When Alabama plays at Louisiana State on Saturday, the X-factor won’t be how loudly Nick Saban growls on the sideline or how many trick plays Les Miles calls. No, the unmanageable intangibles will be Tiger Stadium and the nonstop wall of noise the Crimson Tide will have to battle at the place known as Death Valley.
Ole Miss experienced the building’s lethal aspects two weeks ago, falling 10-7 to LSU in a game that led Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace to tell reporters Tiger Stadium was the "craziest place" he had ever played.
Yes, earplugs are always a good idea for visiting teams in Baton Rouge. But there also are signs the stadiums that traditionally have been revered as the most imposing in college football are losing their intimidation factor.
In a game that’s dominated by the power-five conferences, let’s reference those venues as the power-seven stadiums, the ones with seating capacities of 100,000 or more: Michigan’s Michigan Stadium (109,901), Penn State’s Beaver Stadium (106,572), Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium (104,944), Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium (102,455), LSU’s Tiger Stadium (102,321), Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821) and Texas’ Memorial Stadium (100,119).
Six of the seven have witnessed outcomes this season that bring into question whether they still deliver the maximum home-field advantage, and the seventh will be severely tested this month. Let’s take them one by one.
Michigan, 'The Big House'
It was built in 1927 on land made quicksand-like by an underground spring. It was so wet that a crane was engulfed during construction, and it still remains under the stadium. And the Michigan offense looked like it was mired in quicksand while generating only 171 yards of total offense in a 30-14 loss to Minnesota on Sept. 27.
It marked the first time in 135 years of Michigan football that the Wolverines had three losses by the end of September, and it was their worst home-field loss since 1962 to Minnesota, which had been beaten 58-0 in its previous trip to Ann Arbor.
Also of note was the under-capacity attendance figure of 102,926. There have been complaints at Michigan that changes in the student ticket plan is hurting attendance, making the Big House a less fearsome place to play.
Penn State, Beaver Stadium
This was a homecoming game, for crying out loud. Northwestern was a natural choice and came in having won only twice in its previous 11 games; one of those was against Division I-AA Western Illinois.
The Nittany Lions have lost twice at home since then, including last Saturday to then 5-3 Maryland, 20-19. That was only the second time Maryland beat Penn State in 38 tries, and it was the Terrapins’ first-ever victory at Penn State.
Ohio State, 'The Horseshoe'
The Buckeyes’ proud football tradition includes never being ranked lower than fourth nationally in average home attendance since 1949. And with recent expansion making room for a record crowd of 107,517 to cram into Ohio Stadium on Sept. 6, a wild celebration of a prime-time blowout was anticipated.
Instead, Ohio State was humbled by Virginia Tech, 35-21.
It was the first time Ohio State lost a home game to an unranked nonconference opponent since Stanford and Florida State turned that trick on consecutive weekends in 1982. For Virginia Tech, it was the first time the Hokies won a road game against a team that was ranked eighth or higher in the polls.
It also is a loss that could forever haunt the Buckeyes. If they had won that game, they’d be undefeated and no doubt firmly entrenched in the Top Four of the College Football Playoff rankings.
Tennessee, Neyland Stadium
Given the disparity in talent between Tennessee and Alabama, it was no surprise that UT fans didn’t get to savor a revenge victory when Lane Kiffin returned to Neyland Stadium last month as offensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide.
But the Oct. 4 game at home against Florida was another matter. The Gators seemed beatable, and the Vols were aching for a victory against a bitter SEC rival that had defeated them nine consecutive times.
The defense did its job, limiting Florida to 10 points. But Tennessee scored only nine as the losing streak continued.
Tennessee’s recent mediocrity points out one problem with having a huge stadium: It rarely fills up unless the team is winning. So even though Tennessee has the SEC’s biggest stadium, it ranked only 11th in the conference in 2013 for percentage of seating capacity filled.
Which 100,000-seat stadium do you most want to visit?
Texas, Memorial Stadium
From 1968 to 1976 the Longhorns were virtually unstoppable at Memorial Stadium, winning 42 consecutive home games. And as recently as 2009 they were pretty good there too, going 6-0 at home and losing only in the BCS Championship Game to Alabama.
But since then home dates have done little for Texas. From 2010 on, the Longhorns have lost 17 at Memorial, and the winning visitors have included UCLA, Iowa State, West Virginia and Ole Miss. And, this year, Brigham Young.
That loss to BYU on Sept. 6 may be the one that stung the most. The 41-7 score was Texas' worst home defeat since a 66-3 trashing at the hands of UCLA in 1997.
LSU, Tiger Stadium
The most famous of Tiger Stadium's multitude of rocking moments came in 1988, amid the celebration for Tommy Hodson's touchdown pass to Eddie Fuller as time expired during a 7-6 victory against Auburn. The crowd's reaction was literally seismic, registering as an earthquake on the seismograph in the Louisiana Geological Survey office on LSU's campus.
But that's also about the level of shock that LSU fans suffered back on Sept. 20, when the Tigers fell to Mississippi State, 34-29. That loss ended a 14-game winning streak against the Bulldogs and was the first time Mississippi State won at Baton Rouge since 1991.
The victory over Ole Miss helped atone for that setback, and a win against Alabama might totally erase the memory.
Alabama, Bryant-Denny Stadium
Speaking of Alabama, it has the other 100,000-seat SEC football palace. The Crimson Tide have won 12 consecutive games at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Only Auburn and Baylor have longer active home winning streaks.
But Bryant-Denny Stadium's reputation will be heavily on the line this month, as the Crimson Tide's playoff hopes rest on beating Mississippi State and Auburn there.
Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.