I’m a firm believer in the greatness of experiencing games at places other than Notre Dame Stadium. While I love few things more than Saturdays in the fall in South Bend, the best part of college football is the diversity – that around the country there are different fight songs being blasted from pick-up trucks and SUVs, cookers with every kind of meat from alligator to whole hogs, and traditions from touching rocks and signs for good luck to live tigers and buffalo on the sidelines.
If college football is like a religion, away games let you see how other sects worship, with their own cathedrals and chants and sacred meals. You get to see the quirky rituals and local passion, and there’s usually both a mutual respect and also healthy bit of hostility depending on the destination. It’s the opportunity to both jump into new traditions and represent the enemy in hostile territory – which usually is good fun, as long as you aren’t obnoxious or unlucky.
With all that in mind, l've ranked the potential destinations to watch the Irish play in 2015. The totally subjective categories:
· Opponent Quality: The better the opponent, the bigger the game. Bonus points for rivalries/traditional powers.
· Stadium Experience: Combination of stadium itself and game day atmosphere
· College town: How are the surrounding attractions, sights, campus, and food?
· Logistics: How easy is it to get there? Will the weather be decent? What are ticket prices like?
#6 – at Temple, Oct. 31 (Lincoln Financial Field)
Opponent Quality: 4
Stadium Experience: 3
College Town: 5
The biggest thing that jumped out to me looking at opponent quality for each of these six games - there is no real cupcake. Temple may look like the best candidate at a surface level, but the Owls quietly had a great defense last season, improved from 2-10 to 6-6, and return almost every starter on both sides of the ball. There isn't much in the way of football tradition to build off of, but Matt Rhule is definite on the "Doing Good Things" watch-list.
"The Linc" is a pretty generic NFL stadium – recently updated with HD video boards and expanded seating but without many unique qualities. This feels like a game that will be a sell-out in the official books but have plenty of empty seats available – expensive tickets will not be an issue.
Pro stadiums just don’t feel right - no campus to explore, generic parking lot tailgating, bands usually get shoved into a corner – it’s a more sanitized, generic experience. Even against a great venue like Jerry World I’ll take the small town passion and wackiness of Starkville, Pullman, or Manhattan every time.
Philadelphia provides easy travel, benefits of a big city (lots of hotels), and a few unique charms – cheesesteaks! Posing with the Rocky statue! The problem is that this game won’t feel much like a true away game, losing points for being in an off-campus stadium and without much football tradition to speak of with the Owls.
#5 – at Pittsburgh, Nov. 7
Opponent Quality: 6
Stadium Experience: 5
College Town: 4
After Temple it’s a big leap up the ladder to Pitt – this game frankly scares me. James Conner is a wrecking ball and ideally at this point in the season the Panthers are again trying to ruin Notre Dame’s bid for a playoff spot or top bowl game.
Heinz Field is an above-average NFL stadium in a great location, but as mentioned earlier I’m not a big fan of pro stadiums, and black and yellow will still dominate the area around the field. Unlike many other Panther home games, though, this one should be a sell-out and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Pitt’s best crowd of the year.
I have never been to Pittsburgh, and while it seems nice (I’d love to catch a Pirates games there) it is not an ideal destination in November. It’s a classic low-upside game – win and you’ve only done what is expected of you, lose and lol you lost Pitt!
#4 – vs. Boston College, Nov. 21 (Fenway Park)
Opponent Quality: 5
Stadium Experience: 8
College Town: 8
I’ve never been to Boston or Fenway Park, so maybe this is the voice of inexperience, but this game is much lower on the list than I expected. Boston will be a great host for the Shamrock Series and as usual I’m sure Notre Dame will have some great events surrounding the game. Boston College seems to be headed in the right direction under Steve Addazio, but breaks in a new quarterback and will likely finish in the middle of the pack in the ACC at best.
This is also technically an Irish home game, which has drawbacks and benefits. No new tradition to experience, but I’m there will be some excitement with alternate uniforms as well as notes taken by fun-loving fans on how Notre Dame decides to use the "video board".
The Shamrock Series in general seems to be plateauing or heading the wrong direction – Purdue/Boston College/Army as opponents is a pretty significant step down from the previous three years of Maryland/Miami/Arizona State. The destinations are now being run back around with the Alamodome on the schedule again next year – at least it’s a return to more fertile recruiting ground in Texas. Rant over, but it would be great to see future games capitalizing on opportunities to hit new and valuable cities – the new stadium in Atlanta, New Orleans, and a return to Jerry World would be high on my list.
Back to the regularly scheduled program - a lot of what makes this a difficult destination is ticket scarcity and price. Do I really want to shell out $400+ for this game just because it’s Fenway? At the end of the day Boston College is a friendly rivalry* but not a marquee opponent, and it’s a ton of money at the gate to spend to freeze your ass off in a baseball stadium.
*Let’s not debate this First Take style, because there’s nothing worse than a haughty debate over what deserves to be called a rivalry
#3– at Virginia, Sept. 12
Opponent Quality: 4
Stadium Experience: 6
College Town: 9
Let the controversy begin, but I’d go to this game before Fenway. Virginia may not be a powerhouse program, but Charlottesville is a great destination. The Cavaliers are likely a borderline bowl team at best, and Jefferson Stadium isn’t a legendary setting (actually I just tricked you, it’s really Scott Stadium, but the fact that you didn’t know tells the story). But Virginia looks to be a great away game to check out with a new opponent – the Irish and Hoos have played only once, in 1989 at Giants Stadium.
Charlottesville is a bit of a hike from Richmond or Washington DC, but was named the best college town in the ACC in this recent poll of conference media folk. Without the reputation of an Athens or Madison as a big-time college town, Charlottesville quietly has something for everyone - history, culture, tailgating, and places to party. The weather will be perfect for tailgating, the campus is beautiful, and it should be an Irish win.
#2 – at Stanford, Nov. 28
Opponent Quality: 8
Stadium Experience: 6
College Town: 8
This has been an incredible series in the past few years, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue again this season. In the past ten meetings Notre Dame has the edge – barely. The Irish are 6-4 against Stanford in the past ten meetings, with total points in those ten contests adding up to Notre Dame: 241, Stanford: 240.
Stanford will be the underdog, but the Cardinal were better than their 8-5 record last year (18th in F/+) and Kevin Hogan improved down the stretch. They may not be ranked at the time of this game –the Pac-12 is going to be a bloodbath – but should be a stiff challenge for Notre Dame in a regular season finale that could have huge consequences for postseason destinations.
Have you ever wanted the opportunity to boo a dumb tree mascot and the Stanford band? Here’s your chance. The timing isn’t ideal post-Thanksgiving, but Palo Alto is a quick train ride away from San Francisco and Stanford’s campus is gorgeous. Tickets should not be too big of a challenge, and there’s usually a pretty large contingent of Irish fans in Stanford Stadium.
#1 – at Clemson, Oct. 3
Opponent Quality: 9
Stadium Experience: 10
College Town: 7
Best opponent on the road? Check.
Tradition and Tailgating? Check.
Loudest atmosphere of the year? I wish not, but probably check.
Eric’s preview tells you everything you need to know about Clemson, but there’s a pretty good chance the Tigers will be 3-0, assuming they take care of business on the road at Louisville. If the Irish can make it to this game 4-0 then it will be a game of gigantic proportions.
Death Valley is conveniently located within walking distance of downtown Clemson and on-campus, so the tailgating scene should be somewhere between Joe Flacco and Tom Brady levels of eliteness. Expect plenty of Carolina barbecue and bourbon to be flowing, and the weather should be perfect for an evening kickoff.
The biggest concerns here? Getting to Clemson isn’t easy, and tickets for this game will cost you – cheapest seats on Stubhub are now at least $200. If you’re outside driving distance then the closest major airports are 2.5 hours out (Atlanta, Charlotte). But this is easily the biggest away game of 2015, Death Valley won’t disappoint, and I can’t make a good argument for picking any other game as the best road trip this year.