Thomas: Best and Worst Atmospheres in College Football

A deafening homefield advantage can make or break a football team – and whether it’s the pure noise, the great traditions, the capacity, or anything else, there are many factors to determining the best atmospheres in college football. Here’s my take on the best and worst atmospheres in each Power-5 conference (full rankings to come another day). These rankings are largely based off the 2019 season and recent years, as some atmospheres are only raucous when the home team is a powerhouse, lowering those teams in our rankings. Without further ado here’s the rankings.

Pac-12

Worst Atmosphere: UCLA
The best game to take place at UCLA is the Rose Bowl, and UCLA is rarely a participant. The Bruins rarely play in a full stadium, failing to reach even 50% capacity in three different games last season, and they don’t boast any great traditions, or even a particularly good team, to make up for the lack of rowdiness in the crowd. 

Best Atmosphere: Utah
Size doesn’t always matter. Utah packs just 45,807 people into their stadium, but nearly every game is sold out, cheering on one of the state’s only relevant teams. When the Utes go into battle on the gridiron, it’s easily the most intense athletic competition in the state throughout the year. Their dominance of the Holy War rivalry is always entertaining, and their cannon fire after every Utah score is a thrilling punctuation mark to a successful possession for the home team. 

Honorable Mention: Colorado, Oregon, Washington

Big 12

Worst Atmosphere: Kansas
Look, it’s hard to blame the Jayhawks on this one. They are most definitely a basketball school, and they rarely, if ever, put a competitive product on the gridiron. Some fanbases can stay dedicated through the bad years – but it’s been a never-ending era in Kansas. They haven’t put up more than three wins since 2009, and they have only three top-10 finishes in the AP Poll in school history. Hard to go crazy here. 

Best Atmosphere: Baylor

Coming off my freshman year in college, I am a sucker for great traditions involving freshmen, and the Baylor Line is one of those. The chosen freshman partake in a mad dash to set up a human tunnel for the football team to run through, and then lead the student section in distinctive gold jerseys. Baylor also frequently packs their 45,000 seat stadium well over capacity. Considering they’re rarely the class of the Big 12, the consistently rowdy atmosphere in Waco is impressive, compared to bigger teams like Texas or Oklahoma, where the atmosphere tends to strictly correlate to the team’s success. Probably an unpopular pick, but this is my list so… Sic em Bears. 

Honorable Mention: Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Oklahoma 

Big 10

Worst Atmosphere: Rutgers
Rutgers is just bad. The team is never competitive, they don’t have a true rivalry game to get hyped up for, and they’re also from New Jersey. I mean, does anything good come out of New Jersey? Shouldn’t be too much explanation needed here. The games aren’t exciting, the crowd isn’t excited, and the scoreboard usually reads something like 42-6 by the end of the game. 

Best Atmosphere: Nebraska
The Big 10 was a brutal decision, but I went with the Cornhuskers and their otherworldly sellout streak. Nebraska has football – and the College World Series – and that’s it. Nothing else relevant happens in Nebraska, and seemingly the entire state turns up for gameday. Nebraska is rarely even relevant in the Big 10, and yet they still pack in some of the rowdiest crowds in the nation. Last year, despite being destroyed by Ohio State after hosting College Gameday, a panorama of the crowd saw virtually every member of the above-capacity game still standing and roaring in a 40-point game in the fourth quarter. Dedication and commitment. Just imagine if the Cornhuskers were good.

Honorable Mention: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State

ACC

Worst Atmosphere: Pittsburgh
I’m generally disappointed by Pitt crowds, because the Panthers produce a quality football team most seasons, and they just don’t get a lot of love from the home crowd. Being the second best team in the state to Penn State definitely hurts, but it would be nice to see Pitt get a little love. They consistently challenge big-name programs and occasionally deliver with a stunning upset, yet rarely get much hometown support. It hurts that they play home games at Heinz Field, meaning they aren’t even on campus, which probably makes it harder to generate excitement. They’re good, but Pitt is still a middle-of-the-road team, and that clearly isn’t enough for Panther nation. 

Best Atmosphere: UNC

Cue all the hate I’ll get for not picking Clemson. Little-known fact: UNC actually filled their stadium more than Clemson did last year. The Tar Heels play in a smaller stadium (50,500) but played every game in front of a capacity crowd. The sheer lack of excitement in many of Clemson’s conference affairs contribute to the Tigers missing out on the top spot. The Tar Heels nearly beat Clemson behind their home crowd last season, and Tar Heel nation consistently turns out for their squad, despite being known as a basketball school, even featuring some underrated traditions – like this fourth quarter hype video which the entire crowd rocks to.

Honorable Mention: Clemson, NC State, Virginia Tech

SEC

Worst Atmosphere: Vanderbilt

To be fair, the Commodores probably get some rowdy baseball crowds. But that’s their best sport far and away, and it’s pretty clear that many students, alumni, and fans have better things to do than watch Vandy get smacked by Alabama, LSU, and the rest of the SEC on a weekly basis. 

Best Atmosphere: Georgia
I love Georgia’s stadium, which turns out in a big way for primetime games. Remember when they forced Notre Dame into a dozen false start penalties? Absolutely ridiculous noise levels are reached in Sanford Stadium, and from the call to attention with the trumpet and iconic highlight reel video at the beginning of the game, to the fourth quarter lights tradition, to their well-known bulldog mascot, Georgia produces an electric gameday atmosphere. 

Honorable Mention: Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU

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