Saturdays filled with dawn-to-dawn tailgating, with a healthy side of bilious regional tribalism, are almost among us.
I didn't grow up with college football. Mattoon, Ill., is about 45 miles south of the University of Illinois, a school obsessed with college basketball that occasionally remembers there's a football team on campus too. (This is the only way to withstand seven years of Ron Zook.) Football was something to keep you occupied until the basketball team started playing. Needless to say, this is a rarity in the world of college athletics. Football rules everything now.
Because the college football atmosphere was such a non-entity for me growing up, my football fandom was developed from afar, on television, flipping from one game to another on Saturday afternoons. This isn't the right way to do it. In baseball, every stadium feels different whether you're watching in person or on TV; the field of play is as varied as the architecture. It's not like this in football. On television, it's often difficult to tell one football stadium from another; you can hear crowd noise and guess at intensity, but it's nothing like being there. I watch dozens of college football games every year, but I don't really know what college football is like. I haven't really been there.
Here are the college football stadiums I have been to in my life:
• Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill. (Illinois)
• Husky Stadium, Seattle, Wash. (Washington)
• HighPoint Solutions Stadium, New Brunswick, N.J. (Rutgers)
• Yale Bowl, New Haven, Conn. (Yale)
• Princeton University Stadium, Princeton, N.J. (Princeton)
So, to repeat: I don't really know what college football is like.
This is obviously going to change this year: I moved to Athens, Ga., about a month-and-a-half ago, and basically everyone in this town has been in suspended animation since Georgia's last game. (They started slowly vibrating in anticipation a few weeks ago, like some sort of religious revival. Which I guess it is.) Georgia football is a passion here that I can't possibly understand. There are photos of the players at the dry cleaners; there's a Georgia football poster on the front door of an adult bookstore. The other day some little kid started barking at me in the grocery checkout line. They're into it.
Sanford Stadium, home of the Bulldogs, is at the very center of campus, both geographically and metaphorically. (The whole town appears to have been built in response to it; you gauge wherever you are in town by just how far you are from Sanford.) The football team rules this town. I always knew that college football ruled the south, across the board, but now I'm seeing it, on a daily basis. It isn't just a part of the fabric -- it is the fabric.
But I haven't experienced it yet. I run by an empty Sanford Stadium every day, wondering what it's going to be like with 92,000 people in it. (Louder, I suspect.) My first SEC football game will be Sept. 7, when the Bulldogs host the South Carolina Gamecocks in a massively important SEC game. It'll be my first taste. I suspect it will leave me wanting more. I have a sense that watching the games on television isn't going to cut it anymore.
A couple of weeks ago, I ranked the best baseball stadiums I'd been to, an article that couldn't help but be incomplete (I've only been to 21 of the current stadiums). I'm gonna get to all 30 eventually, because baseball teams play 162 games a year: I have a ton of opportunities. College football, though, requires more selectivity. I was hardly the first person to do a ranking of baseball stadiums, but it's more difficult to find rankings of college football stadiums. There are too many, and too few games. The best I could find was Stadium Journey's list from last February, and you'll forgive me for not being blown away by the depth and breadth of their analysis:
Fresno is located in the heart of the central valley in California's agriculture region about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. So entrenched with the San Joaquin Valley is Fresno that the Bulldogs wear a color clashing green "V" on the back of their red helmets. Because of their location away from major metropolitan areas, the Fresno State teams are top dogs in the California valley.
Great stadium review! That tells me absolutely nothing except that Fresno is in California. (Which I think I knew.) Also I'm not sure I trust a list that has Indiana ahead of Texas, Oregon, LSU and Ohio State.
So here's what I'm asking: I'd like anyone who has been to more than 10 college football stadiums to rank them, and send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (You can also put them in the comments, but I won't be able to count those.) I'll also be soliciting rankings from my favorite college football writers. By the end of the season, I want to come up with a far more definitive ranking of college football stadiums and I'll include your suggestions in an upcoming column.
Perhaps more than any other American sport, the experience of being there is what matters. I want to know what the Bucket List college football stadiums are. Because I won't live in the college football darkness anymore. This is my life now. Let's see 'em all: email@example.com. Rank 'em. Send 'em over. Feel free to bark while typing.
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