Ranking the Top 15 College Football Towns in the Country

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystMay 20, 2016

Ranking the Top 15 College Football Towns in the Country

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    There's nothing quite like a college football town. Professional sports teams occupy the country's bigger cities, usually vying for attention in a crowded market. But college football is different.

    The link between a football-crazy campus and the town it's located in runs deep. College football games are usually these cities' biggest events year in and year out, with the entire area shutting down on Saturdays when the home team is in town. Few sports experiences on the planet can compare.

    As we continue to grind through the offseason and dream of when these locales will be commandeered by a fall Saturday, let's count down the top 15 college football towns in the country. These selections were based on a town's relationship to its college program, passion in terms of fan support, traditions, culture and entertainment options on football weekends.

    Some large-city campuses, such as Columbus, Ohio (Ohio State) and Austin, Texas (Texas) are such massive metro areas that they aren't eligible for this list. Instead, this list focuses on the smaller-sized cities and towns that are synonymous with their college football teams.

    Of course, this is the opinion of one writer, based on past experiences and reputations from others who have tackled this assignment for other outlets. One could fill up an awesome list of 15 college football towns that didn't make the cut here. So, in the good-natured spirit of college football fandom, feel free to share your own lists and experiences in the comments below.

15. Morgantown, West Virginia

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    Morgantown, West Virginia, has a reputation for being one of the most passionate sports towns in the country. Night games inside Milan Puskar Stadium are an awe-inspiring mix of volume and sheer intimidation, and celebrations have been known to get out of hand in this town.

    The town itself is beautiful as it sits on the rolling hills of West Virginia and near the Monongahela River. Outdoor activities are aplenty for Mountaineers and those visiting the town for a football weekend. West Virginia's famous tailgating takes over during those times, with packed lots popping up on campus and around the city of Morgantown itself.

    Connor Muldowney of FanSided wrote: 

    Morgantown, W.V., is one of the most unique college towns in the country as the sports fans are pretty avid and the atmosphere is much different from a normal run-of-the-mill college stadium. No Big 12 team wants to travel to Morgantown to play a big game, not because of any poor facilities, but because of the hostile crowd that can definitely play a role in the outcome of games.

    Morgantown is crazy about its football, and it has plenty of activities and culture year-round to keep the Mountaineers satisfied until the fall. This college football town makes for plenty of amazing scenes, including the "Country Roads" tradition at the end of games.

14. South Bend, Indiana

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    South Bend, Indiana, is known around the world for Notre Dame football. The famous Catholic institution is a cornerstone in the United States, and Fighting Irish football is its most famous export.

    Notre Dame's campus is a breathtaking setting for college football's most historic program, which is known for its "golden dome" football helmets and "Touchdown Jesus" outside of Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish have a massive following, and fans flock to Notre Dame Stadium to be a part of the rich tradition and pageantry of a Saturday in South Bend.

    Russ Brooks of Urbanful wrote:

    With fans around the country, Notre Dame football may seem strangely popular for a school that’s rooted in a sleepy Indiana town. Perhaps that’s due to the program’s storied history, it’s cultural significance, or the sheer passion of its hometown fans.

    Notre Dame's beautiful campus, rich football history and strong link to its hometown make South Bend a must-see college football town. There's nothing quite like it.

13. Gainesville, Florida

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    The University of Florida has become a gold standard of complete athletic department excellence over the years, with a wide variety of sports claiming national and SEC championships. But the king of Gainesville, Florida, is still Gators football.

    Of all the activities to do in Gainesville year-round, the No. 1 activity is still game day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium—more commonly known as "The Swamp." From the Gator chomp to the traditional chants that echo throughout the stadium, Gainesville dearly loves its football and shows it week in and week out.

    The college town is also known for its music scene, which has produced plenty of famous rock bands such as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and Against Me! inside memorable venues. The arts thrive in Gainesville as festivals taking over the town several times a year.

    With a distinct culture for football and music in the heat of the Florida sun, Gainesville is a locale that sticks out on the college football landscape. If head coach Jim McElwain can bring the Gators back to national championship contention, its reputation will continue to blossom.

12. Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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    Baton Rouge, Louisiana, isn't a prototypical college town, which is why it doesn't take a higher spot on this list. The state capital of Louisiana is a mid-sized city of more than 229,000 in its own right.

    But LSU football is still a major cornerstone of Baton Rouge and its vibrant culture. LSU's campus can't compare aesthetically to many of the locales on this list, but the Bayou Bengals more than make up for it with their legendary tailgating. The mouth-watering Cajun food and drinks flow freely in Baton Rouge, which is known around the country for its game-day experience.

    Lara Grant of Oyster.com (h/t NCAA.com) wrote:

    Baton Rouge enjoys a European heritage and proudly boasts its Cajun and Creole culture. There are many sites and scenery that lure travelers, including the USS Kidd, a Navy destroyer, popular restaurants and the gorgeous Old State Capitol. Number one on the list for most travelers, however, is the Louisiana State University Tiger Stadium.

    These charged-up Tiger fans pack into "Death Valley" for its famous night games and create one of the most intimidating advantages in all of college sports. While Baton Rouge isn't the standard college town, its incredibly deep connection to LSU football earns it a spot on this list.

11. State College, Pennsylvania

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    State College, Pennsylvania, is as college town as it gets. The name of the town itself is pure college town, serving as a gigantic sign that reads "This is where Penn State is located."

    With a town population of a little more than 40,000 and a nearby university that boasts nearly 100,000 students, State College is synonymous with Penn State. And Penn State's biggest tradition is football, the sport that commands unbridled passion and jaw-dropping seas of RVs around Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays. 

    Pete Dombrosky of Thrillist wrote:

    State College might be the 12th largest town in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (pop. 42,000) during the week, but on football Saturdays, it surges to the fourth-largest city in the entire state — blowing right past Erie's 101K. Seriously, that's how massive the influx of fans and alumni is.

    State College has an impressive downtown art scene and several notable festivals year-round, but football completely takes over the area. No matter the win-loss record, Penn State fans pack out the second-largest stadium in college football to create a visually and audibly overwhelming scene, especially when it's a "White Out."

10. Auburn, Alabama

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    Without Auburn University, few would know about Auburn, Alabama, a town located in East Central Alabama near the Georgia state line. The city itself has a little more than 60,000 residents, and a lot of them have some sort of connection to the school.

    On Saturdays in the fall, Auburn swells in size well past the 87,451 that pack Jordan-Hare Stadium. Football completely takes over Auburn, from the rush for tailgating spots as early as Tuesday morning for huge games and through a Saturday night celebratory rolling of Toomer's Corner—the intersection of downtown Auburn and its campus, right next to famous Samford Hall.

    Across from Toomer's Corner sits its namesake, Toomer's Drugs, which anchors the bar and restaurant scene of downtown Auburn with its world-famous lemonade. Every square inch of campus is covered in some sort of tailgate area on home game Saturdays, and the action spills over into the surrounding area. 

    College football is tops in the state of Alabama, and it's a 24/7/365 obsession in Auburn. This college town is forever linked with the legends and famous moments that have played out in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the sport is a cornerstone of the entire area's identity.

9. Clemson, South Carolina

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    The ACC might not have the reputation for college football towns as much as the SEC or the Big Ten, but it has one of the best around in Clemson, South Carolina. The home of the Tigers is incredibly passionate about its football, and the rise to national championship contention under head coach Dabo Swinney has made things even better in this "Death Valley."

    Clemson the town and Clemson the University are inseparable. The town itself only has a little under 14,000 permanent residents, making it the smallest one on this list. But the nearby university turns this charming South Carolina town into a fantastic area of culture, outdoor areas and restaurants. Nearby Lake Hartwell is a popular spot, and the Blue Ridge Mountains aren't too far away.

    The town overflows for football, with the Tigers' ceremonial rubbing of Howard's Rock and the thrilling run down the hill inside Memorial Stadium serving as one of the best traditions in the game. Pregame tailgating covers the tree-covered campus in a sea of bright orange.

    Clemson is the quintessential Southern college football town, and it does game days the right way. What it lacks in size, it makes up in charm and love for the game. 

8. Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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    The home of the defending national champion and college football's best current dynasty lands here on the countdown. College football is like a religion in the state of Alabama, and Bear Bryant and Nick Saban are revered figures in the town of Tuscaloosa.

    Saban's arrival and championship-winning run reignited the fervor of a fan base that was one of the proudest around during Bryant's own stretch of dominance in the 1960s and '70s. Houndstooth hats are everywhere on game days in Tuscaloosa, and the museum in Bryant's name is a popular sight for any college football fan—well, except for fans of Alabama's many rivals.

    The city of Tuscaloosa is steeped in all kinds of history, but college football is what commands the most pride. On Saturdays, more than 100,000 fans cram into Bryant-Denny Stadium, and countless thousands cover the surrounding campus with tailgating and partying. Even if they don't have a ticket, they want to be a part of the Crimson Tide's electric atmosphere.

    It's quite a sight to see an entire area of the state shut down for Crimson Tide football, and Tuscaloosa is the epicenter of all the action. When it comes to passion and sheer numbers, few can compare to this title-winning college football town.

7. Knoxville, Tennessee

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    Knoxville, Tennessee, does "college football town" in a big way. The Tennessee Volunteers play in one of the sport's biggest venues, 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium, which has been known to produce some jaw-dropping visual scenery.

    All those fans and many more outside Neyland Stadium go all out for tailgating, but they don't just setup shop in parking lots. No, Knoxville has the Vol Navy, thanks to the University of Tennessee's location on the banks of the Tennessee River. Why tailgate on land if you can do it on the water?

    Knoxville puts the "great" in the great outdoors, starting with the Tennessee River location and extending into the area's many outdoor activities. The Great Smoky Mountains aren't too far away from "Rocky Top"—which, by the way, is a song you will hear countless times on a visit to Knoxville.

    The city is also home to a strong music and arts scene, as well as fantastic food. Combine all of that with the breathtaking views of a standard football Saturday in Knoxville, and it's a must-see trip for any college football fan.

6. Oxford, Mississippi

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    Oxford, Mississippi, loves its football, and it's home to perhaps the most famous tailgating venues in all of sports—The Grove. The 10-acre area of world-class tailgating is so noteworthy that when ESPN's College GameDay visited Ole Miss for the first time ahead of its 2014 upset of Alabama, it was marketed more as the show's first trip to The Grove than its first trip to Oxford.

    Starting with the famous Grove, the atmosphere in Oxford takes on a different kind of air than the standard college town. The historic buildings are beautiful, and plenty of culture surrounds Oxford, especially the rocking music. The museums, outdoor activities, restaurants, bars and theatre scene are all top-notch.

    Chris Abell of Travel + Leisure wrote:

    The town is home to authentic Southern cooking—try Taylor Grocery, a catfish restaurant just south of town that does not serve alcohol but apparently won’t get too upset if you BYOB—and a rich literary history. Oxford served as home to William Faulkner (visit his former residence, the magnificent Rowan Oak), and Ole Miss law school grad John Grisham maintains a residence there.

    Football Saturdays bring out a special kind of feel in Oxford, where celebrities from all walks of life and college football fans around the country come just to get in on the experience. 

5. Lincoln, Nebraska

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    Lincoln, Nebraska, and Nebraska Cornhuskers football are inseparable. The college town has an incredible passion for its Huskers, as evidenced by its ongoing NCAA-record sellout streak of 347 games, according to Eric Olson of the Associated Press.

    Nebraska head coach Mike Riley shared his feelings about the community with Olson:

    The people in Nebraska have supported us so loyally through the years that this is almost the least we can do. I love talking to people who care, and people in Nebraska care more than anybody... it's really fun because you have a group that is very interested in what you're talking about because they love their team, their school, their state.

    Like other top college towns on this countdown, the downtown bar scene in Lincoln is quite close to the massive Memorial Stadium, and tailgates stretch as far as the eye can see on football Saturdays. The sea of red shows up early and stays strong throughout the weekend, taking over the town with its love for college football.

    Although Nebraska hasn't been a championship-contending powerhouse in college football for quite some time, Husker fans still pack their lovely city and bring the passion. There are plenty of great things to do year-round in Lincoln, but football Saturdays are the best.

4. Athens, Georgia

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    Athens, Georgia, has an extremely tight relationship with the University of Georgia. Its famous downtown area nestles right next to the Bulldogs' campus. On football Saturdays, those two areas converge in a huge way, creating a massive tailgating atmosphere drenched in red and black.

    Downtown Athens features dozens and dozens of bars, charging up the atmosphere both before and after games at Georgia's nearby Sanford Stadium. "Between the hedges," Georgia fans will turn up in capacity droves. In fact, the Bulldogs even sold out their spring game for first-year head coach Kirby Smart and enjoyed a pregame concert by Ludacris, a rapper from nearby Atlanta.

    Music is central to Athens and the University of Georgia area, as the college town has been a launching pad for many bands over the years at famed venues such as the 40-Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre. R.E.M., the B-52s, Drive-By Truckers, Danger Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel and Widespread Panic can all claim strong roots in Athens' music scene.

    Football passion, incredible music, seemingly unlimited food and drink and eye-pleasing campus scenery are just some of what one will find in Athens on football Saturdays. The SEC is home to plenty of top-notch college towns, and Athens is usually near the top of everyone's lists.

3. Ann Arbor, Michigan

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    Ann Arbor, Michigan—home to the University of Michigan—is already an awesome college town without football in the equation. The university and the city are joined at the hip. There are plenty of cultural hot spots around the area, and Ann Arbor is home to fantastic arboretums and nature opportunities, creating a picturesque setting.

    But then you get to the cornerstone of this college town. Michigan Stadium isn't just the largest college football stadium in the entire country, it's the largest stadium by capacity in the entire country. Only one other stadium in the world is bigger than the "Big House."

    With all that room for rabid Wolverine fans on Saturdays, Ann Arbor turns into a gigantic tailgate and cultural experience when head coach Jim Harbaugh's team is home for the weekend. Harbaugh's arrival and impressive first season with the Wolverines have done nothing but crank up the passion for football Saturdays even more.

    From the famous Zingerman's Delicatessen to the jaw-dropping sights of well over 100,000 fans wearing the maize and blue, Ann Arbor is an iconic college football town that has everything a visitor would want. 

2. College Station, Texas

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    There's nothing quite like College Station, Texas—a placed soaked in tradition and located in the football-craziest state in America. Texas A&M dominates this east-central Texas town, which has a shade under 100,000 in its population. The university itself is home to nearly 65,000 students

    College Station is home to the 12th Man, which is one of the most iconic home-field advantages in all of sports. Texas A&M's massive student body and alumni base come together to pack the newly renovated Kyle Field and make life incredibly difficult for opponents. The "Midnight Yell" is a uniquely Aggie tradition in which students practice for how much screaming they're going to do on Saturday.

    Tailgating is a massive part of the College Station experience on Saturdays, as fans line up and race to secure spots on campus well in advance. The food is fantastic, the school pride is overflowing and the football is exactly what one would expect from a major school in the Lone Star State.

    With a vibrant music scene in the Northgate section of town and rich history everywhere you look—the George Bush Presidential Library is a top spot—College Station is the proud home of the Aggies and one of the best college town experiences in the country.

1. Madison, Wisconsin

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    It's not unanimous, but it's close. Wherever one finds countdowns of the best college football towns in America, Wisconsin's home of Madison is usually at the top. It's been ranked No. 1 by NCAA.comSports Illustrated and USA Today—with the latter publication giving it the top spot on two separate occasions.

    Madison is picture-perfectly located near several beautiful lakes, and it's filled to the brim with all the bars and food options a college football fan can handle. State Street, which separates Wisconsin's campus from the capitol building in Madison, is a happening spot year-round, but that's especially the case on game days.

    Wisconsin's famous party atmosphere on football Saturdays goes into Camp Randall Stadium, which literally shakes with the "Jump Around" tradition heading into fourth quarters and the post-game "Fifth Quarter" celebration with the marching band. 

    There's no shortage of activities and excitement in Madison, from the great outdoors to the still-great indoors. The town is a melting pot of all walks of life, and everyone comes together to create one of the sport's most famous atmospheres when the Badgers are playing in Camp Randall. It's hard to argue with Madison's dominance of college football town rankings.

    Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.