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Ranking the 10 Toughest College Football Stadiums to Play in

SportRanking the 10 Toughest College Football Stadiums to Play in

EA Sports stirred up a lot of debate when it unveiled its rankings of the toughest places to play for the upcoming College Football 25 video game. I have my own thoughts based on some 30 years of covering the sport in which I’ve attended games at and been on the sidelines for many of the most charged stadium atmospheres in the country.

The loudest and craziest venue I’ve been to is the old Orange Bowl. When there was a huge Miami game there — usually a Florida State visit — nothing was quite like it. The closest thing I’ve seen is LSU’s Tiger Stadium. My colleagues at The Athletic had their own thoughts on the EA Sports list, and now here’s my ranking of the 10 toughest places to play in college football.

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College Football 25’s Toughest Places to Play: Debating the rankings

1. LSU: Tiger Stadium

The place is just pure mayhem, and it starts way before kickoff. I’ve heard from so many coaches over the years about how hostile the treatment of their teams is, from rattling their bus on arrival to dousing the visitors with booze. Just seeing Mike the Tiger in person adds another layer of intimidation to this.

Mike Leach told me the story of the first time he went in there when he was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky.

“There were these little old ladies with their grandchildren flipping off our bus,” Leach said. “Then as we got closer, they start rocking our bus!”

Count Leach among those awed by Mike the Tiger — and the entire experience.

I remember being there in 2007 when Florida and Tim Tebow came into Death Valley on a Saturday night for a top-10 showdown. Les Miles went for it five times on fourth down and his team — and their faithful — had his back every step of the way for a come-from-behind 28-24 win. It was a record crowd at the time of 92,910. It sounded like twice as many people were packed in there at a stadium that now holds more than 100,000.

There was also the legendary Earthquake Game in 1988. Technically, there were fewer than 80,000 fans in there to see LSU upset Auburn, 7-6. But a seismograph registered an earthquake after Tommy Hodson connected on a fourth-down TD pass with less than two minutes to play.

I asked former LSU staffer and longtime Louisiana media member Derek Ponamsky about the loudest he’s ever heard the place for a game, and he said it was in 2019 when another Florida team, ranked No. 6, visited.

“That game was insane from the second we stepped off the bus,” he said. “Ja’Marr (Chase’s) TD and our stop on fourth down in the red zone was almost as good as the Earthquake Game or Rueben Randle’s catch and run in 2010 against Alabama. But that stadium was a jet engine for six hours. It was LOUD before they even took the field. ‘College Gameday’ on campus. It was electric.”

If you meet someone who has never been around college football but wants the full experience, there is only one place they need to go to get it on full blast: LSU’s Death Valley.

2. Alabama: Bryant-Denny Stadium

My favorite visit here was for the 2010 Iron Bowl — the Cam Newton game. There was a ton of drama surrounding Auburn and Newton that season based on the NCAA’s investigation into his recruitment.

In the wake of this game, an Alabama staffer was let go because of their decision to play the Steve Miller Band song “Take the Money and Run” over the stadium sound system during warmups. It only added to the raucous energy in the building that day. The Tide jumped all over the Tigers early, going up 24-0, but Newton was Superman that season. He led Auburn to a 28-27 comeback win, snapping a 20-game home win streak for the Crimson Tide.

Bama also deserves a lot of credit for ratcheting up the stadium energy with the lights, audio and video boards they’ve added over the years. It can feel like a pretty mind-scrambling experience when they got rolling.

3. Penn State: Beaver Stadium

The Nittany Lions’ White Out games are deafening. Penn State usually saves it for the toughest matchup of the season, although with Fox’s recent “Big Noon” strategy factoring into Big Ten scheduling, sometimes it doesn’t end up that way.

The Nittany Lions have won six of their past seven prime-time White Outs, with six of those being against ranked opponents — including the 2016 win over No. 2 Ohio State. The lone defeat was against No. 4 Ohio State by one point, 27-26, in 2018. Last year, Penn State shut out No. 24 Iowa, 31-0.

But I can speak from experience that it’s not just the White Outs that make this place special. The atmosphere last November when No. 3 Michigan visited Happy Valley was the loudest noon kickoff game I can remember in the last decade — louder than any other “Big Noon” game I’ve been at — with almost 111,000 people in attendance. Michigan, which had the most experienced team in the country in 2023, did win that game, 24-15.

4. Ohio State: Ohio Stadium

The Buckeyes have been the Big Ten’s most dominant program for a long time now, so whoever shows up usually is facing a stacked team with a more talented roster. Still, the Horseshoe is a towering building that feels much different, and more intimidating, than the Big House at archrival Michigan. The crowd comes in ready to break its opponent early and seems shocked if there’s anything other than a dominant Buckeyes showing.

5. Virginia Tech: Lane Stadium*

The asterisk is here because I’m thinking of what this place has been in the past, not necessarily what it’s been in recent years. I get it. The results recently indicate otherwise. As colleague Pete Sampson noted, The Hokies are 2-10 at home against Top 25 teams in the past decade, but when the Hokies are playing well, this place is unique. I’ve been here for a few Hokies beatdowns of top-10 teams where the place rocks. It has some Tiger Stadium vibes to it, and there’s something special to it as well.

It only takes the first two seconds of “Enter Sandman” to play and I get goosebumps. It happens every time, even more than a decade later. It immediately takes me back to how Lane Stadium comes alive like no other venue, in a different way than Camp Randall Stadium and “Jump Around.” That’s frenzied; this is more ominous.

It also perfectly fit with their style of play. Based primarily on their vaunted special teams, but also their aggressive defense, the Hokies were college football’s preeminent sudden-change/quick-strike team. It often felt like they were one big swing away from turning the game around or blowing it open.

There was a decade-plus of Hokie magic from the late ’90s into the 2000s in the peak Frank Beamer days where Lane was a chamber of horrors. In 1999, Virginia Tech faced three Top 25 teams — Syracuse, Miami and Boston College — and outscored them by a combined 143-24 at home. In 2002, Tech smashed Nick Saban’s No. 14 LSU squad, 26-8. The next year, a top-10 Hokies team hammered No. 2 Miami, 31-7. In 2004, the Hokies beat No. 6 West Virginia. In 2005, they beat up on No. 15 Georgia Tech and No. 13 Boston College by a combined score of 81-17. In 2009, Lane Stadium hosted successive top-20 wins over Nebraska and Miami.

If Brent Pry can get the Hokies rolling again, Lane will become an opponent’s worst nightmare.

6. Florida: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

In my experience, The Swamp isn’t quite in the category with LSU and Bama, but it is right there with Tennessee and Georgia when it comes to a big-time, true SEC heavyweight experiences. Being there in the ’90s in the Steve Spurrier days to see the Gators face FSU and Bobby Bowden was fantastic.

7. Tennessee: Neyland Stadium

In my first trip to Knoxville, I saw Tennessee play Georgia in the late ’90s. The Vols were really rolling back then, and I got to be on the field in the end zone behind the Dawgs’ offense when they were backed up inside their own 10. I couldn’t even hear the person next to me. It was a sea of orange, and it’s easy to see why so many Top 25 teams have got thumped there over the years when UT was riding high. Georgia was No. 13 that day and lost to the Vols, 38-13.


Autzen Stadium punches above its weight in crowd noise. (Tom Hauck / Getty Images)

8. Oregon: Autzen Stadium

I remember one rival staffer telling me that they must pump in noise in practice the week before they face the Ducks. It doesn’t seem like a place that size — seating 54,000 — can be that loud. It just didn’t make sense to him. But in a matchup of top 10 teams, the Ducks pounded their visitors by almost three touchdowns.

Autzen Stadium is also a place where you can see almost every kind of weather imaginable in the same day. Oregon has been great there for a long time and has defeated 31 of its past 32 opponents at Autzen.

9. Georgia: Sanford Stadium

I remember seeing a good Boise State team come in there ranked No. 18 against No. 13 Georgia in 2005. The Broncos just came unglued and looked overwhelmed, losing 48-13. It was 38-0 before the Broncos settled down. Jared Zabransky, who was a really good QB for Boise State, had his first two passes intercepted and turned it over six times in the first half.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been any easier for visitors now that the Dawgs are even more talented. UGA has won 13 consecutive games against Top 25 opponents at Sanford Stadium.

10. Texas A&M: Kyle Field

I’ve been there when the press box shakes. Kyle Field is an awesome building that gets really, really loud, and opponents complain that their sidelines smell like horse manure. My first trip for a game was Johnny Manziel’s debut against Florida. He was dynamic. The building shook. A&M lost, though. That’s why Kyle Field is not higher on my list, even if it’s No. 1 in EA Sports’ rankings.

When A&M has been really good, the Aggies have still struggled at home more than they should. Manziel led them to a win at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012, but the next year, as wild as it felt to be in Kyle Field for the rematch, A&M lost.

(Top photo: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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