Like any good Southerners, we at C&L love college football, but we know we’re not your first choice for sports news. However, as part of this issue’s Southern road trip, we’re going to suggest the best places to tailgate each weekend this season. To keep it objective, we combined last year’s “top 25 tailgating” lists from Bleacher Report, Scout.com, Saturday Blitz, and Tailgater Magazine to come up with composite rankings (see below) of the best places to enjoy the festivities. Then we started at the top and came up with the game we’d most like to see at that venue this year, making several tweaks to create the best overall schedule possible. Remember, it’s not just about the game on the field; it’s about the partying you’ll be enjoying before—and probably long, long after.
Week 1: Maryland at Texas
The game: OK, admittedly this isn’t the most compelling game ever, but that’s modern scheduling for you. The essential point is that you have to see a game at Texas, and the ‘Horns home schedule is light this year, so you might as well see coach Tom Herman’s debut as he tries to get this proud program turned around. Cracking the Terps in half in front of a raucous crowd will be a good start.
Not the game: The state of Texas eats and breathes football, and Austin on a home Saturday is the epicenter. The city is known for its music and local brews, and you’ll find plenty of both around the Forty Acres, not to mention tons of brisket and ribs that have been smoking all night.
Week 2: Oklahoma at Ohio State
The game: A rematch of last year’s beatdown that propelled the Buckeyes into the playoffs should feature another top-10 matchup in 2017. The Sooners won nine straight since that embarrassing 45-24 home loss and look to return the favor, with the winner of this game likely having an inside track to landing a playoff spot.
Not the game: There will be 109,000 fans in the stadium for the game but 300,000 around the stadium partying before and after. Visiting fans are greeted warmly as long as they aren’t wearing blue. Hang out around Lane Avenue so you can visit the Varsity Club and the giant concert that takes place behind it. Then pop into St. John Arena for the Skull Session, where the Best Damn Band in the Land hosts a giant pep rally two hours before kickoff. When attending an OSU game, just be prepared to hear the word “Ohio” spelled 25,000 times.
Week 3: Texas at Southern Cal
The game: It will be interesting to see how much ground Texas needs to make up before it’s a national power again, and this test against Southern Cal, a team that enters the season with playoff aspirations thanks to Heisman candidate Sam Darnold,should be a good barometer.
Not the game: A clash between two blue bloods in perfect weather—not a hard sell. Much of the pregame action will have a California feel—many people leaving their grills at home and opting to eat at food trucks, for example—but it’s a fun, family-friendly atmosphere that is well worth checking out.
Week 4: Notre Dame at Michigan State
The game: This has turned into an interesting rivalry in recent years and figures to be one of the more intriguing matchups of the week. Both teams entered 2016 with high expectations, only to have disastrous seasons. The winner of this game has a chance to bounce back to respectability, while the loser may be looking for a new coach.
Not the game: Sparty offers one of the more underappreciated gameday atmospheres (and if you want to check it out, it’s better to do so before the weather turns). There’s no open-container law around the stadium, so the later the game, the bigger the party. Like many Big 10 schools, Michigan State University has a killer marching band, and you’ll see it performing at various places amid the festivities.
Week 5: Georgia at Tennessee
The game: Tennessee recruits well, so they go into each season with high expectations. Going 9-4 is great for most schools, but the Vols haven’t won 10 games since 2007, and Butch Jones’ seat is starting to heat. Georgia looks to be for real this year, and this will be a huge road test. The loser of this game is likely eliminated from contention in the SEC East.
Not the game: Neyland Stadium is one of college football’s sacred venues, with the checkerboard end zones and “Rocky Top” playing every five seconds. Vol fans are as passionate and loyal as they come. What makes the atmosphere even more unique is its setting on the Tennessee River, where the Vol Navy floats around in pregame merriment. You’ll have 102,000 people inside for the game, and about as many outside continuing the festivities.
Week 6: California at Washington
The game: Even the best sports prognosticators tend to back away from the Pac 12 because it is so unpredictable every year. Who had Washington in the playoffs last year? Exactly. Was that a fluke, or does Chris Petersen have them primed for the long haul? Cal is one of those “uneven sidewalk teams,” in that, when people aren’t paying attention, they tend to trip over them.
Not the game: Until a surprising resurgence last year, Washington football had been largely overlooked—on the field—since 2000, but tailgating aficionados have continued to love it, as it shows up No. 5 on our composite list. In this case, however, “sailgating” is the better term, as a large number on UW fans forgo the RV lots and party on their boats anchored steps away from the stadium on Union Bay. Expect great seafood and beer from some of the best local breweries in the country.
Week 7: Auburn at LSU
The game: While a certain team from Tuscaloosa remains the odds-on favorite to win the SEC West, Auburn and LSU are the two most likely teams to unseat it, with the winner of this game—the battle of the Tigers—earning the inside track. Auburn has the pieces in place to be good, but it may be on the shoulders of a transfer quarterback to make them elite. LSU has as much blue chip talent as any team in the country, but now it’s up to Ed Orgeron to see if he can finally make it all mesh.
Not the game: Without question, Death Valley is one of the top places to tailgate, and it’d be hard to argue against the LSU faithful having the best spreads—Cajun specialties like jambalaya, gumbo, and crawdads, as well as barbecue and other Southern staples. LSU fans are wonderfully colorful, unique, and passionate, and they make for great hosts. If you tell them you’re an outsider who always wanted to see Tiger Stadium on gameday, they’ll bring you in and treat you like family.
Week 8: LSU at Ole Miss
The game: Ole Miss certainly enjoyed the good parts of Hugh Freeze’s tenure but now must deal with the fallout. Quarterback Shea Patterson gives them a fighting chance each week, but there may not be enough talent surrounding him for the Rebels to be a legit contender. LSU is going to take some time to gel, and this may be the point in the season where they really start to get it rolling.
Not the game: Ole Miss ranks No. 1 on our composite tailgating list—and for good reason. Beginning Friday night, students and fans will start claiming spots on The Grove, and soon the entire 10 acres will be filled with red cups and red tents. With amazing food, this is Southern hospitality at its finest. And lest we forget, Ole Miss is widely acknowledged as having the most beautiful coeds in the country.
Week 9: Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville
The game: Florida has won the last two SEC East titles but has seemingly done so with smoke and mirrors. Georgia returns a nasty defense and plenty of playmakers on O. Is this the year the Dawgs utilize a dominant run game to take the division? This game will likely answer that question.
Not the game: There’s something about tailgating on a college campus that those early-season, neutral-site games can’t replicate. This is the exception. We’re not allowed to call it “the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party” anymore, but the reason why it was previously called that still very much exists. Cheers!
Week 10: LSU at Alabama
The game: LSU will have to survive three solid tests (Mississippi State, Florida, and Auburn) to still have a shot at the division going into this game. Whether the Bayou Bengals can muster enough offense will be the question, and against ‘Bama, it’ll be a tall, tall task. To no one’s surprise, the Crimson Tide enters the season as No. 1 in most polls. The defense is always elite, and now they have a proven weapon at QB.
Not the game: Success breeds enthusiasm, and as Nick Saban has been heading one of the greatest juggernauts in college history for the last 10 years, you can’t blame Tide fans for riding the wheels off that wagon. The Quad is the focal point for the pregame experience, but the entire town will be engulfed with people—to the point where you have to stake out a spot on Friday. Grab some Dreamland BBQ, walk around town, and enjoy a brew from one of the local watering holes before heading to Bryant-Denny for the Walk of Champions (get there about three hours in advance of kickoff for a good spot). Once the team goes past, head to the Gorgas Library for the Elephant Stomp.
Week 11: Florida State at Clemson
The game: The winner of this game has gone on to win the last eight Atlantic Division titles, the last six ACC titles, and two of the last four national championships. This year, FSU enters the preseason ranked fourth while the defending national champion Tigers are 7th. So, yeah, it’s a big deal.
Not the game: Clemson is the topped-ranked venue in the ACC in our rankings, and there are numerous reasons why. It is one of the few places in the country where you can leave the stadium during the game and still return, meaning halftime is one giant beer run and the tailgating pretty much goes from dawn to whenever. Like any good Southern destination, you’ll find great barbecue, with people cooking whole hogs right in the parking lots. The Tigers have a lot of cool traditions around gameday to learn about/experience, such as Howard’s Rock and the downhill run entrance for players. Clemson is a true college town, with Memorial Stadium on campus and the downtown area just a short walk away. Check out College Avenue for an assortment of joints where you can grab food and a beer.
Week 12: Michigan at Wisconsin
The game: This is what Big 10 football is all about. Two traditional titans, cold weather, and extra chin straps as each team will try to run the other into the ground. The Badgers have a system (huge linemen, powerful runners, and a solid D) that is easy to figure out but hard to defeat. After last year, Michigan is talking like a title contender, but will they be able to reload and back it up in 2017? This game figures to help shape the Big 10 championship game.
Not the game: Wisconsin is the top-rated Big 10 school on our list and joins Washington as the only schools in our top 8 located out of the South. It’s not tailgating, but if you want to see what type of environment is present, turn on a Wisconsin game at the end of the third quarter when they do “Jump Around”—and a stadium made of concrete and steel literally shakes. At other tailgates, fare consisting of beer and brats might sound like a cop-out, but since the people of Wisconsin pretty much invented/perfected it, it’s allowed. Camp Randall Stadium is in downtown Madison, so you lose some of the campus feel, but the Badger Bash and Capitol Square more than make up for it. Bundle up!
Week 13: Alabama at Auburn
The game: The final week of the regular season. Which game will have more on the line, The Game (Ohio State/Michigan) or the Iron Bowl? We’re going to suggest heading to Auburn, as at the very least the weather will be nicer. ‘Bama figures to be in the national title hunt, and as always, Auburn is going to fight them tooth and nail until the bloody end. The Tigers look good on paper (as they have in the past). Regardless of how their season plays out, they will give the Crimson Tide all it can handle in this classic rivalry game.
Not the game: Partying at the Loveliest Village on the Plains begins Friday anyway, and when ‘Bama comes to town you might as well forget being productive for the entire week. This is a Southern city steeped in tradition, and you’ll want to soak up as much as possible, from Toomer’s Corner to a fresh lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs (there are many more things to do that don’t include the word “Toomer’s”). Tailgating right next to Jordan-Hare Stadium is run by a private company and is not cheap, so an out-of-towner probably won’t set up shop there. However, if you’re just visiting, it is the perfect place to go “be friendly” and likely get invited into a gathering. Just scream “War Eagle,” and you should be good. If you want a tailgate of your own, there are many more spots spread throughout the town where you can plant your cooler. Auburn crowds don’t tend to be as raucous as others, but they are still a ton of fun.
Best Places to Tailgate
- Ole Miss – 95
- LSU – 92
- Wisconsin – 82
- Alabama – 71
- Washington – 68
- Tennessee – 67
- Clemson – 64
- Auburn – 59
- Ohio State – 59
- Oregon – 56
- Texas – 56
- Nebraska – 49
- Michigan – 45
- Penn State – 44
- Texas A&M – 36
- Southern California – 35
- Georgia – 34
- Oklahoma – 32
- Notre Dame – 31
- South Carolina – 25
- North Dakota St ate – 25
- Michigan State – 19
- Florida – 18
- Baylor – 17
- Colorado – 15