Best band and song girls: USC
On a clear day at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, you can see the Hollywood sign and the bevy of celebrities who roam the Trojans sidelines. Still, nothing says "glamour school" more than the ubiquitous presence of the USC Song Girls and the Trojans marching band.
USC's band is known as the Spirit of Troy, but it could just as well be called the Spirit of College Football.
A contingent of the Spirit of Troy travels to all road games, and leader Arthur C. Bartner can call on a repertoire that's almost as deep as coach Pete Carroll's roster.
"Fight On," USC's official fight song, is a little cornball, but the Spirit of Troy more than makes up for the hokum with the stirring "Tribute to Troy" and the soaring "Conquest," both of which are the equivalent of B-side songs that outdo the A-side hit.
Since 1967, there have been no cheerleaders at USC, only Song Girls, and watching a USC football game without their presence would be like a trip to Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood and ordering chicken but no waffles.
More than any other sport, college football is a visceral experience, and the Spirit of Troy brings one of the most stirring sounds in college football, while the USC Song Girls give Trojans games one of the sport's most indelible sights.
Best fan support: Oregon
Autzen Stadium in Eugene is easy on the eyes but hard on the ears.
The stadium is nestled along the Willamette River and comes complete with stunning views of the Cascade Mountains, so bring your camera. But don't forget to pack your ear plugs. Sure, the more than 54,000 fans who crowd the stadium are loud and boisterous, but they're also relentless. They're smart, too, letting up on the decibel level only when it's to the home team's benefit.
Compared to multi-decked madhouses at places like LSU, Tennessee and Ohio State, Oregon's single-level bowl keeps a relatively low profile. But people in the know, know all about Autzen.
On "College GameDay," Lee Corso likes to talk, but he also keeps an ear to the ground, and this is what he hears at Autzen: "Per person," Corso says, "the Oregon stadium is the loudest I've ever been in."
Then there's Keith Jackson, who heard it all during more than a half-century calling college football games. "Per square yard," Jackson said of Autzen, "the loudest stadium in the history of the planet."
Autzen Stadium can be seen in the 1978 comedy classic "Animal House," and the flick's title serves as an apt description of the place:
Best unique tradition: Texas A&M
At its best, college football is more interactive experience than spectator sport. There's the "Jump Around" at Wisconsin, Nebraska's Tunnel Walk and Notre Dame's tradition of having students paint the team's helmets gold.
But no school takes the notion of fans and team working in concert quite to the extent that Texas A&M does. At Kyle Field, the student body spends the entire game on its feet, a symbolic 12th Man, ready to lend a hand in case they are called upon.
The 12th Man is not only a cool tradition; it's a longstanding one with an organic back story. With injuries decimating his team in the 1922 Dixie Classic, Aggies coach Dana X. Bible was fearful of running out of players in a game against Centre College. So he called E. King Gill, who had recently left the football team to concentrate on basketball, from the stands to fortify his squad.
Texas A&M went on to win the game, 22-14. Gill didn't play a down, but he did answer the call and stood at the ready, and now the entire Aggies student body does likewise at every game at Kyle Field.
You can pretty much judge a crowd's level of engagement by the amount of time it spends on its collective feet, and no student body is more committed to its team than the Aggies, who render useless a whole lot of the 83,002 seats at Kyle Field in College Station.
Best halftime show: Ohio State
Who knew reading and writing could be this fun? At Ohio State, tradition is spelled right out for you.
Since 1936, halftime shows at the famed Horseshoe in Columbus have featured the Ohio State Marching Band -- aka "the Best Damn Band in the Land" -- spelling out "Ohio" in script with connectors in the "O" and a looping "h" as exquisite as the ones scripted by your elementary school penmanship teacher.
It all happens while the band plays "Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse." The formation is punctuated with a lone fourth- or fifth-year sousaphone player breaking off from the band to dot the "i."
The spectacle is performed with the kind of choreographed precision rarely seen since the demise of the Jackson Five. Sixteen measures after the band completes "Le Regiment," the drum major leads the sousaphone player from the formation, then points to the top of the "i." With tens of thousands fans worked up to a froth, the sousaphone player dots the "i" before doing a big, theatrical kick, taking a deep bow and tipping his or her cap to the crowd.
Penn State has its linebackers, and USC has its tailbacks. At Ohio State, it's all about the sousaphone player.
(Note that on rare occasions, the band invites nonmembers to dot the "i." Among those who have had the honor bestowed upon them are Jack Nicklaus, Woody Hayes and Bob Hope.)
Best postgame party: University of Texas
Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus now seats 100,113, and it seems as if every last one of those fans makes his or her way to Austin's Sixth Street and its surrounding environs after the game to finish the day with a flourish.
Locals and tourists alike crowd the seven-block stretch of Sixth Street, where the scene is part Mardi Gras, part New Year's Eve and part Halloween. After Longhorns games, the costume of choice is burnt orange.
Austin is known as the "Live Music Capital of the World" and the scene at countless venues ranges from hip-hop to country to, well, everything in between. Restaurants like El Arroyo and Stubb's feature Tex-Mex, barbecue and other regional specialties, making Austin the perfect place to end a perfect college football game day.