The dust has settled on a remarkable 2021 season. I was fortunate enough to once again travel thousands of miles and add four new game day experiences to the list. In what will surely become an annual tradition, I’d like to share my 2021 Best Of College Football list.
What were the best fans? environment? food? the best stadium of this season? I’ll dive in below.
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2021 Best Of College Football: The Cities
I could just leave you with an overarching “best city” award and call it a day. But that wouldn’t provide much insight into what aspects of each city were great. So, to begin I’ll look at,
The Best Food
This 100% isn’t a Best Food City award, but rather the best food experience I had this year. I did my due diligence and research to find an excellent local eatery at each stop, but I very well could have missed one.
With that said, Knoxville’s Stock & Barrel on Market Street was my favorite eat of the year. They specialize in bourbon and burgers– what more could you want? They’ve nailed down their two specialties. I got a classic bacon cheeseburger and if you can make that memorable, it’s a great place.
The Best Downtown
I use the term “downtown” to describe the entertainment, food, and social hub of any city. My favorite this year– and there were a lot of contenders– was Blacksburg, Virginia. It has a quaint and comfortable feel while offering a wide variety of bars, shops, and restaurants. I specifically popped into Sharkey’s pregame and had a pulled pork sandwich that nearly made the list above this one.
The Best Campus
TCU has a top-notch campus nationally. It feels large while also being incredibly accessible. It’s not a cheap school to attend, and the university sinks plenty of money into their facilities and buildings. Everything from Amon G. Carter to the rec center and the library are wonderful. And it has one of the best quads in the nation.
2021 Best Of College Football: The Pregame
I count everything from the moment you step on campus to kickoff the “pregame.” Probably not shocking or controversial, just wanted to get that cleared up.
The Best Tailgating
What may be controversial is my take that SMU had the best tailgating of the schools I visited this year; that includes competition like Florida State, Tennessee, Arkansas, and more. Comparative to its size and fanbase, SMU has some of the most dedicated and high-class tailgaters I’ve ever seen. It may not be as widespread as Florida State nor as rowdy as Virginia Tech, but the all-around experience is as good as any nationally.
Special shoutout to the best individual tailgate I attended this year, TCU’s KillerFrogs tailgate.
The Best Band
Of all the great bands in the nation, I’m not sure one quite stands up to Texas A&M’s Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band (and I’m a fan of the Best Damn Band In The Land). This one is certainly down to personal preference, but the group is made up of cadets that are beyond precise. The 12th Man’s involvement in each halftime performance makes it even better– students are overly zealous with “Ooh’s” and “Aah’s” as the band weaves in and out of each other.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing their routine, I highly recommend you either see it in person or YouTube it.
The Best Pregame Tradition
I made this a category to force myself to choose a different “best tradition.” Virginia Tech’s Enter Sandman is the most electrifying thing I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes and it may never be topped.
The ESPN broadcast played it and immediately it went viral. The circumstances surrounding this Enter Sandman versus others pushed it over the edge: fans were back in Lane Stadium for the first time since 2019, they were hosting an arch-rival (North Carolina) and a top-10 team.
Absolute chills. I’ve probably liked this 60 times already on this site, but here it is once again:
2021 Best Of College Football: The Environment
Again, circumstances affect this one more than any other category. Virginia Tech is a strong contender, as is the Big 12 Championship Game. But Florida State broke my ears for days. In a moment that really sums up how nuts this crowd was, listen to when running back Jashaun Corbin ripped off an 89-yard touchdown:
Hosting Notre Dame on the opening Sunday night of college football on national TV turned Tallahassee into a madhouse. I left with a headache. I loved every second of it.
Best In-Game Atmosphere
What I mean by this one is how exciting and engaged were fans between the whistles? I went to school for sport management, so I’ve been brainwashed into noticing the efficiency of game days and what goes on outside the field. It (mostly) has nothing to do with how the game is going. Is there dead air between whistles? Are fans participating?
The Southwest Classic between Texas A&M and Arkansas wins this one for me. Maybe it’s cheating since the game was held at a world-class pro stadium (AT&T Stadium), but the fans made it equally as fun. Chant-offs, Woo Pig Sooie and Aggie Yells, this was fun wire-to-wire.
I like handing this award out because how fans act around you can make or break a game day. We all have that game that was pretty much ruined by an obnoxious drunk guy in front of you. Maybe he accidentally smacked you a time or two, maybe he’s standing up when everyone else is sitting, blocking a view you paid for, maybe he’s screaming the dictionary’s finest obscenities while there’s kids around.
Any way, Tennessee fans were my favorite this year. The Vols were hosting my alma mater, Bowling Green, so my dad and I sported Falcons gear. Everyone was super hospitable, welcomed us to Rocky Top, and made us feel welcome. I loved it.
The runners up also deserve a shoutout for being good humans: Virginia Tech, TCU, and Baylor.
Best Non-Enter Sandman Tradition
There’s way too many good traditions to just name one. My favorite from this season was Arkansas’ Calling The Hogs. I wasn’t terribly familiar with the Woo Pig chant before this year and it’s downright strange. But strange is good and makes college football traditions great. Honorable mentions: Chief Osceola’s spear plant and the winning service academy singing second (Army vs. Air Force).
2021 Best Of College Football: The Game
The Best Game
I have to start here, right? I was incredibly fortunate to experience three walk-offs, two overtimes, and six one-score games this year. I’m not sure anything will beat Baylor winning the Big 12 Championship in the way they did. The stop at the literal once-inch line is unbelievable. The parity between the absolute thrill of victory and the agony of defeat split right down my own dang section won’t be beat.
Here’s the call:
The Best Seats
This one’s kind of a runaway. I got to sit just rows from the field at the Big 12 Championship and Florida State and had some great locations at other places. But the Legends Club Seats at TCU isn’t even a fair comparison. Not even to mention the amenities that came with the seats (and the fact they were free).
Overall, I think Doak Campbell Stadium has the best all around seating options, since there’s nowhere that’s so far away from the action.
The Best Play
Oklahoma’s D.J. Graham secured not just the best catch I’ve ever seen on Road to CFB, but maybe one of the best catches ever. It broke Gus Johnson and the laws of physics. No one really knew what to do in the stadium.
The Best Stadium
Neyland Stadium is a special place. It’s truly hallowed grounds in college football and sports as a whole, and you feel that attending a game there. Neyland has a historic feel with plenty of charm. I’m probably a little biased here since it’s also a special place my dad experienced with his dad, too, but Rocky Top was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.
The Top Four All-Around Game Day Experiences
Tying EVERYTHING together, I couldn’t just pick one, so I picked four in chronological order:
- Virginia Tech– The hype around this game was unreal. Campus was beautiful. Our pregame meal was delicious. The crowd just about caused Blacksburg to collapse in on itself like a neutron star. The Hokies pulled off an incredible upset. I got to experience this one with my dad. And, of course, ENTER SANDMAN.
- Florida State– I’ve never heard a louder crowd during my travels. I’ve been to LSU and Texas A&M (although, to be fair here it wasn’t against a top-10 rival). But the crowd in Tallahassee was incredible. The game was equal parts incredible and ridiculous. Pregame, I ran into ESPN’s Marty Smith and got to see both team’s walks. The whole game was dedicated to the late Bobby Bowden and the halftime dedication to him was beautiful.
- TCU– Getting to do game day with other college football travelers is fun enough, but also getting to connect with diehard TCU fans at their tailgate makes it even better. We ran on the field. I even got a new writing gig out of this. The game wasn’t what we hoped, but everything surrounding it makes up for that.
- FCS National Championship– I don’t care how many championships North Dakota State’s won, rushing the field after they claimed their ninth was great. It was a cold and rainy day, my toes just about froze through, but it didn’t change a thing about my enjoyment. It was my first FCS game, my first championship game, and– like the one above– I got to spend it with other CFB travelers.