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Bleacher Report's Top 25 College Football Towns for 2014

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistJune 4, 2014

Bleacher Report's Top 25 College Football Towns for 2014

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    Cornhuskers fans don't just occupy Nebraska's football stadium, they make up most of the town of Lincoln.
    Cornhuskers fans don't just occupy Nebraska's football stadium, they make up most of the town of Lincoln.USA TODAY Sports

    The best college football teams in America are determined through wins and losses, polls, power rankings, bowl games and, starting this season, an actual playoff system.

    But how a team fares on the field doesn't automatically transfer to where they play. That's where the fans come in, as well as how a community embraces its college football team, which can go a long way toward enhancing the game experience.

    The town where a college is located is the central nervous system of the school's athletic fandom, and nowhere does this manifest itself more than during football season. The handful of Saturdays every fall when a game is in town transforms the region into one big pep rally, often starting long before the contest and continuing far after the final play.

    Every college town has a certain vibe to it, but some buzz with more intensity than others, as if football helps keep the blood pumping. Those spots are the ones that make up Bleacher Report's Top 25 College Football Towns for 2014.

Honorable Mention

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    Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images

    The list of great college football locales in America seems endless, but alas, we had to limit the list to 25. It's a very ranking-specific number, and like the weekly polls that rank the best teams, we're sticking with that figure.

    That being said, here are the cities and towns that just missed the cut, and like those just on the outside of the top 25, these could be listed as "others receiving votes:"

     

    Boise, Idaho

    Columbia, S.C.

    East Lansing, Mich.

    Los Angeles

    Louisville

    Manhattan, Kan.

    Miami

    Seattle

    Stillwater, Okla.

    Waco, Texas

25. Iowa City, Iowa

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The former home of Iowa's government isn't one of the most well-known cities in the country, but it's certainly well-regarded for its football interest.

    About 70,000 people live there, roughly the same that cram into Kinnick Stadium on fall Saturdays to watch the Hawkeyes battle in the Big Ten. Mascot Herky the Hawk gets the fans riled up, then as the players come out on the field as a swarm to the sound of AC/DC's "Back in Black," the excitement is palpable.

    Throw in a little victory polka after wins, and Iowa City is a sea of celebration of all things college football.

24. Atlanta, Ga.

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    With Georgia Tech holding a long tradition of success and fan support, and the recent addition of Georgia State to the FBS ranks, this major Southern city is becoming more and more known for college football even with the presence of teams in three different major pro sports.

    But what gets Atlanta onto this list is its firm stranglehold on what often ends up being the most important game in the SEC every year: the conference title game.

    Since 1994 the Georgia Dome has hosted the SEC championship, with its winner playing for a national title every year since 2006. Additionally, one of the best bowl games (Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl) is held there each year, with this season's clash on Dec. 31 included in the inaugural College Football Playoff system.

23. Blacksburg, Va.

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    The landscape in and around Blacksburg, in western Virginia, is some of the most beautiful in the country. But during college football season, all that matters around these parts are the Hokies.

    Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium holds 66,000, about 50 percent more than live in Blacksburg, and under the guidance of longtime coach Frank Beamer, the Hokies are routinely among the best teams in the country.

    It's hard to look good in the combination of maroon and orange while cheering on a team whose mascot is a turkey, but those fans manage to pull it off.

22. Provo, Utah

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    BYU and Provo are one and the same. The private school is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the city is a central hub of the Mormon faith, so the connection between community and school runs deep.

    The traditions of religion and football intertwine in Provo, where the Cougars are the favorite sons and play with an honor and dedication to the Mormon conviction. And though BYU has one of the most widespread followings of any college football team, nowhere is this support better shown than on gamedays in Provo.

21. Gainesville, Fla.

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    A visit to Gainesville just can't happen without getting immersed in the world of Florida Gators football, especially between August and November. That's when the entire community becomes an extension of The Swamp, a nickname former coach Steve Spurrier gave to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

    The state of Florida has several major college football programs, but the northeastern part of the state is Gator country, with Gainesville serving as the centerpiece of that movement. As the city's largest employer, the college is part of everyday life, and on Saturdays the Gators become the most important thing around.

20. Tucson, Ariz.

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    WILY LOW/Associated Press

    There are nearly a half million people living in Tucson, yet it feels like a small college town considering how fervent the support is for Arizona. While basketball is the school's most successful sport, and its most well-supported, football remains a top draw to help take residents' minds off the blazing heat that lingers in the desert until late fall.

    The school colors of red, white and blue adorn nearly everything in town, and the line is long for businesses to align with the football program. It's a time where impromptu "U of A" chants can break out at any place and any time, without notice, and where Saturday activities are scheduled around kickoff times at Arizona Stadium.

19. Oxford, Miss.

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    When it comes to college football, Oxford is well-known for hosting possibly the most sophisticated tailgate atmosphere in America. But the love of Ole Miss runs far deeper than sipping cocktails in fancy garments along The Grove; it bleeds into all parts of this northern Mississippi enclave.

    With less than 20,000 permanent residents, the town has only slightly more people than Ole Miss itself. With that kind of population breakdown, it's hard not to be all-in with the Rebels, and football is where that's felt the most.

    The traditions of the old South are alive and well in Oxford, and that camaraderie transforms this small town into a football mecca that is 100 percent behind the Rebels.

18. South Bend, Ind.

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The nation's most famous private school, Notre Dame, is the centerpiece of the otherwise quiet community of South Bend. Though the school itself is outside the city limits, South Bend and Notre Dame are considered one and the same.

    Notre Dame is one of those schools that has a fan base in nearly every corner of the United States, with watch parties and fan clubs galore. But all of that is enhanced to the highest degree in South Bend, where no matter what nationality you are, there's a little Fighting Irish in you.

17. Baton Rouge, La.

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The "Capital City" of Baton Rouge isn't as wild and crazy as New Orleans, except when LSU has a football game. Then it rivals the festive nature of any party place in the world, as the purple and gold flow from everywhere while chants of "Geaux Tigers" rain down from all corners.

    Mike the Tiger, the school's student-funded 450-pound Siberian-Bengal tiger that sits in a cage during games inside Tiger Stadium, embodies the ferocious spirit of LSU fans and the community it resides in. Though Baton Rouge has a lot going for it, from the state government to port commerce to various industrial pursuits, it's still a college town at heart.

16. Knoxville, Tenn.

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Tennessee River runs right through the middle of downtown Knoxville, giving this city a nautical element along with the breathtaking views of the Smoky and Appalachian mountain ranges. It also helps turns this region's love of Volunteers football into a seafaring adventure, compliments of the Vol Navy.

    As home to the flagship school of the Tennessee university system, Knoxville carries the flag for the state and takes great pride in this. Being a Volunteer is a birthright, and that means finding ways to look your best in head-to-orange while belting out "Rocky Top" as many times as possible.

15. College Station, Texas

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If not for Texas A&M and the railroad, College Station wouldn't exist. And since the railroad never had a very good football team, it's not surprising that College Station is a big football town.

    Named for its spot along a rail line, College Station is among the faster-growing cities in Texas, but even with the influx of residents it's still a college town that is deeply devoted to the Aggies. And the fans are well-respected by the school, especially inside Kyle Field, where as a group they're known as The 12th Man.

14. Madison, Wisc.

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Spread around two large lakes, Madison is one of the most picturesque cities in the Midwest. And that's before checking out the Wisconsin campus, with its lakefront views along Lake Mendota that make you forget you're in an educational setting.

    None of that really matters when the Badgers are playing a game in Camp Randall Stadium, though, as the town transforms into a giant sea of red-and-white fans showing their support for the state's only FBS program. The in-game ritual of singing (and jumping) along to House of Pain's "Jump Around" has become synonymous with this community, so much so that in 2012 it was voted the best college football tradition in the country by Sports Illustrated.

13. Tallahassee, Fla.

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Tallahassee is home to the reigning college football national champions, Florida State. But even without the Seminoles set to hang their third national title banner inside Doak Campbell Stadium this fall, this city in the Florida Panhandle was already wild about football.

    And it's not just FSU that gets this community going, as Tallahassee is also where you'll find the nation's largest historically black college, Florida A&M. While the Rattlers' football program doesn't come anywhere close to FSU's in terms of size or prominence, FAMU became the first-ever historically black college or university (known also as an HBCU) to host ESPN's popular College GameDay football pre-game show.

12. Austin, Texas

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    Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

    Depending on the city you're in, flashing a hand signal at people walking down the street could get you in a lot of trouble. But not in Austin, where the "Hook 'Em Horns" sign was once voted the nation's top hand signal by Sports Illustrated.

    You'll see the pinky and pointer fingers of countless people pointed upward throughout Austin, a symbol of this rapidly growing city's allegiance to its roots as the home of the University of Texas. Being from Austin means being a fan of the Longhornswhether you attended the school or notand burnt orange is a staple of your wardrobe.

    With Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium only a mile from the Texas capitol building, there's no separation of football and state here. They're one and the same.

11. Athens, Ga.

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Home to the nation's first state-chartered university, Athens is the quintessential college town. It was built for the purpose of having the University of Georgia reside there, and most of its growth is associated with that institution.

    With that kind of a history, it's hard not to be invested in the school and its Bulldogs teams. College football is a sport that works best when enjoyed full bore, and Athens turns out like few other towns to show visitors a good time on game days.

    An interesting connection between Athens and football comes in the form of hedges, of all things. The famed privet Ligustrum hedges that ring Sanford Stadium can be found in many backyards throughout the city, a unique way of paying homage to the community.

10. Morgantown, W.V.

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Morgantown's history goes as far back as the state of West Virginia's creation in the 1860s, as does the school that defines Morgantown as one of the best college towns in America. Though only about 30,000 people live there, the atmosphere blends coal town history and college excitement into a potent aroma.

    Known as the unofficial couch-burning capital of America, this crazy tradition stems from celebrating a win by the Mountaineers, usually in football. This is after the number of people inside Milan Puskar Stadium (which holds 60,000) makes Morgantown briefly the state's most populated city, and after that throng belts out yet another rendition of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads."

9. Auburn, Ala.

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    There's nothing plain about Auburn, a fast-growing town in the eastern Alabama area known as The Plains, not with the seemingly non-stop activity associated with Auburn University.

    It's hard for this town not to be infatuated with the Tigers' teams, considering the sharing of the Auburn name and how the school changed its name in 1960 to better reflect its connection to the community. That relationship continues to be strong, with the famed Toomer's Corner at the edge of campus and the start of downtown serving as a common meeting place for students, fans and townspeople.

    The legendary trees at Toomer's Corner are gone, the result of poisoning by an Alabama fan, though a recent excavation of the site has made it possible for new trees to be planted soon. Those new oaks will no doubt grow into a new symbol of solidarity between the town and school.

8. Clemson, S.C.

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    The town of Clemson exists because of the college of the same name, so much so that the community originally called Calhoun changed its name in the 1940s to better align with its lifeblood.

    Clemson is a small town by the purest of definitions, with fewer than 15,000 permanent residents, but that doesn't take away from its fervent love and support of Clemson and its teams. Football being the most important of that group, the orange and purple of the Tigers is a staple of color motifs throughout the community.

    Though few people live in Clemson, when football games are on the docket the town becomes a teeming metropolis of Tigers fans who have little trouble filling the 81,000-plus seats in the stadium known as Death Valley. The locals are outnumbered by the visitors on game days, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between one group and the other.

7. Eugene, Ore.

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    The second-largest city in Oregon is almost one of the biggest college football towns in the west, a place where ducks are worshiped rather than hunted.

    Eugene is a town that has the University of Oregon spread into each and every part of it, as the campus stretches in all directions so you can't tell where the school ends and the town begins. The green-and-gold (as well as the more modern Duck hues of silver and black) are found everywhere, and not always with the Nike logos that emblazon all of the school's athletic gear.

    This community has been devoted to Oregon sports for decades, but in the past 15 years, as the school's athletic program has become more nationally known, that's somehow only enhanced how much the local supporters have backed the Ducks.

6. Columbus, Ohio

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Columbus isn't the best college football in town, despite the appearance of that qualifier at the front of Ohio State's name and signage, but it's still a pretty darn good place to enjoy football and all the ancillary things that come with the college gridiron experience.

    While it's home to The Ohio State University, one of the largest institutions in the country, there's far more to Columbus than the school. Yet it still gives off that feeling of being a place that revolves around a college, particularly its football team. Walk around Columbus on a game day and you'd believe it possible that any group of people might be willing to "dot the I," as OSU's famous marching band does.

     

5. Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Alabama fans can—and will—yell out "Roll Tide!" anywhere, a symbol of fandom and solidarity with the Crimson Tide's sports teams. But do it in Tuscaloosa, and you're not only guaranteed to get a similar reply, you'll probably have made a friend for life.

    Tuscaloosa is a good-sized city of about 90,000, which is about three times the number of people that attend Alabama within its borders. But make no mistake, this is a college town, one that supports the football team and other sports the same way those teams give back to the community.

    A perfect example came in 2011, when a tornado ravaged through the city as part of a string of twisters that killed more than 60 people. Though this occurred far outside football season, it was coach Nick Saban and his players that were among the first to offer their support to rebuild Tuscaloosa.

4. Lincoln, Neb.

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    There's a quarter of a million residents in the city of Lincoln, which has been Nebraska's state capitol since back when the community was called Lancaster. The people of this city have a lot of things in common, not the least of which is their love of the Cornhuskers.

    Not a closet or drawer exists in southeastern Nebraska without at least a few red shirts emblazoned with the block "N" or some variation of the school nickname, and most of those get worn into Memorial Stadium several times each fall. The seats inside that 87,000-seat facility don't need to be painted red, since the fans take care of that shade all their own.

    And Lincoln is one of the few communities where the tailgating that is synonymous with college football isn't limited to college parking lots or campus common areas. The city's downtown, particularly its restaurant- and bar-heavy areas, are just as much a part of the pre-game atmosphere as any portable grill and pony keg adjacent to the stadium.

3. State College, Pa.

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    State College is in Centre County, which is fitting since the community is smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania. Equal parts far from Philadelphia to the east and Pittsburgh to the west, State College is in its own little world, and that world is Penn State.

    Unlike most college towns that have seen a school within their borders grow into what it is today, State College exists almost solely as a locale for the school. PSU was founded in the 1850s, and the town was incorporated after that, growing almost parallel with the college's expansion.

    Because of this symbiotic relationship, it's no surprise the athletic teams are adored by the community. Football, more than anything else, reigns supreme, and on game days it's not just PSU that's abuzz with football—it's the entire populace.

2. Norman, Okla.

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Norman is the third-largest city in Oklahoma, but you wouldn't know that from its small-town, close-knit feel. It also helps that everyone is wearing the crimson-and-cream of the Sooners.

    It's one of those towns where, on gameday, the action isn't limited to the college campus or just around the football stadium. The rally cries are heard in all parts of Norman, as locals and tourists mingle together and swap stories of their collective love for the Sooner Schooner and Bob Stoops' latest squad of superstars.

    What Norman has going for it that a lot of college towns don't is its proximity to the state's "big city," in this case Oklahoma City. The boroughs are just up or down the road from each other, keeping Norman from feeling out-of-the-way while still holding onto that small-town charm.

1. Ann Arbor, Mich.

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There's an easy way to explain how Ann Arbor has earned the No. 1 spot on our list of best college football towns, and it involves some simple number comparisons.

    The city's most recent population estimates put it at around 114,000. Michigan Stadium's capacity is 109,000 but for last September's game against Notre Dame a crowd of more than 115,000 filled the venue. Yes, that means more people were in the football stadium than live in the town, though a great number of those in attendance call Ann Arbor home, just one of many ways the community backs the Wolverines.

    The select few who don't descend onto campus on game days have learned to co-exist with the massive influx of people into Ann Arbor, though the Ann Arbor News still provides an annual list of tips on how to prepare for football season to help out those new to the town.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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