Many fans would scoff at the idea of sitting out in below-freezing temperatures to watch a game between the two worst football teams in the FBS duke it out. To add to the lethargy, the game plays on Wednesday afternoon. To be blunt, an Akron football game day needs fireworks on the field to be considered charming. But in the 2023 edition of the Akron-Kent State rivalry, the game delivered. The Zips beat their rival in thrilling fashion to take home the Wagon Wheel for the first time in five years.
Rivalries are the foundation of college football. Other sports have their rivalries, but few go to the lengths that even the most regional of college football rivalries do. Don’t believe me? Both Bowling Green and Toledo station 24/7 guards by their painted rocks during the week of the Battle of i-75 because students from the rival university drive down to paint their logo on campus.
The Battle For The Wagon Wheel!
Akron Football Game Day: Pregame
I love to find charm and positivity in every game day. Even small things make the trip absolutely worth it. If I didn’t, then I likely wouldn’t be on the journey to visit all 133 (and counting) FBS game days. With Akron, I did a lot of searching.
At least for a midweek MACtion game, there’s little to see or do before kickoff on Akron’s campus. The locker rooms at InfoCision Stadium are located in the end zone complex, so there’s not much of a team walk. The band does parade from the nearby Quad to the stadium, but other than that, you’ll have to find your own fun. Barring having a tailgate set up, there’s really no reason to be at InfoCision Stadium all that early.
In my experience at college football games and professional sporting events (and working in the space for a bit), typical gate open happens 90 minutes to two hours before the start of the contest. Not Akron. They make you wait until 60 minutes before kick. It’s not listed anywhere and that had me looking to kill 30 minutes of time since I plan my regiment around a 90-minute gate open.
Free parking isn’t easy to find around the stadium. The convenient garages are $10. Perhaps not a huge deal compared to large-scale college football, but most venues offer some form of free parking, even if you need to walk a mile or take a shuttle to the venue. I would not recommend parking too far off campus, as this part of town is hit-or-miss in terms of places you want to be.
A fun bit of MAC trivia, though: John Heisman coached for Akron (at the name named “Buchtel College”).
The Akron In-Game Experience
All the negative is out of the way, I promise. Once fans enter the stadium, Akron puts on a pretty good show. The band, questionably named “The Pride of Ohio” is truly one of the better bands in the MAC. Aside from Ohio University’s Marching 110, Akron might take the crown. I was really impressed with the group, who also battled Kent State’s band (who made the trip down). The pregame show is centered squarely around the marching band, not a universal thing at this level of football.
You’ll find yourself stuck on a catchy “Z-IP-Sssss… Let’s go Zips!” chant that precedes the team taking the field. In the light of Ohio State, a tuba player has the privilege of dotting the “i” in “Zips” before the game, as well.
Akron also owns the newest and nicest stadium in the MAC. Built in 2009, the plan for the stadium was clearly to be the central focus of campus and the plan succeeded. The press box and attached luxury clubs are truly impressive and a real marvel – up there with the nicest structures among Group of Five schools. Remove the press box and attach it to any Power Five stadium (and I mean any) and it works.
Fortunately, architects had the benefit of a venue not built in the 1920s and the foresight modern stadium building carries. Overall, the stadium is gorgeous.
The overall experience inside the stadium is really well done.
Note: Keep an eye on the sky. The Goodyear Blimp hovers above the entire game – a cool touch but very eerie for night games.
Kaulig Club Experience
Looking for an affordable luxury experience in college football? Maybe you’re visiting Akron in the bitter November chill. Either way, the Kaulig Company Club level is a terrific option. I was treated to unlimited food and the comfort of club seats for Akron’s 2023 season finale thanks to a friend. Individual game prices are reasonable – affordable, even, for FBS football.
Buffet options featured your traditional fare: chicken tenders, bratwurst, pretzel bits, etc. The food is pretty good quality and, of course, comes with your ticket. Alcohol and premium beverage options are a la carte, but a pop machine is free for patrons.
There’s more seats than could ever be filled at a typical Akron game, giving club patrons a good selection of seats throughout the game. Boxes top the rows with chairs and a table for a lounging experience.
The club even stands up to larger athletic departments. My experience lies with TCU and East Carolina, and I thought Akron’s Kaulig Club was a perfectly good rival option for a fraction of the price.
Akron 31, Kent State 27
Nothing in college football beats a regional rivalry. Kent State University stands just 14 miles northeast of Akron and the two schools sparked a rivalry in 1920. 26 years later, with both the end of World War II and the formation of the MAC, the schools introduced the Wagon Wheel trophy. Kent State took home the trophy for the last four years coming into this game. However, the Zips own the all-time rivalry 35-28-2.
This year, not much was at stake aside from pride and bragging rights. The two teams came in 1-7 and scrapping for not just the bottom of the MAC, but of the country in terms of power.
The game started off as a battle between two bottom teams. Kent State took a 27-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Extremities frozen from the mid-20s temperature and consistent breeze, most of the few thousand folks hit the exits. Hell, I even considered it myself.
The dozens of us that stayed to the end were absolutely rewarded.
The Zips completed an incredible comeback, hanging three touchdowns on the board – including a game-winner with 20 seconds left on the clock. As the scoreboard hit 0:00, all 85 dressed Zips stormed the end zone, snatched up their Wagon Wheel trophy for the first time since 2018, and paraded it across the stadium. One Zip, who caught me filming their celebration, pointed straight at me and gave his best Kirk Cousins impression,
“YOU LIKE THAT?!”
Akron Football Game Day Grades
Stadium: B. It’s really impressive. Not just by MAC standards, but by similarly-sized venue and athletic department standards. The school poured a heavy investment into the program and that’s visually obvious.
Tradition: D. The Wagon Wheel rivalry is pretty cool, albeit not the oldest rivalry in the country or MAC by any stretch. That’s about all the intrigue this game carried.
Atmosphere: F. I’m sorry, guys. It was cold and windy, but there were few by the way of fans from either side, despite Kent State being a 15-minute drive away. Aside from the bands playing almost nonstop (a good thing!) there just wasn’t much to be excited about. By the time the game ended, there were a few dozen of us left.
Tailgating: F. Doesn’t exist unless you book something with a frat.
Fans: D. The vast majority of fans in attendance hit the exits early. And, in classic “I told you so” fashion, they missed out on an incredible finish. It was cold, but the bands and teams vastly out-numbered fans when the Zips paraded their trophy around. It was really disappointing to see.
Extracurriculars: C. If you’re not local, you might not know about some great spots around Akron, but they’re there! Downtown Cuyahoga Falls is one of the best spots in northeast Ohio and Akron itself is home to at least a dozen breweries. There’s a surprising amount to do in Akron.