For many football fans, almost nothing signals the beginning of fall like that first pre-game tailgate of the season. Tents and RVs crowd campus, coolers are packed with cold drinks, and team rivalries are temporarily set aside so fans on both sides can relax before the intensity of the game. (Well, most rivalries are set aside.)
Tailgating has been a staple of college football for so long that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when people didn’t have parties under tents and around trucks instead of in the comfort of their homes. But what’s the story behind the food, games, and sometimes-outrageous traditions at pregame festivities?
One of the first “tailgates” occurred during the Civil War at the Battle of Bull Run, according to the American Tailgater Association (ATA). Civilians from the Union side supposedly wanted to show support for their “team,” bringing baskets of food to the battle location and shouting “Go Big Blue!”
The ATA says that the first known act of pre-game celebration in competitive sports occurred in 1869 during the inaugural football game between Princeton and Rutgers (the game was actually more similar to what we now know as rugby). Some Rutgers fans showed support for their team by wearing scarlet-colored scarves; this is the first time fans were known to differentiate themselves by wearing their school’s colors.
These days, coolers have replaced horse-drawn wooden wagons, or “chuck wagons,” for food and drink transportation, some of the food selection and quality rivals that of restaurants, and tailgate games such as Cornhole are ubiquitous.
So which schools have the “biggest and baddest” tailgating scenes? Of course, the answer will vary depending on who you ask, but every year the Bleacher Report does some serious investigative work to come up with its top 25 football tailgating schools. The top five for 2015 are 1) Ole Miss, 2) LSU, 3) Wisconsin, 4) Tennessee and 5) Penn State. In case you’re wondering, Auburn came in at No. 9 this year, attributed in part to traditionally being one of the “friendliest villages for opposing fans in all of college football.”
Here are some tailgating highlights from around the country:
Auburn: Home is where the heart is
Auburn may not be the most famous tailgating school, but if you’re a true Tiger, nothing can compare to the “family” atmosphere that can be seen, heard, and felt as you make your way through campus on game days. From the sporadic, distant chants of “Bodda-getta” and fight-song sing-alongs to the famous Tiger Walk and generous nature of so many tailgaters, it’s easy to say that Auburn provides a special tailgating experience amid the “loveliest” backdrop you can imagine.
Ole Miss: Elegance personified
At Ole Miss, it’s all about location. The Grove, located at the center of campus, is arguably the most famous tailgating spot in the country. You’ll see 10 acres of Rebels fans dressed to the nines—think red dresses, pearls, and blue sports coats. “Though the (fans) will be hooting and hollering later on at the game, for the tailgate, this mass gathering more closely resembles the festive and formal atmosphere in and around the Kentucky Derby than a college kegger,” says the Bleacher Report.
Wisconsin: Downtown block party
At first mention, Wisconsin tailgating may seem less than ideal compared to your typical warm-climate SEC tailgate set up on rolling green lawns. It’s cold for almost every game, and Camp Randall Stadium is tightly nestled in downtown Madison. But the camaraderie and excitement that Badger fans—tens of thousands of them—bring to their tailgates seems to make up for those potential inconveniences. The entire area is transformed into a party atmosphere, and you know you’re getting the best of the best when it comes to bratwurst, beer and cheese.
LSU: Food, food, food
Food is also essential for a great tailgating experience, and perhaps no school does pre-game cuisine better than LSU in Baton Rouge. The typical spread includes all you would expect from a city steeped in Cajun tradition—jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish, frog legs, and even some grilled alligator if the Florida Gators come to town. In fact, some tailgaters around Tiger Stadium have more and better kitchen equipment than some restaurants.
Texas A&M: Midnight Yell
The authentic barbecue you’ll find around the Texas A&M campus is also noteworthy, but the most famous Aggie pre-game tradition is the Midnight Yell. Students and the band gather at Kyle Field at midnight before a home game for Yell Practice (aka a pep rally). Fans practice their yells for the upcoming game and officially kick off tailgating festivities.
WVU: ‘Country Roads’
Not all great tailgating traditions happen before the game. Possibly the most bizarre post-game celebration takes place at West Virginia University, according to the Bleacher Report. Some Mountaineer fans set couches and outdoor furniture afire around Morgantown, creating an unmistakable stench for miles. However, couch burning is actually illegal and not an official WVU tradition. You’ll probably find more WVU fans sticking around the stadium stands after the game, linking arms and singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as the band plays along.