This week, Clemson and Auburn announced a home-and-home series starting in 2016. It led many to realize that September 3, 2016, is going to be a truly epic day.
A deeper look at the games on that date revealed the changing dynamics of college football scheduling. The six biggest games that day are evenly split between traditional home games and neutral site games.
Neutral: Alabama vs. USC in Cowboys Stadium, LSU vs. Wisconsin in Lambeau Field and Houston vs. Oklahoma at the Texans’ stadium.
Traditional: Notre Dame at Texas, Clemson at Auburn and UCLA at Texas A&M.
Are these neutral-site games good or bad for college football?
Pro: The Atmosphere
One of the best atmospheres for a sporting event in my life came from the most unexpected place – the 2007 Continental Tire Bowl. Yeah, yeah, get your laughs out. I was there for the titanic UConn/Wake Forest tilt that didn’t quite sell out the stadium in downtown Charlotte but drew a decent crowd of about 55,000. What made it exciting was the split between Wake Forest fans and the roughly 15-20,000 UConn fans that made their way down the East Coast.
There’s a different vibe in the stadium when the crowd is split. You cheer harder and yell louder. It contributes to a heightened sense of excitement and intensity. It’s different.
These neutral-site games can provide an atmosphere that is unmatched in college sports. It’s like a bowl game except it means something. Do you remember Alabama/Michigan in Cowboys Stadium or Alabama/Clemson in the Georgia Dome? Those were electric atmospheres. You felt it coming through your television screen. It’s intoxicating.
Con: The Atmosphere
Why did Oklahoma State play Mississippi State in Houston last year? Why did TCU play Oregon State in JerryWorld a few years ago? Does Ole Miss and Boise State in Atlanta this year do anything for you?
There are now too many neutral-site games, just as there are now too many bowl games. In 2008, it was just the Georgia Dome. Then JerryWorld and the Cowboys Classic got involved. By 2016, these two will be joined by potential annual games in Houston, Orlando, Nashville and Charlotte, if not more. The saturation point is about to be met and that means we are going to start seeing neutral-site games that just don’t move the needle.
Two years ago, Cincinnati played Virginia Tech in FedEx Field. It was a really, really good game. There was absolutely no need for it to be played in a half-empty NFL stadium.
Pro: Unique, Different Venues
This November, Yankee Stadium will host UConn and Army. In two years, Virginia Tech and Tennessee will play at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of an estimated gazillion people. Cowboys Stadium is a remarkable venue that college athletes would be thrilled to play in. Lambeau Field, the site of the 2016 Wisconsin/LSU game, is one of the most cherished football stadiums in this country.
It’s all a long-winded way of saying that these venues add something. Would UConn/Army be circled on the calendar if it was played at Rentschler Field? Would anyone be talking about a Virginia Tech/Tennessee matchup if they weren’t playing at a speedway?
These add to the charm of college football. Neutral site games in other sports – think the NFL in London or the MLB in Australia – go over very, very poorly. Neutral site games in college football go over very, very well.
Con: Not College Football Venues
Would you rather see LSU play Wisconsin in Green Bay or at Camp Randall? Would you rather have Wisconsin play LSU in Houston or visit Death Valley after dark?
It’s not the same. If LSU was playing more than one top team in the nonconference, maybe this would matter less. But they don’t. And neither does Alabama. Is it fair that Death Valley is closed to major opponents from different conference? Is it right that no campus outside of the SEC will get a visit from Alabama?
Pro: Matchups We Never See
Alabama vs. USC has not happened in my lifetime. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State to kick off this season would not happen without a neutral-site.
Everything in college football is driven by money so the money from these neutral-site games means matchups that don’t happen. Would LSU and Wisconsin have agreed to a pseudo home-and-home without a ton of money being involved? According to Barry Alvarez, the answer is clearly, “No.”
Con: Matchups We Never See Again
The best part of a true home-and-home series is the rematch. It’s different than a one-off. Georgia and Clemson means more than a one-off kickoff classic because of last year. The recently announced Clemson/Auburn series will feel different because it’s an actual series.
Alabama playing USC once is great. Alabama playing USC twice in back-to-back season would be epic. Is there any doubt that Alabama playing in Los Angeles at the venerable Coliseum would be more memorable than Cowboys Stadium?
Pro: Tougher Non-Conference Schedules
These neutral-site games give us better matchups and these are critical as the looming college football playoff arrives. Strength of schedule is expected to be a key component to the selection process. There’s no doubt that this year’s opening week slate is boosted by LSU/Wisconsin and Florida State/Oklahoma State.
Con: Weaker Non-Conference Schedules
By playing Wisconsin, LSU would satisfy the SEC’s “one power five non-conference opponent” rule. In LSU’s eyes, that game is tough enough to get credit from the selection committee for aggressive scheduling. LSU’s other three non-conference opponents are Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State.
Give me a break.
In addition to West Virginia in Atlanta, Alabama this year plays Western Carolina, Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic. After playing LSU, Wisconsin hosts Western Illinois, Bowling Green and USF. Cue the yawns of indifference.
College football programs are using neutral-site games to game the system. We’ve been told they need seven home games to merely remain afloat – cue the snorts of derision. Yet they use the neutral-site game, with a huge payoff, as essentially another home game in terms of profits.
It’s not good for the future of college football. There is nothing inherently wrong with scheduling a tough opponent in a neutral-site game but it shouldn’t automatically mean the rest of the schedule needs to be laden with cupcakes.
Pro: Way Better for Television
This is self-explanatory, right? Better games between better teams means for a better viewing experience.
This is especially important since the mid-2000’s – when I-A went to 12 games and ended the first iteration of neutral-site games – was filled with largely indifferent opening weekends. Look at 2006, which featured zero ranked matchups and a noon slot where Vanderbilt/Michigan was the most interesting.
Con: Way Worse for Attendance
Why is attendance a problem for college football teams? Because the home slates are awful – check out the issues at Iowa – due to expanded conferences and far fewer visits from top programs.
Look back at LSU’s schedule. If you’re a season ticket holder, you get the pleasure of watching Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State play football. Those are three likely blowouts that will be over by halftime. Do you care?
Now imagine if Wisconsin is on that slate – then the three cupcakes are easier to choke down. Instead, you have to pay an arm and a leg to travel to Houston to subsidize a big game for your program.
These games aren’t going anywhere.
Even if most college football fans would rather games largely stay on campus, the ship has sailed. In my perfect world, the regular season is expanded to 13 games, so teams can play a neutral-site game and traditional home-and-home series. That’s not happening.
So here’s my suggestion: move the neutral-site kickoff games to the week before Labor Day. When the schedule was at 11 games, the kickoff games were exceptions that gave a team 12 games and were played the last weekend of August before Labor Day.
Let’s revisit that. Make that Saturday a true kickoff day, like a New Year’s Day in the summer. Take the six cities who want kickoff classics – Atlanta, Arlington, Orlando, Houston, Charlotte and Nashville – slot them over a glorious day.
And while we’re at it, we will limit how often a team can appear in them. So instead of Alabama opening every season in Atlanta or Arlington, they could only do so once every three years. Which would mean for two years, they could not playing in a true neutral-site game – moving home games like Army at Yankee Stadium would not need an exception.
What could Alabama do in those two years? Hmm, maybe schedule a home-and-home with Michigan State?
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