A word of advice: make sure to go to one elite college football game on campus at some point in your life. The experience is the closest thing the United States has to European soccer, with the passionate fan bases, the pre-game build-up, and the energy inside the stadium. Naturally, you'll start trying to figure out which college is the best one to visit to pursue such an endeavor. The best venues for a college football weekend include enjoyable towns/cities with plenty of bars and restaurants, good tailgating, ease of getting around, and an engaged fan base. After much research and experience, here's our list of the best destinations in college football.
Texas A&M University
Hardcore football is back in the public eye when the Aggies play a game Kyle Field these days, so much so that the university has increased the capacity by approximately 20,000 seats to 102,500. That crowd is partly invigorated by the student section, known as the “12th Man,” which stands for the entire game. Life in the SEC West is tough, but it means great football comes by College Station every year. Hotel rooms are hard to come by in College Station, but you’ll have a lot of fun once you’re situated. It’s easy to set up shop for a tailgate in Spence Park, just east of Kyle Field. Once you set up your tailgate area the day before the game, you’ll be killing time until the legendary “Midnight Yell” tradition, a pep rally at midnight the night before the game. Dixie Chicken is the stalwart bar of the area, where alumni reminisce about their time in college. Grabbing chicken fingers at Layne’s will most likely be one of the meals you’ll experience if you want to follow what the locals do.
Penn State University
Penn State battles back and forth with Michigan on the largest capacity in the country. No school seems to take their colors more seriously than Penn State as their constantly enforcing “white outs” that have everyone in Beaver Stadium wearing white. You better be ready to sing along to Zombie Nation every time the Nittany Lions score a touchdown and belt out for “Hey baby!” between the third and fourth quarters. The RVs arrive as early as Thursday night because the fans are serious about their tailgating. Tailgates are set up all over the parking lots and the fields nearby. Friendly fans are guaranteed to invite you into their tailgate if you don’t have one of your own. You’ll inevitably end up at the Creamery for ice cream at some point in your trip. Indigo is the home to crazy college antics with it and The Phyrst making lists of the best college bars in the country.
You can’t watch a football game in America in front of a bigger crowd than the 115,109 you’ll enjoy a game with at Michigan Stadium. That alone is a reason to make your trip, but there are others as well. Everything is within walking distance around town since it’s built around the campus and that becomes more enjoyable as the fall weather turns the colors of the leaves on the trees. The golf course has been taken over as the top tailgating destination for Michigan Alums, as the area next to the state is swarming with grills, tailgate games, and TVs. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to be there homecoming weekend to witness the SAE “Mud Bowl.” The locals rave about Zingerman’s, the Jewish deli serving up great Reuben’s, a sandwich called Oswald’s Mile High, and some great cookies. Whether you get messy at Rick’s with athletes and Greeks (if it’s good enough for Michael Phelps or Derek Jeter, it’s good enough for you) or pay respect to the legends with a beer at The Brown Jug.
There may be schools with better tailgates, better football, better-looking girls, and better bars, but the sum of the parts is what makes the University of Florida a good time. Gainesville has been the home of a couple recent national championships and you know you’re getting quality SEC football when you come to town. The good weather makes the tailgating along University Ave. enjoyable. Those lucky enough to find a spot on the lawn just north of the stadium get to enjoy the “Gator Walk.” The Swamp may be the nickname for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, but it’s also a nickname for the best bar on campus. The crowds gather there on game weekends, filling the outside tables with high-quality football talk and historic praise for the legend of Tim Tebow. The Italian at Hogan’s Great Sandwiches or a “primo” burrito at Burrito Bros. Taco Co. are the foods the locals enjoy the most. Ginnie Springs is also a nice getaway the day before or after gameday, as the river tubing brings out the student body in droves.
The University of Washington
The only West Coast location on this list is special for one reason and one reason alone: tailgating on boats. The football may not be great all the time, although they had a good run with four national championships between 1960 and 1991, but Husky Stadium’s convenient location next to Lake Washington makes it ideal for the most unique tailgating experience in the country. They call it “stern-gating” and the views when doing something similar at Tennessee doesn’t pack nearly the quality of views. Once you’re done with the boats and the game, you can enjoy some beers at College Inn Pub, which sits across the street from campus in a building made back in 1909. Rowdier crowds end up at Earl’s on the Ave or Cowgirls Inc. You might not expect to find great Caribbean food in Seattle, but that’s what you get when eating pelau (Trinidad Jambalaya) or curried goat roti at Pam’s Kitchen, just north of campus. The Mexican food at Guanaco’s Tacos Pupuseria is some of the best Mexican you’ll find near a college campus.
A lot of what makes Texas great is the town city of Austin itself, the largest city of any mentioned on this list. Hopefully you like eating barbecue because you’ll be overwhelmed with choices. You can tailgate and wait on line at favored Franklin Barbecue or enjoy brisket at other places like La Barbecue or Micklethwait Craft Meats. You’ll also find good Mexican food and burgers in Texas’ capital of food and government. The parking lots south of campus are jammed up on Saturdays as people cope with the heat by enjoying cold beers. Inside Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium you’ll be slightly deceived that over 100,000 in burnt orange fill the seats because one end zone is open, but then the noise kicks in and you can feel the masses. At night, the college students take the school-run bus down to West Sixth Street (otherwise known as “Dirty Sixth”) where they enjoy themselves at Aquarium, Maggie Mae’s, and more bars on a strip that’s reminiscent of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street at times.
Tradition will likely be the reason you make a trip to South Bend for a Fighting Irish game and you can’t be blamed for that. The campus is a sight to behold, one as beautiful as any in the country. Catch the team doing their gameday walk between Touchdown Jesus (officially known as the “Word of Life” mural) and Notre Dame Stadium is one of the school’s great traditions. Hopefully, you’ll find a parking pass to enjoy the tailgating in Stadium Lot, but the Joyce Center lot next door is nearby as well. There’s plenty of good food to be had, whether we’re talking about the famous steak sandwiches at the Knights of Columbus building on South Quad or the burgers at CJ’s downtown. Rocco’s pizza isn’t a bad idea either, at the family-run joint open since 1951. Good drinks are easy to find at The Linebacker Lounge, one of the favorite stomping ground of the students.
Athens has tough competition on and off the football field as a great college town in the SEC, but it holds its own very well. For starters, downtown Athens is known to have more bars per capita than any other place in the country. Bourbon Street and General Beauregard's (a.k.a. General’s) are consistently on lists for best college bars in America. Athens’ food scene has grown tremendously in recent years, with Top Chef Hugh Acheson leading the dining charge. There’s also Peaches Fine Foods for classic southern comfort foods and Blind Pig Tavern for burgers. Tailgating is spread out along campus, specifically on the west side of campus, as fans enjoy pre-game festivities in their Georgia red. The quality music scene has been around for years with groups like R.E.M. and Nirvana having graced the stages of the Georgia Theatre back in the day. Finally, there’s the football at Sanford Stadium, which is usually at or near the top of the SEC East division.
Louisiana State University
There’s no destination in the country more well-known for a raucous nighttime atmosphere at a college football game than what you’ll experience at Baton Rouge. You’ll do best attending a night game also because then you’ll have all day to eat at the best eating tailgate in the country. You’re in Cajun country, so you’ll be enjoying all your favorites like gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish. There are likely a few “Cajun microwaves” hanging around with a juicy whole pig waiting inside. Once you make it inside Tiger Stadium, you’ll be greeted by 102,321 drunk and loud Cajuns. There’s a reason it’s referred to as “Death Valley.” If you’re still hungry, you can grab burgers and seafood at The Chimes and then a few drinks at Bogie’s. Some choose to drive to and from New Orleans because...well everyone knows about New Orleans.
You can’t overlook a school whose saying is: “We may not win every game, but we never lose a party." Just north of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, you’ll find the Grove, which is considered by many to be the best tailgating experience in all of football. Tailgating tents are packed next to each other and friendly tailgaters offer Southern comfort if you ask to join their tailgate. It’s fascinating that women walk around in dresses and heels regardless of the weather. The SEC West provides many a good opponent for the Rebels to take on. You won’t go hungry, with chili added to your breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast or great burgers at Ajax Diner and Phillip’s Grocery. The Library is always listed as one of the best college bars in the country, with a trio of spaces to fit your needs. You might be a little confused when your night ends at the Chevron eating “chicken on a stick,” but you’ll feel like one of the locals. Your true taste of the South awaits on a college football weekend in Oxford.
The gameday experience at Wisconsin is slightly different than a lot of the top choices on this list because the tailgating scene is more about house parties and bars, but one can’t deny the amount of enjoyment people are having on football Saturdays. The kind Midwesterners will welcome you onto their front lawns and backyards as you enjoy some Cornhole or Flip Cup to go with your brat and beer. The #2 party school in the country exists in Milwaukee’s capital and houses great college bars such as State Street Brats and The Kollege Klub, all the cheese curds (preferably fried) you can handle at places like The Old Fashioned, and competitive football. You’ll be shaking your keys before kickoff and jumping around before the fourth quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. The Big Ten represents well with all a weekend of Badgers’ football provides.
Tuscaloosa, Alabama has everything you could ask for in a college football experience. The college town revolves around college football and you're immediately immersed in the culture the minute you step inside. The ESPN commercials are true. You'll receive a "Roll Tide" salute from a random person as you walk by them on the street in crimson colors. The atmosphere on gamedays is alive, especially against a good rival. Tailgating has improved to the point where there's now a huge grassy area just north of Bryant-Denny Stadium for folks to set up shop and make new friends if you haven't been well-planned enough to construct your own set-up. Once inside the stadium, you'll encounter over 100,000 pom-pom shaking fans making noise the entire game. Post-game celebrations take you to The Houndstooth, named by some publications as the best college bar in the country, as fans typically rejoice in victory. You just can’t leave town without grabbing barbecue at Archibald’s.