There is no argument that Saturday’s matchup between Tennessee and Virginia Tech is a crucial game for both teams. But the big story is that they will be playing in front of 160,000 fans — the largest crowd to ever see college football game by about 50,000 — at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn.
In a sport whose traditions seem as deeply rooted as the rules of the Catholic Church, it is exciting and somewhat refreshing to see a P.T. Barnum-esque event in college football. Major spectacles in college football are few and far between, but they do happen. Here is a list of the top five that includes Saturday’s event.
5. Games inside baseball stadiums 2000 to present
College football games were frequently played in baseball stadiums until the late 1960s. Army and Notre Dame actually met 22 times in old Yankee Stadium between 1925-69. Then in the ‘70s, cities began building stadiums for both their football and baseball teams and this tradition fell by the wayside. Then about 15 years ago, college football began to return to the ballpark. The first to bring it back was Chase Field, which hosted the Insight Enterprise Bowl (now the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl) after it moved from Tucson to Phoenix in 2000. Since then, eight MLB ball parks have hosted college football games, with the biggest being the annual Pinstripe Bowl hosted by new Yankee Stadium. Fenway Park also got into the act last year, as Notre Dame and Boston College played each other with the Green Monster in the background.
4. Grambling State defeats Morgan State in the Land of the Rising Sun
Grambling State 42, Morgan State (Sept. 24, 1976 — Tokyo, Japan)
The growing popularity of football and a tour of Japan by the Grambling State University Marching Band led to the first college football game played outside the Western Hemisphere. To coincide with the band’s tour, a game between Grambling and Morgan State was held at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium to a packed crowd of 50,000 fans. Morgan State head coach Hank Lattimore said the Japanese attendees’ enthusiasm made him believe “they could become wonderful fans if given the same exposure to football that they have to baseball.” His prediction proved true. For the next 16 years, a regular season college football game and an all-star game were played in Tokyo.
3. Battle at Bristol set to break all-time attendance record
(Sept. 10, 2016 — Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn.)
It doesn’t get much grander than 160,000 fans watching a game staged inside a half-mile racetrack at the Bristol Motor Speedway, the only NASCAR venue with the capacity to pull this off. Unless Neyland Stadium or The Big House figure out how to add 50,000 extra seats, this game between Virginia Tech and Tennessee will never be eclipsed, at least in terms of attendace.
2. Pro football makes a statement
New York Giants 22, Notre Dame All-Stars (Dec. 14, 1930 — New York)
Professional football was a fledgling industry in the 1920s and the general consensus throughout the country was that the college game was better. To settle the matter, a charity game to benefit New York’s Great Depression victims was held at the Polo Grounds between the New York Giants, the second-best team in the NFL, and a team of Notre Dame stars coached by Knute Rockne. In assembling the team, Rockne used his best players of the past decade, including the Four Horsemen, to no avail. The Giants jumped out to a 15-0 lead and played its reserves in the second half en route to a 22-0 win. After the game Rockne, told his players, “That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I am glad none of you got hurt.” Sadly, Rockne died in a plane crash three months later and this was the last game he ever coached. In 1934, the Chicago College All-Star Game was established and pitted the NFL champion against college football’s all-stars. The college all-stars actually won this exhibition game nine times before it was dissolved in 1976, but pro football had already established its superiority thanks to a Giant effort nearly 50 years prior.
1. The first-ever game on the gridiron
Rutgers 6, Princeton 4 (Nov. 6, 1869 — New Brunswick, N.J.)
The first American football game was meant as an outlet for the intense rivalry between Rutgers and Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) with shenanigans that included the constant theft of a Revolutionary War cannon. The game obviously did not resemble what it is today and only 100 people watched. However, the fact that these two schools played it and then got more schools to do so in the years that followed puts this event at the top of the list. Arnold Friberg’s painting commemorating it may be the only college football work of art that could be displayed outside of a “man cave.”
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)