The Open Man countdowns to the 2018 college football season with 129 — in honor of the 129 programs participating in the Football Bowl Subdivision this year — things we love (and some we hate) about the sport. Click the 129 Things tag to see every entry.
Big-ticket home-and-home series are seem to be making a comeback, and it’s a welcomed sight for this college football enthusiast. Georgia’s trip to Notre Dame last September made for one of the season’s best games, and helped propel the Bulldogs into the national championship picture.
This year, Week 2 and Week 3 look considerably stronger than the usually more intriguing Week 1, and that’s the result of great home-and-home matchups. We’ve got Clemson at Texas A&M, Mississippi State at Kansas State, UCLA at Oklahoma, Michigan State at Arizona State, Boise State at Oklahoma State, USC at Texas, West Virginia at NC State and Ohio State at TCU all in the span of the second and third weeks.
Compare that with the annual neutral-field events on Week 1 this year, which include Ole Miss-Texas Tech and Maryland-Texas; two games that could be competitive, but aren’t especially intriguing on paper. Louisville plays sacrificial lamb to Alabama in its annual neutral excursion. Only LSU-Miami has the gravity of a typical Week 1 neutral-site game.
Home-and-home series maintain the atmosphere that can only come from a campus’ energy, while rewarding each fan base with the opportunity to “welcome” big-name opponents — which may be the key factor driving more marquee nonconference dates back onto campuses.
Administrators have publicly fretted over the collective decline in attendance throughout the sport. So many overtures have been to appease the media companies who sign fat broadcast rights checks, and these companies in turn offer consumers an all-day buffet of the best action across the country. Programs must do more to attract fans to stadiums, and presenting more and better games is a critical solution.
What’s more, the motivation fueling some of these neutral-field events comes across as cynical.
Week 1 of each season’s slate features numerous incarnations of these one-off matchups, with annual events at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium; Houston’s NRG Stadium; the D.C. area’s FedEx Field; and Atlanta’s Georgia Dome before the completion of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Recent seasons have also included one-time neutral-field contests at Lucas Oil Field, University of Phoenix Stadium and Lambeau Field. Las Vegas and Inglewood will almost assuredly jump into the mix upon their completion, which speaks to the cynicism: These games exist, in part, to bring in revenue for NFL stadium proprietors.
Yes, everything in sports has an underlining business motivation; I’m not so naive as to think otherwise. However, the proliferation of glitzy, top-dollar and often taxpayer-funded NFL stadiums in recent years coincides with the prevalence of marquee, neutral-site college football. When AT&T Stadium opened in 2009, the inaugural Cowboys Classic was the first in a flood of both college and high school games played there that season and for future years, to help foot the then-record $1.3 billion tab.
Among those contests: the Southwest Classic between Arkansas and Texas A&M.
As a nonconference renewal of former SWC hostilities, the Southwest Classic actually made perfect sense as a neutral-site game. But now that both are in the SEC West, playing in Jerry World every year means one or the other sacrifices a home conference game in exchange for a paycheck.
Don’t confuse this as a condemnation of all neutral-site games, nor insistence that it’s a recent occurrence. Big-time college football at off-campus destinations dates back more than a century, and some of the most memorable and important games in history were played away campuses.
This year’s Texas Kickoff…er, ADVOCARE TEXAS KICKOFF…featuring two teams that will battle to finish above .500 doesn’t exactly qualify.
Even some of the big-time games feel like missed opportunities for something more significant. The 2016 Cowboys Classic pairing of Alabama and USC was especially disappointing; the buzz of the Crimson Tide visiting Los Angeles would surpass any red-carpet event in Tinseltown.
A program doing its marque nonconference schedule right is Texas. The Longhorns will get that Alabama experience as part of a recently brokered home-and-home, also bringing Bevo and the burnt orange to Tuscaloosa.
Texas completes the home half of a series with USC this year, faced Notre Dame both in Austin and South Bend in 2015 and 2016, next year sees LSU at DKR, and has a future home-and-home against Ohio State on the books.
UT brass deserves credit both for its willingness to take on the challenge of the road, and giving its fans some of the best possible homes. In a similar vein, those Power Five programs willing to schedule home-and-home with quality Group of Five opponents deserve kudos.
When I asked Rocky Long in 2015 about getting home dates against power-conference teams, he said Power Five schools avoided them out of fear of losing. Long’s assessment proved rather prescient last season, when the Aztecs beat Stanford at SDCCU Stadium.
With fewer and fewer bowl games pitting the Power Five against Group of Five — the Las Vegas Bowl will match up the SEC and Pac-12 once the Vegas stadium is completed — opportunities for the Group of Five to prove their worth on neutral fields are dwindling.
The more the Stanfords of the world visit the San Diego States, or teams like Arizona and Arkansas travel to Houston and Colorado State, as is the case in 2018, the better for Group of Five programs. They give their fans greater competition, and are afforded the opportunity to grow their brand on the national platform.
That translates to better teams in the Group of Five, and more competition throughout college football.