance has declined. Twenty-two college football teams top that, including five programs (Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Penn State, and Alabama) that averaged more than 100,000 per game. Overall college football attendance is up nearly 25 percent over the past decade.
There’s also a sense—despite a few recent scandals—that college football is much “purer” than the pro game. Its history stretches back to 1869; Philadelphia’s Franklin Field is the oldest college stadium still in use and the site of the first radio and television football broadcasts. Watching the UPenn Quakers defend their home turf feels like a throwback to the days when players really were student-athletes.
College football is peppered with larger-than-life historic figures like coach Knute Rockne and running back Archie Griffin, but it’s always ready for new legends. In a little more than a decade, the Oregon Ducks have remade themselves as a national powerhouse to the delight of their roaring fans. The highest noise level recorded inside Autzen Stadium was an eardrum-shattering 127 decibels, right between a jackhammer and a jet plane.
Join the game-day crowds at one of these top stadiums for that kind of exhilarating rush—and maybe even history in the making.
Kyle Field: College Station, TX
The Texas Longhorns may be the state’s most renowned football program, but nobody does Saturday afternoon in the fall like the folks in College Station. With Texas A&M’s long and strong Cadet Corps tradition, its games are akin to military academy sporting events. Aggie students, collectively known as the “12th Man,” stand for the entire game. The 400-strong Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band—all of them cadets—is the world’s largest military marching band and known for its intricate precision drills. Midnight Yell pep rallies are a student staple before every home game.
Team Tradition: The Aggie Bonfire (before the Texas Longhorns game).
Typical Chant: “Beat the Hell Outta!”
Biggest Rival: University of Texas.
Postgame Hangout: The Dixie Chicken.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 82,000; aggieathletics.com.
Franklin Field: Philadelphia
More impressive for its heritage than knockdown, drag-out football, Franklin is the oldest college stadium still in use, dating back to 1895. It was the site of the first scoreboard and the first radio and television broadcasts of a football game, and—back when the Eagles shared the stadium with the UPenn Quakers—this was the first NFL stadium with Astroturf. The Quakers won the national college football championship four times before World War One. Now their Ivy League games are a throwback to that time when the players really were student-athletes.
Team Tradition: Throwing toast onto the field at the end of the third quarter.
Typical Chant: “Hurrah! Hurrah! Pennsylvania!”
Biggest Rivals: Harvard and Villanova.
Postgame Hangout: Cavanaugh’s.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 52,000; pennathletics.com.
Bronco Stadium: Boise, ID
Whether crashing the Bowl Championship Series (small schools just aren’t supposed to be there) or asking your cheerleader girlfriend to marry you (on national TV) after upsetting Oklahoma in a bowl game, the Boise State Broncos like to make their own rules. Even Bronco Stadium's bright blue playing field—sometimes called the “Smurf Turf”—was the first non-green field in college football and remains the only alternative color in Division One. With a high-powered offense and a never-say-die attitude, little old Boise State is one of the NCAA’s most entertaining teams to watch.
Team Tradition: The freaky blue turf.
Typical Chant: The call-and-answer, “And that’s another Bronco” “First-down”
Biggest Rival: University of Idaho and, nowadays, anyone who says the Broncos don’t belong with the big boys of college football.
Postgame Hangout: End Zone.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 33,500; broncosports.com.
Memorial Stadium: Lincoln, NE
The Nebraska Cornhuskers have sold out every home game since 1962, an ever-growing NCAA record of more than 300 consecutive full houses. It’s now roughly 3.2 million people—twice as many as currently live in the Prairie State. Erected in 1922 to honor Nebraska vets who fought in World War I, the Spanish American War, and the Civil War, the stadium is awash in red on game days as fans flood the stadium to cheer on their beloved Huskers and watch replays on one of the largest jumbotrons in college football.
Team Tradition: The dramatic “Tunnel Walk” and charging onto the field across the Big Red Carpet.
Typical Chant: Hus-ker Pow-er!
Biggest Rival: Oklahoma.
Postgame Hangout: The Single Barrel.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 85,000; huskers.com.
Rose Bowl: Pasadena, CA
The Bruins haven’t been a top team in years, but the laid-back southern California ambience still makes the Rose Bowl an appealing place for college football. It also helps that this nearly 90-year-old behemoth (opened 1922) is a National Historic Monument. Follow the lead of fans who tend to tailgate in leafy Arroyo Seco Park, watch the sunset over the hills behind the stadium as the game winds down, and then party hard in downtown Pasadena afterward.
Team Tradition: Cheering the bear mascots Joe and Josephine Bruin and, on occasion, vandalizing the Tommy Trojan statue on rival USC's campus.
Typical Chant: “U-C-L-A Fight! Fight! Fight!” (Bruin 8 Clap.)
Biggest Rivals: USC and Cal.
Postgame Hangout: Barney’s Beanery in Pasadena.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 94,000; uclabruins.com.
Ohio Stadium: Columbus, OH
Game day here is a sea of scarlet and gray sweeping across the campus toward Ohio Stadium to see the Buckeyes vanquish yet another opponent. Despite recent NCAA violations and a head coach departure, Ohio State remains a national power with historic trappings: the Buckeye Grove of trees to honor OSU All-Americans, the victory bell that tolls after each game, and the sousaphone player dotting the “i” when the Ohio State marching band spells out the word “Ohio” at halftime.
Team Tradition: Decorating their helmets with buckeye leaves awarded for big plays.
Typical Chant: “O-H-I-O!”
Biggest Rival: Michigan.
Postgame Hangout: King Avenue Five.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 102,000; ohiostatebuckeyes.com.
Notre Dame Stadium: South Bend, IN
“Touchdown Jesus” and the famed golden dome loom above this storied stadium, where Joe Montana learned to throw miracles long before he was a 49er. It was constructed in 1930 after coach Knute Rockne threatened to resign if his Fighting Irish didn’t get a stadium more befitting their national stature. The flag-waving leprechaun mascot and the Irish Guard precision marchers rile up the crowd, and the team still salutes the fans after every game (win or lose). And are those fans rabid: Fox Sports recently named the Notre Dame faithful the “most obnoxious fan base” in college football.
Team Tradition: Attending Mass and walking a gauntlet of fans outside the campus chapel right before every home game.
Typical Chant: “Go Irish!”
Biggest Rivals: USC and Michigan.
Postgame Hangout: Linebacker Lounge.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 80,000; und.com.
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium: Gainesville, FL
While much of the rest of the football world slogs through rain and snow, “The Swamp” in Gainesville is filled with sunshine and rowdy fans. Consider that over the past 20 years Florida has won nearly 90 percent of its home games (the best in Division One college football). When visiting teams are about to hike the ball, it gets so loud they often can’t hear their quarterback’s signal. But the highlight of any visit to The Swamp comes when the band breaks into the theme song from Jaws and Florida fans raise their arms for a collective Gator Chomp.
Team Tradition: The Gator Chomp.
Typical Chant: “Orange! Blue! Orange! Blue!”
Biggest Rival: Florida State.
Postgame Hangout: The Swamp Restaurant.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 88,000; gatorzone.com/football/.
Michigan Stadium: Ann Arbor, MI
The “Big House” is the largest stadium in college football and the third largest sports stadium on the entire planet. (It even hosted the largest ice hockey crowd of all time: 100,000). At its 1927 opening, the stadium featured 22 miles of bleacher seats hewn from California redwoods. The seats have changed, as have the Wolverines, who are fighting their way back into the top 10 rankings. Whatever their record from one season to the next, their rivalry games are consistently among the most hotly contested in collegiate sports.
Team Tradition: Maize and blue “winged” helmets.
Typical Chant: “Hail! Hail to Michigan.”
Biggest Rivals: Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame.
Postgame Hangout: The Arena Bar.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 109,000; mgoblue.com.
Autzen Stadium: Eugene, OR
In little more than a decade, the Ducks have gone from laughingstock to national contender—and the NCAA’s number one fashion show. Nobody does uniforms like the chic Nike-clad Ducks, who normally sport a dozen different looks in any given season. Many a visiting coach, player, and broadcaster have claimed that Autzen is the loudest stadium in college football. The highest noise level recorded inside the stadium was an eardrum-shattering 127 decibels during a 2007 victory over USC—a level that falls right between a jackhammer and a jet plane.
Team Tradition: The Oregon Duck mascot doing push-ups for every point the team scores.
Typical Chant: “Go! Ducks!”
Biggest Rival: Oregon State (their annual game is called the “Civil War”).
Postgame Hangout: Rennie’s Landing.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 54,000; goducks.com.
Tiger Stadium: Baton Rouge, LA
ESPN named Tiger Stadium the “scariest place” to play in America in 2007 based on a survey of opposing South East Conference (SEC) coaches. And with more than 90,000 trash-talking Tiger faithful—nearly all of them decked out in purple and gold—screaming from kickoff to the final whistle, it’s not hard to understand why. By the time night games kick off, fans have been partying practically since sunrise. Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant quipped that playing away at LSU, a.k.a. “Death Valley,” was “like being inside a drum.”
Team Tradition: Playing home games on sultry Saturday nights rather than the daytime.
Typical Chant: Shouting “L-S-U . . . L-S-U” over and over again—occasionally while throwing beer on opposing fans.
Biggest Rival: Anyone in the SEC ranked higher than the Tigers.
Postgame Hangout: Fred’s Tigerland Bar.
Stadium Capacity: Approximately 92,000; lsusports.net.