A Week 1 tilt in (my opinion) America’s best college football town

By: Stephan Teodosescu

MADISON, Wisc. — Earlier this season ESPN’s College GameDay ran a contest known as the Shell Football Town Showdown asking fans to vote for their favorite college football game day town in America. Fans were able to vote on Twitter through early October before a champion was crowned. It so happened I took in a game in Madison, which was one of the semi-finalist cities, when the Wisconsin Badgers played the school that was home to the eventual winner — Penn State — in Week 1 of the 2021 season.

While I haven’t been to a lot on the short list they called out including State College, it’s hard to imagine many better than the state capital of Wisconsin. Madison is known for several things — being a politically blue enclave in an election swing state, having a great summer farmer’s market, and delicious cheese curds, among other things. But none more famous than its game day atmosphere for a Wisconsin Badgers football game.

The Pregame

Driving into town from Chicago, I was greeted by Lake Monona and Lake Mendota as I arrived from the east. One of the first things you notice as you drive along the isthmus in between the two picturesque lakes is the the Capitol peaking over other buildings that dot the downtown Madison skyline. It’s not Chicago of course, but Madison has a unique feel of being a moderately big city while staying true to its college town roots.

I parked near the Capitol along with other early arriving fans and did the two-mile walk down State Street from the Farmer’s Market to take in the full game day scene. You pass by bars and restaurants serving patrons ready to head to the stadium, frat parties, older alumni eating 9 am brats and beers, and campus buildings before eventually making your way to the stadium on the western part of campus.

FOX Big Noon Kickoff featuring Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush was also in town for the occasion. The Fox pregame show set up shop in the engineering quad on the University of Wisconsin campus and did its best to replicate the success of the aforementioned College GameDay, ESPN’s flagship college football show. During the pregame the show’s hosts previewed the Week 1 games on live TV and got the crowd involved in certain segments by giving out prizes and free stuff to the thousand-or-so people in attendance. They also introduced new Wisconsin Athletic Director, Chris McIntosh, a former All-American offensive lineman with the Badgers, to great fanfare. He replaced Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez in the post this year.

The area surrounding the Big Noon Kickoff stage was the place to be prior to the game if you didn’t have a dedicated tailgate spot to do your pregame festivities. There were tents serving food and beer including appropriately Drink Wisconsibly branded beer. While many college football stadiums are starting to buck the decades-long trend of not allowing alcohol sales as a way to compensate for the loss of revenue brought on by the pandemic, Camp Randall Stadium still doesn’t allow it. It’s a little comical for a state known for beer drinking and tailgating. Either way Badger fans were drinking plenty prior to kickoff to compensate for the four-plus hours of no alcohol ahead of them.

The Atmosphere

It had been 651 days since fans last packed Camp Randall Stadium entering this matchup, so you knew the atmosphere was going to be next level. You can feel the energy even before you enter the stadium; fans are into the game from the opening kickoff.

The atmosphere is most apparent when you take in Wisconsin’s most prized tradition, Jump Around. At the end of the third quarter House of Pain’s 1989 hit comes on over the stadium loud speakers and sends the entire stadium into a jumping frenzy. I was sitting in the upper deck, and while not as many people jump in that part of the stadium as what you see in the student section, you can still feel the ground shaking beneath your feet. Legend has it they tell visiting members of the media they shouldn’t worry when they feel the press box, which sits atop the upper deck, rocking back and forth.

The Stadium

Camp Randall Stadium is quintessential Big Ten. A behemoth of a stadium built in the early 1900s it has played host to Badger football since 1917. The stadium that rests on the grounds of an old Civil War training site holds more than 80,000, which ranks it 18th largest in the country among college football stadiums, but is somehow still only the fifth largest in the Big Ten. That’s thanks to the three largest — Michigan Stadium, Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Ohio Stadium — all exceeding 100,000 capacity for football.

The Game

Nobody really enjoys an 11am kickoff, but the Big Ten insists on having them. In Wisconsin they won’t complain about having to fire up the grills and break out the coolers that early in the day though. Plus the Big Ten decided to make Week 1 a conference matchup week which injected immediate life into the season instead of starting off the campaign with a cupcake FCS matchup like teams tend to do early in the season.

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz looked like an early Heisman contender after picking apart Illinois in his freshman debut last season, going 20-of-21 with five touchdowns. But COVID-19 issues turned the season upside down for the Badgers as they finished 4-3. Penn State meanwhile lost its first five games before winning four straight to close out the season making this one a clash of teams who had finished the year going in opposite directions.

If you’re a fan of classic, Big Ten defensive football this game was for you. Neither team scored in the first half, and only three drives crossed midfield in that span. Wisconsin possessed the ball for more than 42 minutes, but a couple of big yardage plays on offense in the second half and a goal-line stand at the end of the game helped Penn State beat the Badgers 16-10.

Wisconsin lost on this day in early September and also got edged out by Penn State in ESPN’s college football town poll, but I have hard time believing it gets much better than Madison on a Saturday in the fall making it a must-stop for any serious college football fan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s