The nine best college football cultures you've never heard of
You know Happy Valley and the Horseshoe. Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee. The Grove and The Swamp. Blue-chip college football cultures that sustain cities, divide households, and dominate headlines week-in, week-out, 52 weeks a year. But the reality is, these famed football institutions make up but a sliver of the American CFB pie (apple, in case you were wondering.) The rest exist in frozen fly-over towns and southern backwaters, where, 1,000 miles from the nearest GameDay production truck, some of the most rabid fanbases in all of sports have hooted, hollered, and tailgated in relative anonymity for decades. BUT NO MORE! To celebrate yet another year of chemically imbalanced college football mania, we ditched the beaten path to investigate nine of the best college football cultures you’ve never heard of—dragging their fight songs, rivalry games, and stadiums out of the darkness and into the light. Which reminds us, you might want to pack your shades...
Jackson State Tigers
Location: Jackson, Mississippi
Claim to Fame: The Sonic Boom of the South
While Grambling and Southern might be the more recognizable names, Jackson State is the true heart of the SWAC. In terms of loyalty, Walter Payton’s alma mater have long traded punches with the SEC big dogs, playing in the 60,492-seat Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium and regularly outdrawing Mississippi State and Ole Miss during their late ‘90s heyday. But it’s the pageantry—led by the actual Best Damn Band in the Land, the Sonic Boom of the South, who kick off every game with a stomping rendition of the Motown classic “Get Ready”—that truly sets the Tigers apart.
Location: Easton, Pennsylvania
Claim to Fame: “The Rivalry”
One half of the most-played rivalry game in the history of college football, the Lafayette Leopards have waged annual war on Lehigh 154 times and counting. They got shellacked 34-3 last year and are regularly overshadowed by Penn State to the west, but none of that diminishes the legacy of one college football’s first true powerhouses, claiming three National Championships by 1926. Throw the autumnal hamlet of Easton into the mix, and you'll see Lafayette for what it truly is: College football paradise.
Location: Laramie, Wyoming
Claim to Fame: Two-Mile High
Thanks to big-name exports like Dennis Erickson and Josh Allen, Wyoming are no secret, but that doesn’t make the nation’s least populous state’s biggest football powerhouse any less fascinating. Each year they battle Colorado State for the Bronze Boot in the so-called “Border War,” the oldest (and perhaps meanest) rivalry game west of Kansas. They lead a rousing recitation of “In Heaven, There is No Beer” at every home game, played at War Memorial Stadium, the highest elevation home field in FBS at a whopping 7,200 feet above sea level (nearly 2,000 feet higher than Mile High for those of you keeping score at home). Suffice to say, you’re more likely to catch a Cowboys game on TV this year than your breath.
Simon Fraser University Clan
Location: Burnaby, British Columbia
Claim to Fame: The only college football team in Canada
To call the SFU Clan the “Toronto Raptors of college football” might be a clunky comparison, but it’s not necessarily wrong. Like the Raptors, the Clan are the only sports team of their ilk in Canada, because while the other 27 college football programs in the country adhere to CFL rules under the banner of U Sports Football, SFU play the game 'merican style HOO-AHH. Members of NCAA Division II’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference since 2010, SFU have yet to claim a conference championship, but don’t worry Clan fans: It took the Raptors 24 years for their first one too.
North Dakota State Bison
Location: Fargo, North Dakota
Claim to Fame: THE FARGODOMEEEEE
The most-dominant force in FCS, winning seven of the last eight national championships, the North Dakota State Bison boast a fanbase so rabid and a track record so impressive that you have to wonder why Rutgers gets the plush Power Five digs and not them. But no matter. The green-and-yellow stampede still pack the Fargodome—the Death Valley of the Upper Midwest, if you will—to turn “Thunderstruck” to eleven and watch players like Carson Wentz and Easton Stick stuff their opponents into the proverbial wood chipper.
Eastern Washington Eagles
Location: Cheney, Washington
Claim to Fame: THE INFERNOOOOO
The team the Bison beat in the last year’s FCS Championship Game? The Eastern Washington Eagles, who have won five of seven Big Sky conference championships since introducing the college football world to the unholy force known as The Inferno. The nickname given to Roos Field after installation of DEF CON-red turf back in 2010—the same year EWU won their first and only national championship—The Inferno has become a college football cauldron where FBS legacy programs fear to tread, as evidenced by the Eagles’ Week 1 road trip to take on the Washington Huskies this season.
Northern Iowa Panthers
Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa
Claim to Fame: The “Interlude Dance”
You probably know the Northern Iowa Panthers more for their NCAA Tournament exploits than football prowess, but rest assured they’re a force to be reckoned with between the hash marks as well, regularly filling their 16,000-seat mini-dome to the brim for the biggest show in Cedar Falls. The only thing the UNI faithful love more than tailgating, though, is their signature “interlude dance,” which they break out before the second half of every home game. Granted it’s only the second best college football tradition in Iowa, but the Panthers do have their Big Ten brethren beat in one respect: A whopping thirty-three conference titles, the most of any Iowa Division I program.
Authenticos Tigres UANL
Location: Monterrey, Mexico
Claim to Fame: One of the winningest college football programs…in Mexico
A modern skyline juxtaposed against the verdant backdrop of Cerro de la Silla. The warm August sun beating down as the Tigers’ two-a-days. If we didn’t know any better, we’d say this was the scene at some California tech school, but instead it’s that of UANL’s Authenticos Tigres, one of the winningest college football programs in [slams empty tequila shot glass back down on the bar] Mexico. Yes, that’s right. Mexico has college football—a decent amount of it actually—but nowhere has it been more successful than at the Universidad Autonoma De Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, who claimed their sixth Liga Mayor championship in 2018 in one of the most beautiful settings in all of college football, regardless of country.
Location: Missoula, Montana
Claim to Fame: The best homefield advantage in college football
File this under a sentence we never thought we’d write: Montana are a completely, utterly, totally dominant college football force. The Alabama of Big Sky country, right down to the maroon unis, the Griz, as they're affectionately known, hold records for most consecutive playoff appearances (17), Big Sky conference titles (12), and wins since 2000 (119). And while the teams and coaching staff have certainly done their part, most of the credit goes to Washington-Grizzly Stadium and the bear den that inhabits it. One of the greatest gauntlets in college football, Montana holds a mind-boggling .890 win percentage on their home turf and out drew 44 FBS programs in 2015. Throw in fresh mountain air and an in-state rivalry game with Montana State dubbed the “Brawl of the Wild” and you have a college football culture to make the SEC blush.