From the Miami Hurricanes entering through smoke to Traveler, the live horse mascot of the USC Trojans, galloping the sidelines in Los Angeles, college football provides its fans with an experience that is completely its own. Each campus, stadium and fan base has something different to offer to the average fan and each school thinks its traditions are second to none. Who better to highlight the unique culture surrounding college football than a group of writers who are dedicated to the sport and have seen nearly every song, entrance and atmosphere around the country?
Ahead of the 2021 season, a group of our writers came together to discuss their favorite scenes around the sport that will dominate fall Saturdays for the next four months. Whether it’s the best tailgate to drop by or the nicest — and least dangerous — live mascot to visit in person, our writers have you covered on must-see college football bucket list.
For more rankings, from ESPN’s preseason Top 25 to top-five lists on best traditions, college towns returning players and more, check out our offseason special, College Football: The Power Rankings on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App.)
Andrea Adelson: Miami-Florida State. I am biased here, because I grew up in South Florida in the 1980s during the most iconic, hard-fought, all-or-nothing games in the heyday of this rivalry – when national championships were determined based solely on the result of this game. I think about all the iconic moments, beyond Wide Rights I, II and II, all the incredible talent and athleticism on the field, the Miami mascot nearly getting arrested in Tallahassee, and it all reminds me once again why I love college football so much.
David Wilson: My dad took me to the Texas A&M–Texas game every year despite having no allegiance to either team. Now that it’s returning after more than a decade apart (who knows when it’ll actually happen again), we can fondly bid farewell to its worst era, when it only played out on message boards and Twitter fights.
Alex Scarborough: I was inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for the “Kick Six” when Auburn turned a last-second field goal attempt by Alabama into perhaps the wildest finish to a football game ever. So you know my answer here: the Iron Bowl is the best rivalry the sport has to offer. And what makes it great isn’t just the spectacular games, of which there have been many, it’s how the rivalry is part of life in the state the other 364 days out of the year. The competition among teams and fans is relentless.
Chris Low: Growing up in the state of South Carolina in the dark ages back when radio was the way we followed college football, the Clemson–South Carolina rivalry was played year-round. Clemson fans reveled in reminding South Carolina fans that Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers never scored a touchdown against the Tigers. South Carolina fans rubbed it in the faces of Clemson fans when Steve Taneyhill defaced the Tiger paw at midfield of Death Valley by pretending to sign it after a key touchdown in 1992. I still say “The Catch” by Jerry Butler in 1977 to give Clemson the win in Columbia is one of the greatest catches I’ve ever seen, and I’ll always remember the first Clemson-South Carolina game I attended in person — a 22-21 South Carolina win in 1984 and the Gamecocks’ first triumph on Clemson’s home turf since 1970.
Adam Rittenberg: I love the USC-Notre Dame rivalry, in part because it lacks the typical connections of others around college football. Other than being private schools packed with college football tradition, namely Heisman Trophy winners and national championship teams, the schools have little in common. I was always amazed when recruits would choose between Notre Dame and USC, given the differences. I love how matchups are either midseason in South Bend, or around Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. The 2005 game at Notre Dame will always be one of the best games I’ve covered. You’ll have a hard time finding two better helmets in the sport, either.
Favorite college town
Wilson: I spent nearly 10 years behind a desk in Bristol, CT, so I haven’t been to nearly as many of these college towns as I want to. But I went to a game at Nebraska in 1998 as a fan and a couple of little old ladies tapped me on the shoulder and asked me, “Excuse me… don’t you have any better quarterbacks?” After the game, they said that the band was at least good, and thanks for bringing them. Honestly the most viciously sweet fans I’ve ever dealt with.
Low: No matter how many times I go there, I still get a warm nostalgic feeling every time I visit South Bend. Strolling across campus and seeing the sun gleaming off the Golden Dome and looking up and seeing Touchdown Jesus’ outstretched arms in the shadow of Notre Dame Stadium make the trip worthwhile even before the band cranks up its legendary fight song. This will be the 30th anniversary of my first trip to South Bend, and I can still hear all of the Notre Dame alums sitting around at the old Morris Inn and recounting epic stories from years gone by.
Rittenberg: I will never turn down a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, especially during a game weekend. The town really offers something for everyone. I love walking down State Street, checking out the terrace at Memorial Union, walking the hilly, lakefront campus or exploring the East Side. There’s plenty to do just outside the city, too (highly recommend Quivey’s Grove in Fitchburg). Wisconsin‘s Camp Randall Stadium is tucked into a neighborhood, and Regent Street and Breese Terrace are electric before and after Badgers games. I’ve covered plenty of memorable games at Camp Randall — 2010 Ohio State remains one of my favorites — but Mad-town/Mad-city never disappoints.
Adelson: The football tradition at Virginia might not be what it is in South Bend, Madison or Nebraska, but Charlottesville, Va., is one of the best college towns in America. From the immaculate — and historic Grounds — to the picturesque surroundings to the great food, Charlottesville itself is a wonderful place to visit. But watching a game in Scott Stadium is a cool, and totally different experience than in Camp Randall or the Big House. You won’t find 100,000 fans piled into the stadium, but rather a more intimate setting in a throwback atmosphere, where you can bring a blanket and sit on the lawn behind one of the end zones for an incredible (and unique) view.
Favorite live mascot
Rittenberg: I met Uga at the Georgia-Auburn game in 2013, and got relatively close to Bevo at Texas a few years ago. Both good choices, but I have to go with Ralphie the Buffalo. I love the tradition behind Ralphie and can’t wait to see her run around Folsom Field before a game in Boulder. Just a massive and majestic animal.
Tom VanHaaren: Uga gets all the credit, but I think people are missing out on Handsome Dan. He is the Olde English Bulldogge mascot at Yale … and his name is Handsome Dan. How can you pick against that? Given the school he represents and his name, he can brag about being the smarter, better looking version of Uga.
Low: OK, maybe he isn’t Auburn’s “official” mascot, but with this being Spirit’s last season of pregame flights for Auburn home football games at Jordan-Hare Stadium, this is an easy choice for me. Seeing the majestic bald eagle soar into the stadium as part of the famed pregame festivities on the Plains is one of the many things that makes college football so unique. Here’s to you Spirit on your well-earned retirement. What a flight it’s been as you turn over your duties full time to your understudy, Independence, following the 2021 season.
Scarborough: If Mike the Tiger still entered the stadium on gameday there would be no debate here. Opposing players would get bug eyes and freak out the first time they saw him on the sidelines in all his glory. I’m not ashamed to say I did, too. His mobile cage looked safe, but I’m sorry, that’s a live tiger and live tigers generally do whatever they want. And even though Mike — only one of two live tiger mascots in college — remains in his enclosure beside Tiger Stadium, he’s still a must visit before every game.
Adelson: On my one and only trip to Austin, Texas, in 2013, I will never forget the sounds of the police sirens wailing as I made my way toward the stadium. It was an escort for Bevo. Fans lined the streets shouting, “Hook ‘Em!” at the iconic steer. I then got to hang out with Bevo for two hours pregame, chatting up his handlers while keeping the appropriate distance (Glad I didn’t have a bulldog mascot standing with me, if I’m being honest). It was one of the coolest (and slightly terrifying) experiences.
Wilson: UConn gets bonus points for having a Husky with an extremely ordinary name: Jonathan. Love Jonathan the dog. But I’m a Texan and longhorns are a key part of the state’s identity and folklore. And they’re cool as hell. Vote Bevo.
Favorite stadium entrance
Rittenberg: I’ve only been to Clemson once, but what a game I saw: Clemson vs. Louisville in 2016. Deshaun Watson vs. Lamar Jackson. The Tigers’ run down the hill was absolutely electric — my second favorite moment next to hugging Ryan McGee in the press box. But it’s hard to top the anticipation of the team taking the buses around the stadium, assembling at Howard’s Rock and then sprinting down the hill. Can’t wait to be back in Death Valley. The two other Tiger Walks that I’ve witnessed (Auburn and LSU) aren’t too shabby, either.
Bill Connelly: Clemson is definitely No. 1. The bus ride builds anticipation, and the hill itself adds some lovely “Oh man, what if one of them slips and falls?” anxiety, too. It’s perfect. Down the road in Columbia, I also very much enjoy the 2001: A Space Odyssey entrance, combined with pre-kickoff Sandstorm.
Low: Clemson, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia Tech don’t get to have all the fun when it comes to cool entrances. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check out East Carolina‘s entrance. The video of the pirate on the JumboTron is great. So is the purple smoke, and then you’ve also got the team running out to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Any time you get Hendrix and college football together, it’s a can’t-miss show.
Adelson: Bill, I am not sure you are allowed to like BOTH Clemson and South Carolina entrances without haters coming your way. I agree Clemson rocks, but nothing beats a sold-out, charged up Doak Campbell Stadium at night before a marquee Florida State home game, when Chief Osceola rides Renegade to midfield and plants the flaming spear as 80,000 people do the Seminole chop and chant away.
Wilson: Hard to top Clemson, but that’s well-documented here. Nebraska’s Tunnel Walk is both very appropriately named and also the perfect table-setter, watching an entire state get worked into a frenzy waiting for a chance to see its Huskers.
Dinich: I’ve run down The Hill — very carefully — and there is certainly an element of danger to it, at least for me. But even better than that is standing on the field for Enter Sandman at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. Forget the shaking press box (that happens too) — the ground under your feet moves. Yeah, fan or not of the Hokies, it’s a scene that will give you chills.
David Hale: I can’t believe no one else has said Georgia Tech. It’s a 1930 Ford Model A that is on the verge of collapse at all times, riding across the field and nearly running people over in the process. It’s essentially Paul Johnson’s offense in mascot form. What’s not to like?
Favorite tailgate scene
Connelly: Back in 2003, I went down to Shreveport because Missouri was playing in the Independence Bowl. We got invited by an LSU fan to his tailgate, which was a rather odd thing considering Missouri wasn’t playing LSU in the game. “No, but we were just looking to get in some tailgating practice before the Sugar Bowl,” he said. That told me everything I needed to know. I ate 12 different meats that day. I somehow haven’t gotten the opportunity to tailgate in Baton Rouge yet, but my standards will be extraordinarily high. And I’m sure they will surpass all expectations.
Adelson: The only correct answer here is LSU, where you get a massive tailgate crossed with a Mardi Gras celebration no matter the opponent, or the Tigers’ record, extending as far out as the eye can see from the stadium. As I type this, I can just smell so much of what makes this such a unique spot, from the smoking meats and Jambalaya and yes — even alligator when Florida comes to town.
Scarborough: Andrea is right. It’s LSU by a long shot. I can’t tell you how many free cups of gumbo I’ve been handed by complete strangers over the years. And every single time they’ve been good.
Low: The Grove is college football, from the generations of Ole Miss families and fans gathering under the massive oak trees and rows of tents and decked out in their finest red, white and blue attire, to the chants of “Hotty Toddy” echoing across the 10 acres of green grass in the middle of campus, to the kind of party that has been known to trump the game itself. Ole Miss last won a national championship on the field in 1960, but the Rebels win the tailgating national title every year.
Hale: It’s LSU, and it’s not close. But let me put in a small plug for Miami. Sure, the Canes crowd can be sparse for lesser games, and the stadium (what’s it called now? Sun Life? Pro Player? Land Shark?) is a 45-minute commute from campus. So it’s not a regular on anyone’s “best of” lists. But when there’s a big game — particularly if it’s a Florida State game — the parking lots are as crazy an environment as there is in the country. Downright intimidating, actually. I once saw Warren Sapp eating a turkey leg at a random tailgate, and I swear, if it hadn’t filled him up, he might’ve eaten the people around him. And, of course, that’s the big takeaway here: The food. Tailgating fare can become pretty generic in all but a handful of cities, and Miami is one of the places that’s unique and delicious — everything from fried gator to carne asada to ceviche. Just make sure Warren Sapp isn’t near your tailgate when you’re grilling.
Favorite in-game atmosphere
VanHaaren: My answers are a little biased toward the Big Ten, because those are the games I tend to cover in person, but a Penn State white out at home at night is pretty incredible. I covered the 2018 game against Ohio State and the crowd was electric. I took a video of my glass of water in the press box and it resembled the moment in Jurassic Park when the T-rex was approaching, creating ripples in the water. The fans were shaking the press box, they were all in unison, all in white and they were relentless the entire night. I don’t know how anyone on the field could hear anything, because the fans were so into the game.
Connelly: I’ve been at field level for the end of a Nebraska game in Lincoln. The Huskers clinched the game with a first-down run, and the sound the crowd made in response was so loud that it made me almost lose my balance. The intensity of the crowd there is jarring, and that goes for whether things are going well or poorly.
Wilson: Texas A&M still puts the students (35,000 or so of them, for the nation’s largest student section) in prime seats. With organized yells, the Corps in the stands and fans standing and screaming and swaying enough to make the stadium move, it’s one of the great places to watch a college football game.
Favorite unique in-game tradition
VanHaaren: I’ve been in the press box at Camp Randall Stadium to witness Jump Around before the fourth quarter and it is a lot cooler in person than on TV. I will say, it’s also terrifying being in the press box, because it was swaying as the fans were jumping. I was pretty sure it was going to tip backwards at one point, but we survived. That shows you how many people are participating and what the impact really is. After the initial shock of swaying in the press box wore off, I looked around and to see the opposing team even joining in made it pretty fun to watch.
Dinich: I still have the video on my phone I took when I was at Kyle Field for the first time, when Texas A&M hosted Auburn. I came home and showed it right to my three boys because it was such a unique, awesome atmosphere with the 12th man. It starts when the corps of cadets marches into the stadium — a sight unlike any other in college football — and then continues right into the stadium and through the game.
Low: Sure, there are in-game traditions that go back decades or more. But nothing is more touching than the “Kinnick Wave,” which began in 2017 with Iowa fans turning away from the field at the end of the first quarter and waving to the children watching from the windows of the newly built University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital that overlooks Kinnick Stadium. The children will often tape posters and signs to the windows in their rooms in support of the team.
Scarborough: It’s a relatively new tradition so maybe it doesn’t rank high on the lists out there, but it’s hard to find anything that can match the feeling when Florida plays Tom Petty’s hit “I Won’t Back Down” between the third and fourth quarter. The sing-a-long that ensues is more rock concert than college football game. I was there the first time they did it, in 2017, shortly after the death of Petty, a Gainesville native, and I’ll never forget the emotion and energy inside The Swamp that day.
Hale: Alex stole my answer. I honestly think every school should just pick a Tom Petty song and create a fourth-quarter tradition from it. Kansas playing “Even the Losers” would be the best thing to happen to the Jayhawks since 2008.
Wilson: Give me “Dixieland Delight” at Alabama, with 100,000 fans shouting obscenities — about three different teams! Efficient! — in every nook and cranny of the song while Alabama pipes in enough sound to try to pretend otherwise.
Rittenberg: I’ll never forget my first trip to Ohio Stadium as a college student in 2001, and seeing the script Ohio and the dotting of the i. The bands are such a big deal in the Big Ten, and Ohio State’s BDBITL tradition is hard to beat. The build toward the i dotting is incredible, and what a moment for the senior sousaphone player, who bows to all four sides of the stadium.
Adelson: How about a shout out to a new-school program that is starting to build its history and tradition? There is a reason UCF‘s football stadium is nicknamed “The Bounce House.” When “Kernkraft 400” by Zombie Nation starts playing and 45,000+ fans start jumping up and down, the entire stadium literally bounces up and down. At night, with cell phone flashlights on, the scene is even cooler — and definitely not for the faint of heart.