People around the world are dumbfounded when they visit America in the fall -- particularly on Saturdays. Wait, now, they say. This entire bar is full of lunatics waving their arms like alligators because of a sport they play... at university? You’re all mad! Take them to the right stadium, though, and they understand immediately. The many traditions and pure passion of college-football fans are a spectacle unique on this planet, and attending a game is among the better things to do in these final months of the year.
So which stadiums are the absolute best for a game? Much like we did for our ranking of NFL stadiums, we wanted to take measure of the entire experience -- the building, the atmosphere, the crowds, the rituals, the scene. To accomplish this task we reached out to some college-football writers who have attended more than their fair share of games over the decades. Our esteemed panel of experts:
Oklahoma State University Cowboys Stillwater, Oklahoma Capacity: 55,509 In another environment, hordes of crazed young people armed with big wooden paddles would seem like a deleted scene from The Warriors. But at Oklahoma State they’re the Paddle People, a group of students who bang these paddles on stadium surfaces to create one of the loudest environments in college football. The nine-figure renovation that the dilapidated old Lewis Field underwent in 2003 to become Boone Pickens helps too. The stands surround the field on three sides and shoot straight up, making the place especially intense during sold-out night games. Bonus side trip: America’s first Sonic Drive-In is about four blocks away.
24. TCF Bank Stadium
University of Minnesota Gophers Minneapolis, Minnesota Capacity: 50,805 After years of playing football under the dismal Hefty bag that was the old Metrodome, the Golden Gophers finally upgraded in 2009 to a model for 21st-century college football. Its intimate, two-level design keeps fans close to the field -- one advantage of its modest-by-Big-Ten-standards capacity. The open end of the stadium has a view of the Minneapolis skyline, plus wraparound LED scoreboards between levels and some of the more interesting food in college football: Italian meatballs and French toast sticks, for instance. Did we mention they sell beer and wine too? MORE:Where to eat in Minneapolis
North Dakota State University Bison Fargo, North Dakota Capacity: 19,000 The name sounds like a haunted house full of zombies who moan “Oh YAAAAH” as they throw some poor schmuck in a woodchipper. The home of the 13-time Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) champion that has knocked off Iowa, Kansas State, and Minnesota in recent years looks like an oversized basketball fieldhouse, with vertical stands on all four sides. The ruckus has a tendency to extend beyond the doors for the team that has dominated its competition over the past decade, winning seven of the past eight national championships. As one Fargoan put it to us: “Fargodome is the loudest stadium, period. Plus, even when it's 10 degrees, the tailgate scene is huge."
22. Folsom Field
University of Colorado Buffaloes Boulder, Colorado Capacity: 54,972 To truly understand why the home of the Buffaloes is such a special place, go to a game at sunset. Seated in the upper reaches of the stadium, watching the sun dip behind the Rockies while the lights shine on the field below is one of the most magical scenes in sports. The team has been uncharacteristically decent season in 2016, the Buffaloes have returned to mediocrity of late. But the town of Boulder is itself worth the trip, so no one will blame you for bouncing at halftime. MORE:Boulder's legendary breweries make a great stop before or after the game
21. Jordan-Hare Stadium
Auburn University Tigers Auburn, Alabama Capacity: 87,451 The Tigers owe a great deal of their success -- including the 2010 national title -- to their stadium and the fans who fill it. “The seats go straight up, which traps the noise of 85,000 fans and send it crashing upon the players on the field,” says Maisel. “And it’s hard to beat the ceremonial pregame flight of the War Eagle around the stadium.”
20. Sanford Stadium
University of Georgia Bulldogs Athens, Georgia Capacity: 92,746 The trademark hedges around the field make this one of the most easily recognizable stadiums in college football. But cramming 93,000 barking Georgia fans into this fully enclosed arena is what makes it a terrifying venue for visiting teams. Add in a bulldog cemetery filled with former mascots and the ability to walk down onto the field to get to the concession stands and restrooms, and you have a truly unique college football venue. MORE:Where to eat in Athens
19. Yale Bowl
Yale University Bulldogs New Haven, Connecticut Capacity: 61,446 Nobody’s gone to Yale for the football since Walter Camp was coaching there, but it makes the Yale Bowl no less impressive. It’s historic, the sight lines are surprisingly good, and the campus is spectacular. Plus, it was a pioneer in how big-time football stadiums would be constructed in the years to to come. “If the Rose Bowl is the Granddaddy of Them All,” says McGee, “Then the Yale Bowl is the great-granddaddy.” MORE:Why New Haven might be the best pizza town in America
18. LaVell Edwards Stadium
Brigham Young University Cougars Provo, Utah Capacity: 63,470 Granted, your tailgate at the largest LDS university on the planet might consist of Jell-O mold, cold cuts, and Diet Rite. And you won’t even find caffeinated Coke at the concession stands. But when you’re in the most spectacular mountain setting in college football, it’s probably best to have a clear head. The peaks that ring BYU’s home field feel like an extension of the bleachers, giving the sensation of watching football in the cauldron of a volcano. The fans are faultlessly polite, which combined with the breathtaking setting make this the nicest place in America to watch a game.
17. Memorial Stadium
University of Nebraska Cornhuskers Lincoln, Nebraska Capacity: 85,458 Fun fact: On gameday Memorial Stadium becomes the third-largest city in Nebraska. Give credit to the Cornhusker faithful who, despite a team that has rarely contended for a national title since Tom Osborne left for Congress, still pack the place in a sea of red every week. The fans’ thick-and-thin passion makes this place a destination in itself. That, and the red balloons they release after Nebraska’s first score. MORE:Why Nebraska is one of the most underrated destinations in America
16. Doak Campbell Stadium
Florida State University Seminoles Tallahassee, Florida Capacity: 79,560 There is, quite plainly, no more awesome crowd effect than 80,000 Seminole faithful chanting their vaunted Tomahawk Chop in unison. Whether you love the ‘Noles or your second-favorite team is their opponent, if you don’t get chills when Osceola slams his spear into the ground to a chorus of singing fans, you’re pretty much dead inside. (Florida State has a uniquely cooperative relationship with the Seminole tribe, which is why you still see FSU flaunt these traditions at a time when other universities have done away with native mascots.) The stadium itself is a bacchanal worthy of one of the greatest party schools in history, with human scenery that, many years, is more entertaining than the product on the field. Though when the team is good, Doak might be the most fun you can have in northern Florida.
15. Bryant-Denny Stadium
University of Alabama Crimson Tide Tuscaloosa, Alabama Capacity: 101,821 To Alabama fans, Crimson Tide football is religion. And the Vatican fit for their Pope Nicholas is this 101,000-seat colosseum. A walk through the tailgates near the Denny chimes is an education both in barbecue and in absolute devotion. Also worth a visit is the walk of champions, a set of monuments to the coaches who’ve made Alabama the epicenter of college football. A game here isn’t so much about amenities or sight lines as it is about reveling in the Mass of it all. As Maisel puts it: “When the first four notes of 'Sweet Home Alabama' come over the deafening sound system, and 101,000 roar in response, you understand what all the fuss over college football is all about.”
14. Kyle Field
Texas A&M University Aggies College Station, Texas Capacity: 102,733 Though it’s the biggest stadium in the SEC, Kyle Field was actually about 4,000 seats bigger before a 2014 renovation changed the west side stands. No matter, with the famous 12th man standing through nearly the entire game, those few thousand voices won’t be missed in one of the most consistently awe-inspiring palaces in college football. The sideline seats are some of the sharpest inclines in all of Texas, and after a half-billion dollar facelift those towering bleachers now surround the entire field. MORE:Where to eat in College Station
13. Michie Stadium
United States Military Academy (Army) Black Knights West Point, New York Capacity: 30,000 Truly a bucket-list venue for anyone who appreciates the sport’s history. Circa WWII, the Army coaches were able to essentially recruit an all-star team to upstate New York, and won three straight national titles with some of the most dominant teams ever, in this very building. “When the cannon sounds after a touchdown,” says Maisel, “you can see Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis in your mind’s eye.” If you’re considering a trip there, McGee suggests thinking like a leaf-peeper and arriving in peak foliage season. “Arrive to the stadium early and sit in the upper deck on the side that looks down into the Hudson Valley,” he says.
12. Camp Randall Stadium
University of Wisconsin Badgers Madison, Wisconsin Capacity: 80,321 When your stadium is defined by its creative use of late-’90s hip-hop, some might say that speaks volumes about your school’s football tradition. But, hey, when you’re feeling a 100-year-old stadium shake from 80,000 people simultaneously hopping in the air to House of Pain’s Jump Around between the third and fourth quarters, nobody cares about national championships. This giant stadium -- still situated on the same footprint it had when it was just an 11,000-seater -- feels far more intimate than the capacity might suggest, and makes it one of the most imposing venues in the country for visiting teams. “It’s also such a unique location because of the city of Madison,” says Dinich. MORE:What else to do in Madison
11. Neyland Stadium
University of Tennessee Volunteers Knoxville, Tennessee Capacity: 102,455 “I'll admit bias here. I went to school there,” says McGee. “But anyone who has ridden in with the Vol Navy, had ribs at Calhoun's and taken their seat in time to see the team run out of the ‘T’ can't deny the greatness of the experience.” The Navy he refers to are the boatloads of fans who reach the stadium via the adjacent Tennessee River, one of the most distinct features of this SEC behemoth. When 100,000 people become a wall of Tennessee Orange (yup, that’s the name of the hue) on gameday, it’s a unique, almost unsettling sight. MORE:Other places you need to check out in the Smokey Mountains
10. Beaver Stadium
Penn State University Nittany Lions University Park, Pennsylvania Capacity: 106,572 Penn State has the kind of atmosphere that can turn a single visit into lifelong fandom. The Whiteouts, when fans dress in white. The deafening calls of “We Are... ” answered with an equally thunderous “Penn State.” A karaoke version of “Livin’ on a Prayer” sung by 106,000 people. It’s just pure college-football fun, no matter how old you are or where you went to school. Even though Maisel describes it as “someone’s erector set come to life, a 106,000-seat contraption that doesn’t exactly fit seamlessly together,” it’s a classic venue, worth the trip to Happy Valley even without a rooting interest. MORE:Where to eat in State College
9. Autzen Stadium
University of Oregon Ducks Eugene, Oregon Capacity: 54,000 The potato-chip shaped stadium famously funnels the crowd noise here back onto a field where players get more varied, dazzling uniforms than any other school in the sport. “Don’t be fooled by its size,” says Dinich. “The volume at Autzen is deafening, and if you’re not from that part of the country, the traditional ‘Walk to Autzen’ is both scenic and exciting.” After a 2014 renovation, the place is simply slathered in flat screens. Plus, you’re in Eugene -- a beautiful part of the country to be in fall, or pretty much any time of year.
8. Lane Stadium
Virginia Tech Hokies Blacksburg, Virginia Capacity: 66,233 Maybe you’re a Metallica fan. Maybe you’re still pissed about Napster. But there is quite simply no more spine-tingling entrance in college football than the Hokies’ run onto the field to "Enter Sandman." “This is one of the more underrated stadiums in the country, and you can feel the stadium and the press box shake when the team enters,” says Dinich. Even once the game starts Lane is an intense place to play, nestled in the Virginia hills with stands standing tall over all four sides, creating the loudest venue in the ACC.
7. Notre Dame Stadium
University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish South Bend, Indiana Capacity: 77,622 Notre Dame is college football history, whether it’s Touchdown Jesus staring down from the end zone, the golden helmets running out to the sport’s most recognizable fight song, or the sign at the end of the locker room that reads “Play Like a Champion Today.” Sure, the Fighting Irish haven’t won a title in over 25 years, but ask any college football fan for their stadium bucket list, and South Bend comes up every time. Can’t make it there for a game? Ryan McGee says you’re still in luck. “Game days are great,” he says, “but the $10 off-season tour might be even better.”
6. Michigan Stadium
University of Michigan Wolverines Ann Arbor, Michigan Capacity: 107,601 A North Korean soccer stadium is the only stadium in the world with a larger capacity than the Big House, and even that’s questionable. “The sheer size of it is overwhelming,” says Dinich. “It’s another venue where history and tradition surround every seat in the house.” With nearly 110,000 of those seats -- plus the “seats” on benches occupied by more than one student at a time -- it is, without a doubt, the largest and most impressive stadium in the sport. Despite the size, sightlines are good the place is surprisingly cozy. Fans here are loud, passionate, but still Midwestern-nice. A sunny afternoon spent here can be surprisingly relaxing, and the eerily precise, stop-on-a-dime performance of the Wave is some of the best mob choreography anywhere in American culture. MORE:Where to eat and drink in Ann Arbor besides just Zingerman's
5. Memorial Stadium
Clemson University Tigers Clemson, South Carolina Capacity: 81,500 You know this stadium better as Death Valley, a name having nothing to do with the desert in California but with a cemetery that once overlooked the field. The home of the 2016 and 2018 national champs has moved up everyone’s list of top venues as the team has moved up the rankings. But it’s not all thanks to on-field performance. “Howard's Rock is the perfect example of what makes college football special,” Ubben says. The rock he refers to comes from the California desert and sits atop the hill in the east end zone. Before each game, Clemson players touch the rock for luck before sprinting down the hill and onto the field, easily the most distinct entrance in college football.
4. Tiger Stadium
LSU Tigers Baton Rouge, Louisiana Capacity: 102,321 “College football doesn't get better than Death Valley at night,” says Ubben. Once upon a time, this Death Valley was considered the hardest place to play in college football. But once Troy beats you at home, that distinction fades. Tiger Stadium is still an immersion in southern football traditions that’s crazier and more intense than anywhere in the SEC. “I once sat in the student section wearing the opposing team's colors,” Ryan McGee recalls. “Everyone around us popped Champagne corks as the "National Anthem" got to ‘rocket's red glare.’ My friend leaned over and said, ‘Dude, we're gonna die.’” MORE: Where to eat in Baton Rouge
3. Husky Stadium
University of Washington Huskies Seattle, Washington Capacity: 70,083 In recent years Washington football has burst back onto the scene, and nationwide audiences finally saw why its stadium might be the most picturesque setting in American sports. Boats line up on Lake Washington outside the east end zone, with the snow-capped Cascade Mountains set behind them in the distance creating a scene so beautiful it’s a legitimate distraction during the game. The stadium's metal roof and vertical stands -- which inspired Seahawks owner Paul Allen to later incorporate those elements into the notoriously deafening CenturyLink Field downtown -- project the crowd noise up and out for miles. MORE:Where to eat in Seattle
2. Ohio Stadium
THE Ohio State University Buckeyes Columbus, Ohio Capacity: 104,944 “From the fans to the Best Damn Band in the Land, the scene in Columbus is college football at its finest,” says Dinich, lauding a stadium that has seen some of the best football in America since Urban Meyer came to town. Even with one end half-open, the place affectionately known as “The Horseshoe” manages to seat more than 100,000 Buckeyes fans, creating a bowl of scarlet and gray that’s the most intimidating sight in the sport. The exterior boasts a cathedral-like rotunda and stained glass beneath the arches. “It looks like a church,” says McGee. “And it kind of is.” MORE: Where to eat in Columbus
1. The Rose Bowl
UCLA Bruins Pasadena, California Capacity: 92,542 “If they play football in heaven, it's in a setting like Pasadena,” says McGee.
Three of our four college football writers ranked the Rose Bowl number one, and the other ranked it third. Granted, UCLA doesn’t exactly sell out every game. Heck, they don’t exactly half-fill every game. But yowza, what a sight to behold when the sun sets below the San Gabriel Mountains that surround the stadium, creating a perfect canyon for sports. Likewise, the eucalyptus and palm trees that stick out from the top of the stadium are quintessentially Cali. So are the 75-degree November tailgates on the golf course, where alumni grill right on the fairway as students throw footballs into sand traps.
No surprise this building has held 100+ Rose Bowl games, two national championships, and five Super Bowls. It doesn’t have extensive luxury seating, or giant scoreboards, or even multiple concourses. But it is without question the most historic and important stadium in the sport. Even if the Bruins never dominate college football, their home stadium always will.
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Matt Meltzer is a UF alum and contributing writer to Thrillist who would rank the ghost of the Orange Bowl a sold No. 2 on this list. Thanks, Donna. See his game days at half-full Hard Rock on Instagram @meltrez1.