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 Hawaii Warriors
Rainbows abound in Manoa, a residential neighborhood in a lush valley just east of urban Honolulu. All around, Pacific Island cuisine and culture rules; exploring the area like a native is the only way to go. A traditional Hawaiian plate lunch will give you a taste of daily life in the islands—at Rainbow Drive-In, meals generally include an entrée plus two scoops of white rice and one scoop of macaroni salad or coleslaw; the loco moco, a beef patty topped with a fried egg and gravy, is a popular order (3308 Kanaina Ave., rainbowdrivein.com, plate lunches from $5.75, loco moco $6.75). Any local is likely to cite the Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail, a moderate two-mile hike on the southeastern tip of Oahu as a favorite spot to watch the sun rise. The route is filled with sweeping views of the coastline, including Koko Head and Koko Crater, and leads to a lookout above the red-roofed 1909 Makapu'u Lighthouse, where you may even be able to spot a humpback when whale-watching season starts in November. The 72-room Hotel Renew, just a block from Kuhio Beach on the island's south side, has spa-inspired touches like dimmable lighting systems, shoji screens, and kimono robes. (129 Paoakalani Ave., hotelrenew.com, doubles from $140).
Game-day tradition: Most teams have a pregame warm-up, but at the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium, the Warriors take it to a new level. Their performance of the ha'a war chant was originally modeled after a dance by a New Zealand rugby team, but the players have since made it their own; the meaning of the words is top-secret. According to Hawaiian superstition, the ti plant brings good luck, so fans wave the glossy, oval-shaped leaves during the game—visitors can pick up a bunch at Tamashiro Market (802 N. King St., 808/841-8047) and most flower shops. Tip: The best seats for day games are located along the shaded Makai sideline; be sure to check the stadium map when buying tickets.
Get your tickets: hawaiiathletics.com, from $25.
West Virginia University Mountaineers
As a coal town set at the intersection of the Appalachian foothills and the Rust Belt, Morgantown is filled with reminders of its industrial history—but this unassuming city is far from stuck in the past. In Morgantown's Wharf District, a stretch of converted warehouses now hold a riverside bistro, a historic train depot, and the 205-room Waterfront Place Hotel, which overlooks the mighty Monongahela River (2 Waterfront Pl., waterfrontplacehotel.com, doubles from $139). Just outside the hotel, the city's Caperton Trail system begins, branching off into six miles of paths along an old railroad route—ideal for a pregame walk. Another reclaimed relic from the city's history is the Seneca Center, a shopping complex built inside the old Seneca Glass Company building, completed in 1896; a small glassmaking museum on-site makes for an educational break from browsing for handmade soap and clothing by independent designers (709 Beechurst Ave., senecacenter.com). Perhaps the tastiest reference to the past can be found at the new Morgantown Brewing Company, where the extensive selection of microbrews includes Zack Morgan's Pale Ale, a copper beer with a citrus aroma and an initial bite of American Cascade hops, named after Morgantown founder Zackquill Morgan (1291 University Ave., morgantownbrewing.com, pint from $4).
Game-day tradition: About 60,000 people trek into Milan Puskar Stadium for every home game—temporarily making it the biggest city in the state. Since 1972, the marching band has played John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" before every game—and should the Mountaineers prevail, fans stick around to sing it again, even louder.
Get your tickets: wvugame.com, from $45.
University of Mississippi Rebels
With a population of about 19,000, Oxford is a small town with a big Southern heritage—long on literary talent and with a penchant for (tasteful) partying. Visitors can learn about famous son William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, the 1840s Greek Revival plantation house on 33 acres just outside campus that he called home until his death in 1962. Along with Faulkner's actual Underwood typewriter, the outline for his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Fable, can be seen—scrawled in pencil on the plaster wall of his office (Old Taylor Rd., oldmiss.edu, $5). Keep it literary by exploring the Southern-author selection downtown at Square Books. Bonus: The indie bookstore has an upstairs café and a 90-foot-long balcony overlooking the Square, where browsers are free to linger as long as they'd like (160 Courthouse Square, squarebooks.com). The no-frills down-home cooking at Ajax Diner, just down the street, hits all the Southern-staple high notes—chicken and dumplings, fried catfish—plus more adventurous offerings like hot-tamale pie and spicy cheese grits stuffed with smoked pork, corn, and tomatoes; the restaurant's generously sized Bloody Marys are garnished with spears of pickled okra (118 Courthouse Square, ajaxdiner.net, entrées from $10, Bloody Mary $6). A similar update on old-school style can be found at The 5 Twelve Bed and Breakfast, just east of campus: Set in an antebellum home with 12-foot-high ceilings and a wraparound porch, the hotel's six guest rooms are decorated with colorful graphic Marimekko textiles (the Finnish company has a store in town) and other modern accents (512 Van Buren Ave., the512oxford.com, doubles from $105).
Game-day tradition: College football games and button-down shirts rarely go hand in hand, but at the 60,580-seat Vaught–Hemingway Stadium, Southern gentility is on display throughout the season; fans are expected to wear their Sunday best (ties for men, heels and dresses for ladies). Even the tailgate party has a classy spin: At the 10-acre Grove—a grassy expanse in the center of campus named for its abundance of oak, elm, and magnolia trees—tents are decked out with chandeliers, candelabras, fine china, lace doilies, and tablecloths. A common saying on the Grove: "We may not win every game, but we've never lost a party." With a catchphrase like that, it's no wonder Oxford is nicknamed the "Little Easy."
Get your tickets: olemisssports.com, from $25.