The college football season is in full swing, and we’re here to discuss some of our favorite traditions, mascots, rivalries and more.
College football is a tradition that many people enjoy. There are many traditions, mascots, rivalries and more that make college football great. Read more in detail here: college football season.
7:30 a.m. Eastern Time
From the Miami Hurricanes entering the field via smoke to Traveler, the USC Trojans’ live horse mascot galloping the sidelines in Los Angeles, college football offers its fans a unique experience.
Each campus, stadium, and fan base has something unique to offer the typical fan, and each institution prides itself on its traditions. That better to bring attention to the unique culture around college football than a group of journalists who are passionate about the sport and have seen virtually every song, entrance, and atmosphere throughout the country?
A bunch of our writers got together ahead of the 2021 season to talk about their favorite moments from the sport that will dominate autumn Saturdays for the next four months. Our authors have you covered on your college football bucket list, whether it’s the greatest tailgate to attend or the nicest — and least hazardous — live mascot to see in person.
Check out our offseason special, College Football: The Power Rankings, on Tuesday night for additional rankings, ranging from ESPN’s preseason Top 25 to top-five lists on finest traditions, college cities, returning players, and more (7 ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
Andrea Adelson is a Miami-Florida State University student. I’m prejudiced because I grew up in South Florida in the 1980s, at the height of this rivalry’s most famous, hard-fought, all-or-nothing games — when national titles were decided entirely on the outcome of this game. I think about all of the classic events, like Wide Rights I, II, and III, all of the great skill on the field, and the Miami mascot almost being jailed in Tallahassee, and it all reminds me why I love college football so much.
David Wilson: Despite having no loyalty to either team, my father brought me to the Texas A&M-Texas game every year. We can lovingly say goodbye to its worst period, when it was only played out on message boards and Twitter battles, now that it’s back after more than a decade away (who knows when it’ll really happen again).
Alex Scarborough (Scarborough): When Auburn converted a last-second field goal attempt by Alabama into arguably the craziest football game ending ever, I was inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for the “Kick Six.” So you already know my answer: The Iron Bowl is the sport’s greatest rivalry. What makes it great isn’t just the amazing games, though there have been many of them; it’s also how the rivalry is woven into the fabric of life in the state the other 364 days of the year. The rivalry between teams and supporters is fierce.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press/Vasha Hunt
Low, Chris: The Clemson-South Carolina rivalry was played year-round while I was growing up in the state of South Carolina, back when radio was the only way to watch college football. Clemson supporters relished the opportunity to remind Tigers fans that Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers had never scored a touchdown against them. When Steve Taneyhill damaged the Tiger paw at Death Valley’s midfield by pretending to sign it after a crucial score in 1992, South Carolina supporters rubbed it in the faces of Clemson fans. I still think Jerry Butler’s catch in Columbia in 1977 to give Clemson the win is one of the best catches I’ve ever seen, and I’ll never forget the first Clemson-South Carolina game I ever saw in person, a 22-21 South Carolina victory in 1984, the Gamecocks’ first victory on Clemson’s home turf since 1970.
Adam Rittenberg (Adam Rittenberg): I like the USC-Notre Dame rivalry, in part because it lacks the usual ties that other college football rivalries have. The institutions have nothing in common other than being private colleges with a long history of college football success, including Heisman Trophy winners and national championship teams. Given the disparities, I was always surprised when prospects choose between Notre Dame and USC. I like how the games are either in the middle of the season in South Bend or around Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. One of the greatest games I’ve ever covered was Notre Dame’s game in 2005. You’ll be hard pressed to find two better helmets in the sport.
Favorite university town
Wilson: Because I spent almost ten years behind a desk in Bristol, Connecticut, I haven’t visited nearly as many of these college towns as I’d want. However, when I was a fan at a Nebraska game in 1998, a pair of tiny elderly women grabbed me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me… don’t you have any better quarterbacks?” They stated after the game that the band was at least decent, and that they appreciated you inviting them. They are, without a doubt, the most fiercely sweet fans I’ve ever encountered.
Low: Every time I visit South Bend, no matter how many times I’ve been there before, I get a nice nostalgic sensation. Even before the band starts playing its famous battle song, strolling across campus and watching the light shine off the Golden Dome and gazing up and seeing Touchdown Jesus’ extended arms in the shadow of Notre Dame Stadium makes the journey worthwhile. This will be my 30th trip to South Bend, and I can still hear all of the Notre Dame alums lounging about at the old Morris Inn reminiscing about the glory days of the school.
Any college football enthusiast should visit Notre Dame’s campus. Matt Cashore is a reporter at USA TODAY.
Rittenberg: I’d never say no to a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, particularly on game weekend. The town really has plenty to offer everyone. I like strolling along State Street, visiting Memorial Union’s terrace, traversing the hilly, lakefront campus, and exploring the East Side. There’s also much to do just outside the city (Quivey’s Grove in Fitchburg comes highly recommended). Camp Randall Stadium is located in a residential area, and Regent Street and Breese Terrace are bustling before and after Badgers games. At Camp Randall, I’ve covered a lot of memorable games — 2010 was one of them. My favorite team is Ohio State, but Mad-town/Mad-city never disappoints.
Adelson: Virginia’s football history may not be as strong as that of South Bend, Madison, or Nebraska, but Charlottesville is one of America’s finest college cities. Charlottesville is a fantastic location to visit, from the pristine — and historic Grounds — to the gorgeous surrounds and delicious cuisine. However, viewing a game in Scott Stadium is a unique and memorable experience compared to Camp Randall or the Big House. You won’t find 100,000 people packed into the stadium, but rather a more intimate setting with a retro vibe, where you can bring a blanket and sit on the grass behind one of the end zones for an amazing (and unusual) perspective.
Favorite mascot in person
Rittenberg: I met Uga during the Georgia-Auburn game in 2013, and I got to know Bevo a few years ago at Texas. Both are excellent options, but I must choose Ralphie the Buffalo. I like Ralphie’s history and am looking forward to seeing her gallop around Folsom Field before a game in Boulder. It’s just a huge and magnificent creature.
Tom VanHaaren: Uga gets all the glory, but I believe Handsome Dan goes overlooked. Handsome Dan is the Olde English Bulldogge mascot of Yale University. What are you going to do if you’re going to choose against that? He may boast about being the smarter, better-looking version of Uga because of the school he represents and his name.
Low: Although he isn’t Auburn’s “official” mascot, he is an easy pick for me since this is Spirit’s last season of pregame flights for Auburn home football games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. One of the many things that makes college football so special is seeing the magnificent bald eagle fly into the stadium as part of the famous pregame festivities on the Plains. Spirit, here’s to your well-deserved retirement. What a ride it’s been as you hand over full-time responsibility to your understudy, Independence, after the 2021 season.
Scarborough: There would be no argument if Mike the Tiger still entered the stadium on gameday. The first time they saw him on the sidelines in all his splendor, opposing players would get bug eyes and panic out. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I did as well. His mobile cage seemed to be secure, but that’s a live tiger, and live tigers are known for doing anything they want. Mike, one of only two live tiger mascots in college, remains in his cage next to Tiger Stadium and is still a must-see before every game.
In college sports, there are a lot of live mascots, but Mike the Tiger of LSU may be the most frightening. AP Photo/File/Gerald Herbert
Adelson: I’ll never forget the sounds of police sirens screaming as I approached the stadium on my one and only trip to Austin, Texas, in 2013. Bevo was being escorted. “Hook ‘Em!” fans yelled as they lined the streets in front of the famous steer. After that, I got to hang out with Bevo for two hours before the game, talking with his handlers while maintaining the proper distance. (If I’m being honest, I’m glad I didn’t have a bulldog mascot with me.) It was one of the greatest (and a little frightening) things I’d ever done.
Wilson: UConn gets extra points for having a Husky named Jonathan, which is a very typical name. Jonathan the dog is one of my favorites. But I’m a Texan, and longhorns are an important part of our culture and mythology. They’re also very cool. Please vote for Bevo.
The entrance to your favorite stadium
Clemson vs. Louisville in 2016. Rittenberg: I’ve only been to Clemson once, but what a game I saw: Clemson vs. Louisville in 2016. Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson The Tigers’ charge down the hill was electrifying, second only to embracing Ryan McGee in the press box as my favorite moment. The excitement of the squad riding the buses around the stadium, gathering at Howard’s Rock, and racing down the hill is hard to beat. I’m looking forward to returning to Death Valley. The other two Tiger Walks I’ve seen (Auburn and LSU) aren’t too bad, either.
Bill Connelly: Clemson is unquestionably the best team in the country. The bus journey creates excitement, and the slope adds some nice “Oh my, what if one of them slips and falls?” worry. It’s just right. I particularly like the 2001: A Space Odyssey entrance, which is paired with the pre-kickoff “Sandstorm” in Columbia.
Low: When it comes to interesting entrances, Clemson, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech don’t get all the fun. Do yourself a favor and check out East Carolina’s entrance if you haven’t already. The pirate video on the JumboTron is fantastic. The purple haze is there, too, and the squad is sprinting out to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” When Jimi Hendrix and college football come together, it’s a spectacle not to be missed.
Adelson: Hello, Bill. I’m not sure you can enjoy both the Clemson and the South Carolina entrances without attracting detractors. I agree that Clemson is awesome, but nothing matches a sold-out, pumped-up Doak Campbell Stadium the night before a big Florida State home game, when Chief Osceola rides Renegade to middle and plants the blazing spear in front of 80,000 screaming Seminole fans.
Wilson: It’s difficult to beat Clemson, but that’s a well-known fact in this town. Nebraska’s Tunnel Walk is both well titled and the ideal table-setter, since it depicts a whole state working up a sweat in anticipation of a chance to see their Huskers.
When it comes to college football’s most thrilling entrances, Clemson’s sprint down the hill is hard to beat. AP Photo/Richard Shiro
Dinich: I’ve ran down The Hill, very cautiously, and there’s definitely a risk aspect there, at least for me. But nothing beats being on the field at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium for “Enter Sandman.” Forget about the swaying press box (although it can happen), the earth under your feet shifts. It’s a moment that will give you goosebumps, whether you’re a fan of the Hokies or not.
David Hale (David Hale) I’m surprised no one else has mentioned Georgia Tech. It’s a 1930 Ford Model A that’s always on the brink of collapsing, speeding over the field and almost collapsing people. It’s basically Paul Johnson’s offense dressed up as a mascot. What’s not to enjoy about that?
What is your favorite tailgating scene?
Connelly: I went down to Shreveport in 2003 to see Missouri play in the Independence Bowl. We were invited to a tailgate by an LSU supporter, which was unusual given that Missouri wasn’t playing LSU in the game. “No,” he replied, “but we were simply hoping to get some tailgating practice done before the Sugar Bowl.” That was all the information I needed. That day, I ate a total of 12 different meats. I haven’t yet had the chance to tailgate in Baton Rouge, but my expectations will be very high. And I’m certain they’ll outperform everyone’s expectations.
Adelson: The one right answer is LSU, where no matter the opponent or the Tigers’ record, you can expect a huge tailgate with a Mardi Gras celebration that stretches as far as the eye can see from the stadium. As I write this, I can smell so much of what makes this place so special, from the smoked meats to the jambalaya and, yes, even alligator when Florida visits.
Andrea is correct, Scarborough. By a long way, it’s LSU. I can’t tell you how many complimentary cups of gumbo I’ve received over the years from total strangers. And they’ve done a fantastic job each and every time.
Low: The Grove is college football, from generations of Ole Miss families and fans gathered under the massive oak trees and rows of tents in their finest red, white, and blue attire, to chants of “Hotty Toddy” echoing across the 10 acres of green grass in the heart of campus, to the kind of party that has been known to trump the game itself. The Rebels haven’t won a national championship since 1960, but they do win the tailgating national championship every year.
Despite the fact that Ole Miss hasn’t won a national title in almost 60 years, The Grove is always the place to be on a fall Saturday. ESPN Images/Phillip Waller
Hale: It’s LSU, and they’re not going to lose. But allow me to make a little pitch for Miami. Sure, the Canes’ fan base may be thin at times, and the stadium (what is it now? What is Sun Life? Are you a professional player? It takes 45 minutes to go to Land Shark? from campus. As a result, it doesn’t appear on many “best of” lists. However, when a major game is on, especially if it’s a Florida State game, the parking lots are as crazy as everywhere else in the nation. Actually, it’s very frightening. Warren Sapp was once seen at a tailgate devouring a turkey leg, and I swear if it hadn’t filled him up, he would’ve devoured the people around him. And, of course, the cuisine is the main takeaway here. In all but a few locations, tailgating food may become fairly generic, but Miami is one of the areas where it’s distinctive and wonderful, with everything from fried gator to carne asada to ceviche. When you’re cooking, just make sure Warren Sapp isn’t near your tailgate.
Favorite in-game setting
VanHaaren: My responses are skewed toward the Big Ten since they are the games I cover in person, but a Penn State whiteout at home at night is fairly amazing. The crowd was electrifying for the 2018 game versus Ohio State, which I covered. In the press box, I recorded my glass of water, which mimicked the scene in Jurassic Park when the T. rex was coming and making ripples in the lake. The supporters shook the press box the whole night, all in unison, all in white, and they were relentless. Because the spectators were so engrossed in the game, I’m not sure how anybody on the field could hear anything.
Connelly: I was on the field for the last seconds of a Nebraska game in Lincoln. The Huskers won the game on a first-down run, and the roar from the stadium was so deafening that it nearly knocked me off my feet. Regardless matter whether things are going well or badly, the crowd’s passion is startling.
Wilson: Texas A&M still places their students in excellent seats (35,000 or thereabouts, for the nation’s biggest student section). It’s one of the best locations to watch a college football game, with coordinated shouts, the Corps in the bleachers, and people standing, shouting, and swaying enough to move the stadium.
Favorite one-of-a-kind in-game custom
VanHaaren: I’ve gone to Camp Randall Stadium’s press box to see “Jump Around” before the fourth quarter, and it’s a much cooler in person than on TV. I’ll admit that being in the press box was equally frightening since it swayed when the crowd jumped. I thought it was going to tilt backwards at some point, but we made it. This demonstrates how many individuals are involved and how significant the effect is. After the first shock of swaying in the press box subsided, I turned to glance around, and seeing the other team join in made it much more entertaining to watch.
Dinich: I still have the video on my phone from my first visit to Kyle Field, when Texas A&M played Auburn. Because the mood with the 12th guy was so unique and wonderful, I immediately showed it to my three sons when I got home. It all begins with the corps of cadets marching into the stadium — a spectacle unlike any other in college football — and then continues throughout the game.
Every home game in College Station, Texas A&M’s 12th Man lives true to the moniker. Erich Schlegel is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
Low: Yes, there are in-game customs that date back decades or even centuries. The “Kinnick Wave,” which started in 2017 with Iowa supporters turning away from the field at the conclusion of the first quarter and waving at children watching from the windows of the University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which overlooks Kinnick Stadium, is perhaps the most poignant. In order to show their support for the squad, the kids often tape posters and signs to the windows in their rooms.
Scarborough: It’s a new tradition, so it may not be high on many people’s lists, but there’s nothing quite like the atmosphere when Florida plays Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” between the third and fourth quarters. The ensuing sing-along is more akin to a rock concert than a collegiate football game. I was there the first time they performed it, soon after Petty, a Gainesville local, died, and I’ll never forget the passion and energy that filled The Swamp that day.
Hale: Alex took my response. I honestly believe that every school should choose a Tom Petty song and make it a fourth-quarter tradition. Playing “Even the Losers” for Kansas would be the greatest thing that has happened to the Jayhawks since 2008.
Wilson: Give me “Dixieland Delight” at Alabama, with 100,000 people yelling profanities at three separate teams! Efficient! — throughout every nook and corner of the song, despite Alabama’s best efforts to pretend otherwise.
Rittenberg: I’ll never forget going to Ohio Stadium for the first time as a college student in 2001, and seeing the script Ohio and the dotting of the i. In the Big Ten, bands are huge, and Ohio State’s BDBITL legacy is hard to top. It’s a wonderful build up to the I dotting, and what a moment for the senior sousaphone player, who bows to all four corners of the stadium.
Adelson: How about a shout-out to a brand-new program that is just getting started in terms of tradition and history? The football stadium at UCF is known as “The Bounce House” for a reason. The whole stadium actually bounces up and down as Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” begins playing and 45,000-plus people start bouncing up and down. The sight is more cooler at night, with mobile phone flashlights turned on — and certainly not for the faint of heart.