Be it a savory brat haze floating over State Street, towering Georgia pines surrounding the 40 Watt Club or 1.5 million bats emerging nightly from slumber, the uniqueness of college football is captured by the individuality of the college towns it calls home.
They are literally and figuratively the foundation of the sport.
Madison, Austin and Athens are just three of the dozens of exceptional locales in college football. All of them offer an original experience for college football goers every fall Saturday.
In an effort to determine the top destination, however, Athlon Sports asked 10 experts who have traveled the nation for decades visiting these football sanctuaries to rank their favorite places in the country. Of the 128 possible choices, 29 different towns got at least one vote, five different places got first place votes and only one, Madison, Wi., appeared on all 10 ballots.
The Voting Panel
Rick Neuheisel, CBS Sports/SiriusXM
Andy Staples, SI
Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports
Pat Forde, Yahoo!
Ralph Russo, AP
Dan Rubenstein, The Solid Verbal
Stewart Mandel, Fox Sports
Matt Hayes, College Football Writer
Travis Haney, ESPN
Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
1. Athens, Ga.
Rich in musical history, Athens’ natural charm has long lured college football fans to Northeast Georgia. Bordering the evergreen campus to the North, the Downtown District is home to some of the South’s best music venues, bars and restaurants. There is a plethora of parks, trails and greenways for those who like the fresh air, but come nightfall, be sure to find your way to The 40 Watt Club or Georgia Theatre for a show. Top it all off with Five Points, a mix of mansions and fine dining.
“It has it all. A great downtown area with a lot of great restaurants and bars, a pretty campus and my favorite football stadium.” - Pat Forde, Yahoo!
2. Madison, Wis.
The second-biggest city and state capital of Wisconsin is home to one of the greatest pedestrian thoroughfares in the nation. State Street connects campus with the downtown Capitol Square that towers over the entire city. Nestled between two gorgeous lakes — Monona and Mendota — Madison is equal parts wonderfully diverse cultural center and booze-fueled shindig featuring the World’s Largest Brat Festival and the State Street Halloween Party. An early morning brat haze welcomes fans from across the Big Ten every fall Saturday.
“On game days, the city connects to UW in a manner that’s more seamless than any town on this list. You’re not sure where gameday ends and Madison begins.” - Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
3. Austin, Texas
An inherently weird and progressive oasis in the heart of Texas, Austin offers big-city activities with a collegiate appeal. The downtown urban campus is surrounded by must-see attractions such as the famous Sixth Street food and music drag, Congress Avenue Bat Bridge and Colorado River. For BBQ, blues and football buffs, the Live Music Capital of the World is a perfect destination — just be sure to dodge the traffic jams and construction cranes.
“So much great everything.” – Andy Staples, Sports Illustrated
4. Boulder, Colo.
Located in the foothills of the great Rocky Mountains, Boulder is one of the most gorgeous college settings in the country. No major college football town is more intertwined with nature and the outdoors than home of the Buffaloes. Which may be why Boulder — with its clean mountain air and mild temperatures — is routinely ranked highly in health, quality of life and general happiness. Take the Chautauqua Trailhead to the top of Green Mountain for a view of Folsom Field; it’s a vista few campuses in college football can match.
“Welcome, everyone, to nature. Hippy style. The most walkable campus in all of college sports, from the spectacular views of the Flatirons to the Pearl Street area with its food and shops and vendors, Boulder is a jewel.” – Matt Hayes, College Football Writer
5. Ann Arbor, Mich.
Nicknamed “Tree Town” for its dense forestation, Ann Arbor is a beautiful combination of small college town and growing urban landscape. It’s a place steeped in political activism, outdoor activities and Big Blue football. The crisp autumn experience is unlike any found in the rival southern college football locales — and there’s a lot more to do here. A lunch stop at Zingerman’s is a must (many believe it to be the best deli in the nation) before sliding down to one of the city’s many breweries for a nightcap.
“This is a classic Big Ten town with college charm but also doesn’t turn into a ghost town 24 hours after a home game.” – Bruce Feldman, FOX Sports
6. Oxford, Miss.
Quintessential is the word that comes to mind when thinking about the college town that houses Ole Miss. The Grove on a Saturday morning is a portrait of college football perfection, complete with the most glamorous and impressive tailgate in the nation. Oxford, known as art center of the South, has a rich literary history. Where else does a bookstore (Square Books) top the list of a city’s main attractions? After the game, mosey over to The Square for food, libations and more people watching.
“The square makes you feel like you’re in a [John] Grisham novel. It’s a really cool spot.” – Rick Neuheisel, SiriusXM/CBS Sports
“Everything you want in a college town. Small, traditional, deep-South charm. It’s the hospitality on The Square every day of the week, and the unforgettable fall Saturdays in The Grove. Drive by Faulkner’s Rowan Oak home, and soak in the stately south. Hotty Toddy, baby.” - Matt Hayes, College Football Writer
College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25
7. Eugene, Ore.
Residents can go north to a big city (Portland), west to a gorgeous coastline, east to snowboard (Mt. Bachelor) and south to The Golden State. All within 200 miles. Eugene marks the south end of the Willamette Valley, home to more than 40 breweries and where consuming said beverages is a pastime. In fact, it’s so important that “Animal House” was filmed here, and it houses the inspiration for Moe’s Tavern from “The Simpsons.” Bring a raincoat, but in case you forget yours, swing by Nike’s headquarters and pick one up. Eugene is as pristine a college football environment as there is in the country.
“Eugene is just cool; you could get from a hardcore football tailgate to a hemp shop within five minutes.” – Stewart Mandel, FOX Sports
8. Palo Alto, Calif.
This is anything but a typical college town, but it’s an awfully cool place to hang out. Cost of living is high, but so is the standard of living — in the community, in the classroom and in the workplace. Nearly the entire student body population lives on campus, and the bars, shops and restaurants are as good (and relaxed) as any other college town in the nation. What makes this place unique, however, is that it’s in the heart of Silicon Valley — and, yes, that includes Erlich Bachman. It’s a city boiling over with future leaders of industry who push the boundaries of how a town should live, work and play. Essentially, this town’s “whole corporate culture is that there is no corporate culture.” There is no dead weight in this incubator.
“Definitely NOT your average college town. The vibe is more laid-back when it comes to football, which is refreshing. The masses don’t lose their minds when the Cardinal lose.” – Ralph Russo, Associated Press
“Everything is beautiful up there. Many great restaurants. The only thing keeping it out of the top five is the bar scene is probably too tame for most looking for a college town.” – Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports
9. Chapel Hill, N.C.
Sure, the rolling North Carolina hills are gorgeous and the campus is exemplary, but the food! This town prides itself on its farmers, chefs and Southern flavor. Be it James Beard Award-winning fine dining, or street food festivals, or Sugarland’s desserts, or The TOPO (Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery) for a nightcap after a big Tar Heel win, this town has a taste for everyone. Just stroll up and down Franklin Street for all of the above, music, movies and much more. It’s beautiful, it’s cultural and it’s uniquely American.
“Bustling Franklin Street with the adjacent campus make for an idyllic setting, both for students and visitors.” – Travis Haney, ESPN
10. Charlottesville, Va.
It’s hard not to be overcome with a sense of American history when walking through this picturesque college town. Reminders of Thomas Jefferson and both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars are everywhere, including the iconic Rotunda, Lawn and Monticello plantation. Edgar Allen Poe, James Madison, William Faulkner and James Monroe are just a few other historical luminaries to have called Charlottesville home. The classic brick and plaster is ubiquitous, including on the campus, the Downtown Mall and The Corner. Shenandoah National Park and its Skyline Drive offer plenty of outdoor scenery for those who favor nature over one of the city’s excellent vineyards or breweries (we recommend South Street).
“It’s definitely a nicer, old-money area, but holy wow is it gorgeous, green and idyllic. Feels like a stock photo in the best possible way.” – Dan Rubenstein, The Solid Verbal
ORV: Auburn, Ala., Tempe, Ariz., Colombia, Mo., Columbus, Ohio, Morgantown, W.V.
College Football: Others Receiving Votes