BREAK OUT THE COOLER
America's Top College Football Towns
The crisp fall air, the sound of a marching band, and thousands of decked-out fans—it's got to be game day. In any of these eight destinations, you'll find true grit on the gridiron and more than enough off-campus attractions to justify staying the weekend.
University of Oregon Ducks
The state of Oregon is truly a drinker's paradise, thanks to the flourishing Willamette Valley wine scene and the craft-beer and micro-roast-coffee communities already firmly established there. Travelers can try some of the region's most famous (and certified sustainable) pinots in Eugene at the Territorial Vineyards tasting room, in an old coffee warehouse in the funky Whiteaker neighborhood (907 W. 3rd Ave., territorialvineyards.com, open Thurs. 5 p.m.–11 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5 p.m.–9 p.m., tasting $7), before slipping around the corner to Ninkasi Brewing Company to sip its signature Total Domination IPA on a new outdoor patio (272 Van Buren St., ninkasibrewing.com, pint $4). No trip to Oregon is complete without a stop at one of the McMenamin brothers' joints—quirky restaurants, bars, and hotels typically housed in converted historic buildings. Just a block from the university campus, East 19th Street Café has pool tables, plenty of outdoor seating, and a list of five tap beers produced in the McMenamins' own breweries (1485 E. 19th Ave., mcmenamins.com). In keeping with the collegiate spirit, guests can stay the night at the Excelsior Inn, a nearly 100-year-old building that originally served as a sorority house. The 14-room B&B a block from Oregon's campus has cherry furniture and vaulted ceilings, and the restaurant's daily breakfasts are made with fresh eggs and organic produce from owner Maurizio Paparo's farm (754 E. 13th Ave., excelsiorinn.com, doubles from $99).
Game-day tradition: Pregame partiers stay toasty warm at Moshofsky Sports Center (a.k.a. "the Mo"), which hosts a large portion of the 54,000 Ducks fans who will flood next door into Autzen Stadium before kickoff. It's one of the biggest indoor tailgate gatherings in the country, with live music, big-screen TVs, and appearances by the mascot, Donald Duck—the iconic character that Walt Disney himself approved for the university's use.
Get your tickets: goducks.com, from $31.
University of Tennessee Volunteers
Life in Knoxville revolves around the Tennessee River—it hugs the edge of the university campus and carries sightseers past the city center, thanks to boats like the 325-passenger Star of Knoxville, which gives 90-minute sightseeing tours (300 Neyland Dr., tnriverboat.com, cruises from $14.25). Top local barbecue spot Calhoun's, serving up award-winning baby-back ribs, creamy country-style coleslaw, and cornbread, sits right on the bank and is accessible by both water and land (400 Neyland Dr., calhouns.com, ribs from $13)—though swimming home on a full stomach is not encouraged (better to take a boat). A few blocks north of the river in downtown's Market Square area, the 28-room Hotel St. Oliver provides plenty of Southern charm—the 1876 building is decorated with period furniture and oil paintings in gilded frames (407 Union Ave., stoliverhotel.com, doubles from $89). The hotel is also within walking distance of Knoxville's most curious attraction, the 266-foot-tall Sunsphere: a golden glass ball built for the 1982 World's Fair.
Game-day tradition: If you plan on tailgating at Tennessee, you'd better bring a life jacket. What started in 1962 as one man's attempt to beat traffic by traveling to Neyland Stadium by boat has turned into a fleet of 200 vessels, dubbed the Volunteer Navy, that docks on the Tennessee River before each game. Inside the 102,038-seat stadium, the country's fourth-largest, the bluegrass classic (and unofficial school anthem) "Rocky Top" is played at least 20 times a game. It's no surprise the Vols tend to win at home—what opposing team wouldn't be distracted by that?
Get your tickets: utsports.com, from $40.
University of Wisconsin Badgers
Out-of-towners tend to think of one thing when the state of Wisconsin comes up: dairy. But there's more to Madison than cheddar and cheese curds. This southern Wisconsin city was actually at the forefront of the locavore movement, a fact that's reflected in the inventive homegrown offerings at the downtown Dane County Farmers Market, one of the largest farmers market in the country: Try raw milk and cave-aged cheeses from Bleu Mont Dairy or 12 varieties of Asian and European exotic pears from Future Fruit Farm (Capitol Square, Saturdays, dcfm.org). At local shop Fromagination, which specializes in picnic baskets loaded with locally made artisanal cheeses, the ecofriendly ethos spills out into the decor—the reclaimed-slate flooring once served as roof tiling on an abandoned Chicago warehouse, the tables are made of wood from a barn on a Wisconsin farm, and the clocks are circa 1917 from the state capitol (2 S. Carroll St., fromagination.com, picnic baskets from $25). It doesn't get much more local than the Babcock Hall Dairy Store, where students from the UW Food Science Department sell sweet concoctions made on-site, like scoops of Badger Blast ice cream—a chocolate base swirled with fudge and dark-chocolate flakes (1605 Linden Dr., babcockhalldairystore.wisc.edu, $2.50). A fitting end for any locavore dairy tour is the eight-room Arbor House hotel, a self-described "environmental inn" equipped with organic towels and energy-saving fixtures—along with views of the UW Arboretum (3402 Monroe St., arbor-house.com, doubles from $110).
Game-day tradition: You almost need a manual to keep up with the traditions at Camp Randall Stadium. During the game, be prepared to participate in a finely choreographed version of the wave: first counterclockwise, then in slow motion, again at double-time, then reversed, and finally split into two counter-waves. After the third quarter ends, don't panic if you feel a rumble in the stands—it's just the 80,321 Badger fans taking the song "Jump Around" quite literally. Those with a surplus of team spirit can stick around for the nearly 45-minute postgame Fifth Quarter, a concert of favorites performed by the school's marching band.
Get your tickets: uwbadgers.com, from $42.