When it comes to football stadiums, the Southeastern Conference has an embarrassment of riches.
There is history at every stop. There also is construction at many sites. The SEC leads the nation in renovation projects that have been completed recently, are currently under way or are planned — usually to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Which SEC stadium is the best? That's in the eye of the beholder. For the college football fan, there's no place like home. But if you step back and try to take an impartial look, some stadiums move to the top of the list and some to the bottom.
For ranking purposes, we're talking about the complete fan experience, which includes what goes on outside the stadium as well as inside.
One caveat: I have not been to a football game at Kyle Field on the Texas A&M campus. Because of that, I solicited input from a number of friends in the business who have been to games there in an attempt to rank the A&M experience appropriately.
Let the games begin.
1. Tiger Stadium, LSU: This is really two different places: Tiger Stadium by day and Death Valley by night. Each is a top-tier setting, but there's nothing in college football quite like a night game at LSU. After a long day of tailgating, the party moves inside the stadium where it mushrooms. Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant called it "the worst place in the world for a visiting team." He was right.
2. Sanford Stadium, Georgia: To fans around the SEC, the Dawgs don't play at Sanford Stadium; they play between the hedges. Mascots Uga I through Uga VIII are buried in marble vaults on an embankment near the south stands. Precisely seven minutes before kickoff, a lone trumpeter plays the first 14 notes of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." It's quite a scene.
3. Kyle Field, Texas A&M: A $450 million renovation is in the works, but even without it this is one of the unique environments in college football. It is, after all, the Home of the 12th Man. Kyle Field doesn't have a student section. It has a student side. The east side of the stadium is filled with students who stand the entire game. Aggie Yell Leaders help crank up the volume.
4. Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina: Officially, the music is titled "Also Sprach Zarathustra." It is better known as the theme song from "2001: A Space Odyssey." It sets in motion a mad scene that culminates with the Gamecocks' entrance to the field through a cloud of smoke. South Carolina currently is riding the longest home winning streak in Division I — 18 games.
5. Neyland Stadium, Tennessee: It once had the largest capacity of any on-campus football stadium in the country but has since been passed. Even so, a major facelift initiated in 2004 has given Neyland Stadium a markedly better look and feel. From its signature checkerboard end zones to the unique opportunity of tailgating (boat-gating?) with the Vol Navy, it's an impressive setting.
6. Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama: After a stroll through The Quad, you can stop to see the statues of the five coaches who have won national championships with the Crimson Tide. Various renovation and expansion projects over the last few years have greatly improved the stadium. Note: The visiting team's locker room is named "The Fail Room" after Alabama alumnus and donor James M. Fail.
7. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Florida: With the band cranking out music from "Jaws" and fans doing the Gator chomp, The Swamp can be quite the raucous, intimidating venue. When Phillip Fulmer was coaching at Tennessee, his wife once left the premises in tears and vowed never to return. A lot of visiting teams wish they had that option.
8. Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn: Swing by Toomer's Corner and pay your respects to the oak trees Harvey Updyke poisoned before catching the Tiger Walk, where Auburn's players and coaches walk through a corridor of fans on their way to the stadium. Before the opening kickoff, War Eagle VII, also known as Nova, soars far above the stands before landing on the field.
9. Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Ole Miss: At every home game, there are hundreds of Rebels fans who never make it inside the stadium. Why? If you've ever participated in pre-game tailgating at The Grove, you would understand. The Grove, which encompasses about 10 acres, has been described as "the Holy Grail of tailgating" and "the mother and mistress of outdoor ritual mayhem."
10. Razorback Stadium, Arkansas: The addition of the second-largest video board in the United States (167 feet wide) enhances the fan experience. A planned renovation will push capacity to 80,000 or so when completed. In a conference known for its rowdy, loud supporters, the sound created when thousands of Razorbacks fans call the Hogs is in a league of its own.
11. Davis Wade Stadium, Mississippi State: When the SEC banned the use of artificial noise-makers, the rule was aimed at one device: the humble cowbell. In 2010, the SEC came up with the "cowbell compromise," and Bulldogs fans now can ring away between snaps. Reminders are posted for fans to "ring responsibly." A recent renovation of the north end stands has pushed capacity to 61,000.
12. Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium, Missouri: The Tigers' arrival in the SEC has coincided with major expansion projects at the stadium. They went so far as to move earth. Over the summer, the hill beyond the north end zone was repositioned closer to the field. The historic rock "M" — made of whitewashed stones — was broken down and stored until it could be reconstructed on the relocated hill.
13. Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky: Opened in 1973, this is the youngest of SEC stadiums. A $110 million renovation is under way, with the stated goal being to make the facility different from its conference brethren. At a press conference last November, principle architect Gerardo Prado said: "We don't want this to look like any other stadium in the Southeastern Conference." We'll see.
14. Vanderbilt Stadium, Vanderbilt: The game-day experience has become much better outside the stadium in the last handful of years, and the berm beyond the north end zone is a nice touch, but there has been only one major renovation of the facility since its construction in 1922. There is talk of a new stadium or a total makeover, but it remains in the planning stages.