North Carolina on Friday will board a plane and fly down to Atlanta, where the Tar Heels will begin on-site preparation for their season-opening game on Saturday against Georgia in the Georgia Dome. Sadly, Larry Fedora and his players will probably miss out on Dragon Con.
It’s a good bet the Tar Heels won’t take in the Atlanta experience. No trip to Coca-Cola headquarters, or a tour of CNN. But you can do those things.
For the most-devoted fans, one of the joys of college football season is the weekend road trip – or flight, if it applies – to follow their team wherever it goes. And UNC this season has some better-than-average road trips: in Atlanta, where you can try about 349 different flavors of Coke at Coke headquarters and visit a top-notch aquarium, at Illinois, at Florida State, at Virginia in the middle of fall in postcard-pretty Charlottesville, Va.
Those who plan to follow UNC on the road week in and week out could do a lot worse. With the season here (basically), let this be your definitive guide for UNC road trips. A ranking of those trips, from best to least best, with some thoughts on how to make the most of your travel experience:
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1. Sept. 3 vs. Georgia in Atlanta
Why No. 1: Did I mention that Dragon Con is happening in Atlanta this weekend? I thought so. Should make for some festive sights around town. But really: tough to beat opening the season in Atlanta in the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, which has become a premier opening-weekend event.
Stadium atmosphere: Be assured that the Georgia Dome can rock. And will on Saturday, likely with an overwhelmingly pro-Georgia crowd present. There’s nowhere for all that noise to go, either, except off of the top of the dome and back down. It will be loud.
City atmosphere: You know Atlanta. Perhaps no major city in the country cares more about college football. There are many things to do.
Personal memory: Halloween in Atlanta on the eve of Florida State at Georgia Tech in 2008 was a very long night.
How to do it right: Mandatory stops at Fat Matt’s and/or Fox Bros. will quench your lust for BBQ. Wash it all down at dinner with a burger from The Vortex (Little 5 Points location). Check out the College Football Hall of Fame early on Saturday. Proceed to dome, tailgate, wait for kickoff.
2. Oct. 1 at Florida State
Why No. 2: Because when the Seminoles are good, Tallahassee’s game day environment is about as good as it gets in the ACC.
Stadium atmosphere: Strong, at least when Florida State has a great team. (And it should, by the way.) Doak Campbell Stadium should be full, or very close to it, and when the band is blaring and 83,000 people are doing Tomahawk chop, you’ll wonder how the Seminoles have ever lost a game here.
City atmosphere: Lively, on game days. And even more so, again, when the Seminoles are at their best. Like many smaller Southern towns with a big-time college football, Tallahassee becomes a different place on fall Saturday when the Seminoles are at home.
Personal memory: Four years of them from my time as the honorable Florida State beat reporter for the Orlando Sentinel but I’ll go old-school and say Florida State’s 2003 overtime victory against N.C. State. The loudest I’ve ever heard a college football stadium.
How to do it right: Arrive in Tallahassee on Friday, either by road or air, and head southeast until you reach Apalachicola. Locate Boss Oyster on the Apalachicola Bay. Locate seat on back deck overlooking water. Order a bucket of oysters, fresh from the bay. Repeat as often as desired. Make it back to Tallahassee on Friday night in time for the big downtown shindig they host on Fridays before home games. On Saturday arrive at Doak early and, before finding your seat, be a tourist and take a picture with the Bobby Bowden, in statue standing outside near one of the entrances to Doak.
3. Oct. 15 at Miami
Why No. 3: Tough to beat South Florida for a weekend, even if Hard Rock Stadium – that’s what they’re calling it now, huh? – is somewhat removed from everything anyone would want to do there.
Stadium atmosphere: Should be better now that the place has undergone a major renovation but, still, if there’s an opposite of all things natural beauty – trees, greenery, the beach, a nice shrub – then the exterior of this place is it: drab, covered in concrete, surrounded by acres and acres of parking spaces that Dolphins and Hurricanes fans have been too sad to use in recent years.
City atmosphere: There’s something for everyone in South Florida, from ritzy Las Olas Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale to South Beach in Miami to the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve some of the best Cuban food outside of Havana. And look at this, I made it this entire thing without a Club LIV reference. You can go there, too.
Personal memory: The start of Tim Tebow mania (at least the NFL version) in 2011 when he led the Broncos to a wacky comeback victory at Miami, which didn’t win a single regular season game I covered that season. That was a fun locker room.
How to do it right: Many, many ways, but they all include a trip to South Beach – just to experience it, if you haven’t been – and a stop in at Versailles, which is the cliché Cuban restaurant recommendation for a reason. One of these days, too, I’ll make it to Joe’s Stone Crab.
4. Oct. 22 at Virginia
Why No. 4: Charlottesville in the fall is much like Chapel Hill in the fall: picturesque and charming, with fall color everywhere and happy people strolling the streets carrying pumpkin-spiced drinks, basking in all the beauty.
Stadium atmosphere: A beautiful on-campus stadium that lacks a great atmosphere for games, though that’s understandable given the trauma Cavaliers fans endured during the Mike London era. If Bronco Mendenhall is successful, it should only be a matter of time before the atmosphere inside Scott Stadium does justice to the surroundings near it.
City atmosphere: Charming, quaint – all those things. The similarities between UNC and Virginia are striking. No new observation there, but if you appreciate the aesthetic of Chapel Hill, you’ll derive the same kind of feeling from walking around downtown Charlottesville.
Personal memory: Many a drive up N.C. Highway 86 into Virginia, the road changing names a few times and becoming more colorful, in the fall, by the mile. Chapel Hill to Charlottesville: the best drive in the ACC.
How to do it right: Depends on the game time but, if possible, a trip to Monticello – the Thomas Jefferson estate – is a worthwhile venture. Then before the game head down to The Corner, where you won’t lack for eating and thirst-quenching options. A stroll through the Lawn on a crisp fall Saturday is a worthy venture, as well.
5. Sept. 10 at Illinois
Why No. 5: Because I’ve never been! And, thus, aren’t quite sure where to rank it.
Stadium atmosphere: Probably reflective of the long misery Illini fans have endured. Four winning seasons in 15 years, and two of those winning seasons barely qualify: 7-6 finishes that hardly inspired the masses at Memorial Stadium. Also, this ranking put Illinois’ Memorial Stadium behind Maryland’s Byrd Stadium. Sad!
City atmosphere: Downright pleasant in some places, undoubtedly. But I’m staying in Chicago.
Personal memory: The surprise I experienced moments ago when I learned, while researching for this very piece, that Illinois has won five national championships in football.
How to do it right: Check back with me after Sept. 10.
6. Nov. 10 at Duke
Why No. 6: Because traveling through eight miles of pine trees and two shades of blue don’t make for much of an alluring road trip, though I’ve enjoyed many fine times in Durham.
Stadium atmosphere: Much better now that Duke has renovated Wallace Wade Stadium. Say goodbye to the track surrounding it. And to the press box that doubled as a doctor’s office of some sort. Even with the needed fixes, though, Duke’s game environment is lacking. It needs more Durham. Food trucks. Maybe a satellite brewery in the concourse. Something.
City atmosphere: Much improved during the past 10 to 15 years, though it hardly screams “Duke football mania” lives here. Some very, very good eating in Durham, though.
Personal memory: Surviving Duke’s makeshift press box with makeshift platforms that looked as though they could crumble at any moment.
How to do it right: Venture to Dame’s Chicken and Waffles, or any other number of fine Durham establishments, and take in an early Thursday night dinner. If there’s time, wash it down with a pint of Cackalacky at Fullsteam, where you’ll be tempted to just stay and watch the game on the big projection screen. Resist temptation and make way to Wallace Wade, which should be lively and festive for this Thursday night, nationally-televised game.
So there you have it. I’ll see you at Dragon Con. I’ll be the guy dressed as a mild-mannered reporter who turns superhero at opportune times.