Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Follow Up: Best College Football Stadiums

Now that we've let EA Sports have their say, here are my rankings for the best college football environments I've seen in person. Now, I've ranked everything I've seen - so as not to leave anything out or make anyone feel unloved. So there are some additional rankings thrown in here:

Five Stadiums I Want to See (realistic):

1. Jordan-Hare Stadium - Auburn

2. Tiger Stadium - LSU

3. Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium - Arkansas

4. The Superdome - Sugar Bowl

5. Mountaineer Field - West Virginia

Five Stadiums I Want to See (fantasy):

1. The Rose Bowl

2. Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame

3. Kyle Field - Texas A&M

4. Doak Campbell Stadium - Florida State

5. Carrier Dome - Syracuse

Best Football Experiences (special event stadiums)

1. SEC Championship - Georgia Dome

If you get a combination of FLA/UGA/TEN vs. ALA/AUB/LSU when both are having a great season, you get the 50/50 split at this game with the rivalry factor thrown in. The 97 SEC Championship with Tennessee and Auburn, where this happened, is the best crowd experience I've ever had.

2. Capital One Bowl - Orlando

I saw this when it was the Citrus Bowl (UT vs. Ohio State), but I like the stadium, there's plenty to do in the city of Orlando, and the now-Capital One Bowl is as good as it gets outside of the BCS, so you get two great SEC/Big 10 teams going at it.

3. Chick-fil-A Bowl - Atlanta

We'll exclude Fulton County Stadium from this list, even though I was there for the 1987 Peach Bowl, since it's now a parking lot. But the Georgia Dome is, once again, a great venue, and this is another great bowl matchup if you don't get an SEC team that's not happy to be there. Otherwise, you usually get great football, great attendance, great ratings.

4. Fiesta Bowl - Tempe (old ASU stadium)

If you remove all the emotion from the 98 National Championship from the equation...the old Fiesta Bowl was a total dump. The new stadium is nice to look at. Phoenix in January is quite nice.

5. LP Field (for college football)

It's last on the list because I saw Tennessee play Wyoming there in 2002. But it is, in fact, a nice football stadium, and one of these days I'm actually going to make it to a Titans game.

Home Field Advantage Rankings (all stadiums I've seen)

10. Vanderbilt Stadium - Vanderbilt (1998)

Because of course we start with them at the bottom of the list. A physically dominating sight at 41,448 with a hostile crowd composed of the other team's fans. One of my favorite football moments is still the 98 game at Vandy with thousands of UT fans outside the gates at kickoffs, refusing to let themselves believe that there are, in fact, simply no tickets left to be scalped.

09. Commonwealth Stadium - Kentucky (1995, 1999, 2001)

A step up the ladder at 67,530, it's also a much different experience now than it used to be. I first went there in 1995, when it was best described as "they found some land and put a football stadium in it, park in that field over there." After what we affectionately refer to as The Tim Couch Expansion in 1999, the ends were enclosed and now it actually looks like an SEC stadium. The lack of enthusiasm - in 2001, the crowd size doubled at halftime because the Cats were ahead - from a basketball school is remotely understandable, though if the football team found consistent success (not likely in the SEC East), Bruce Pearl has shown that you can do both and make both work. For Vol fans in Knoxville and the surrounding area, it's usually a nice short drive up I-75 for a sure win.

08. Cardinal Stadium - Louisville (1991)

Even though they built Papa John's to replace it, it was still a nice slice of life back on a Thursday Night in 91. It functioned well as exactly what it was - a small stadium for a (then) small college football team. It did that well. The new stadium in Papa John's is bigger as the team has become bigger.

07. Scott Stadium - Virginia (2006 vs. Maryland)

Beautiful campus. Great scenery. My overall impression of this place is hampered by the fact that they were playing Maryland and they weren't very good last year. But it has potential, and I remember seeing their crowd make a difference during the Tiki Barber administration, becoming the first ACC team to beat Florida State. They need to do a better job of making it feel "old" like the rest of the campus, instead of using some of the most ridiculous computer graphics in their pregame introduction I've ever seen. But the cavalier riding on the horse was very cool. And the lawn, while I'd never want to watch a big game from there, is stylish.

06. Bryant-Denney Stadium - Alabama (1999, 2003)

Haven't seen her since the 2006 end zone expansion that took her to 92,138. Love The Quad and the Bear Bryant stuff. And in any other conference, this place would be ridiculously intimidating. But in the SEC, with four legitimate top tier crowds and several others that would like to be...if there's such a thing as too much tradition, Alabama has it. The old feel and its arrogance in the fan base makes for a less hostile and more uppity crowd, which recently seems like it's been waiting for something to go wrong. And Alabama's previous success wasn't really credited to home field advantage, it was credited to The Bear. The fact that Auburn and Tennessee have, for the most part, been able to walk out there with victories recently, takes it down even further. When you walk on campus in Tuscaloosa, you feel the history. But you somehow feel it less in the stadium. Hard to explain.

05. Sanford Stadium - Georgia (2000, 2002, 2004)

The little kid at the adult table. Sanford has the size requirements - 92,746 - but once again, in this conference, you need something more. Georgia has, in my experience, the greatest proportion of fans who love to whine than any other SEC school. They want respect, which must be earned, and they want to believe that they're on par with Florida/Tennessee/Alabama, but they're not. The hedges are cool, but there's nothing else really remarkable about the gameday experience. They are hindered by their proximity to Atlanta, where the real action is for visiting fans. And I do like "The redcoats are coming!" with their band. But Georgia does everything good in a conference where others are doing it great.

04. Williams-Brice Stadium - South Carolina (1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006)

The king of all road trips for yours truly. SC is the best picture of a team and a program that's not there yet, but they desperately want to be. The Cocks don't claim to be on the top tier, like Georgia fans do. They know they're a step below. But they pour their hearts into making that step. South Carolina didn't become a cool football experience with Steve Spurrier - it's always been that way. The first time I went there in 1996, fans came up to my father and I and, no joke, thanked us for letting them into the SEC. In 2000, their "Who let the Cocks out?! LOU, LOU, LOU LOU..." is among the best stuff I've ever heard. And while most program's fans take on the personality of their head coach (which might make Alabama rise on this chart in the future), last year in Columbia, Carolina fans still seemed to lack the Ballcoach's arrogance. Once they arrive, it might become less fun. But the environment is always that great balance of rabid fans and expectations that have never quite been realized, but this just might be the year...the facility itself is nestled nicely on the state fairgrounds, with Columbia having a Knoxville-like quality to it with the blend of a small downtown area and the university campus. And the 2001 on field entrance is my favorite to watch among opponents. Bonus points for all the kids who call it "The Ric Flair Entrance".

03. Lane Stadium - Virginia Tech (2006 vs. Clemson)

When you've spent your life watching high quality SEC football, you notice certain things about big games. These are the things I noticed as absent when I went to UVA. These are the things I noticed present at Virginia Tech. The crowd, the atmosphere, the environment - nevermind the capacity, recently expanded to 65,115. Tech fans are a special breed. In southwestern Virginia, there really isn't much else around. There are no professional teams in close proximity, nor are there any other universities. If you live in SWVA, you are a Hokie. From there, the unique qualities continue - you ain't seen fans get up for special teams like this. The "stick it in!" cheer is classic. The student section is jumping. Literally. And it's size even gives it some charm. Virginia Tech maximizes every single seat in the house. Good football.

02. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium - Florida (1999)

The one reason Florida Field isn't better than Neyland Stadium: tradition. For noise...well, like I said yesterday, once you get to a certain point, it's all just loud. For temperature and alcohol, it's advantage Gators. But The Swamp is a byproduct of Steve Spurrier, over the course of a decade. Urban Meyer, clearly, has done a great job of keeping it going. But for The Swamp to truly go down in college football history, they'll need to keep it going for another decade. So we'll see. Let the record show that I do enjoy the pure hatred that seems to flow from that place - when we went in 99, I felt like I was under attack as soon as I stepped out of my car for wearing orange. Good fun.

01. Neyland Stadium - Tennessee (145 games 1985-2006)

Size? Check. Noise? Check. Unique features (orange, checkerboard end zones, running thru the T, Rocky Top, Vol Navy, Vol Walk)? Check. There are other places that do individual things better than Neyland Stadium. You might get a decible or two louder somewhere else. You will get higher attendance a couple places. You have schools that have longer tradition. You have fans who are nicer, smarter, meaner, more respectful, and more hateful. But, as The Sporting News agreed with a few years ago, there is nowhere in the world that combines all these elements into one so perfectly as Neyland Stadium. The secret of life is a Fall Saturday in Knoxville.

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