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Monday, August 10, 2015

Nobody's Home

On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, College Gameday returns to us from Arlington, TX, the site of the Alabama-Wisconsin game in the Advocare Cowboys Classic. Of the top-flight games the premier college football show could have chosen from in Week 1 - and admittedly, there aren't many, especially not on Saturday itself - quite a few take place at neutral sites.

In the past few years, I've heard quite the pushback to what's viewed as an increased emphasis on neutral site games. They have grown increasingly lucrative for participating teams, they offer an opportunity to play major intersectional matchups without having to give up a home-and-home, and they allow major stadiums like AT&T Stadium in Dallas and NRG Stadium in Houston to get in on the college football action. But critics of these in-season de-facto bowl games hate the idea of taking those games off of a college campus to a sterile, foreign pro football environment with no tie to either school.

This has never been an issue for me, but then, I'm a USF alum. I attended all of my home games as a student in an NFL stadium, and even after graduating, several of the away games I've been able to go to - two bowl games in Charlotte and a Temple game at Lincoln Financial Field - have been in NFL stadiums. My common refrain has been that neutral site games are more likely to be two band affairs. It sounded right; after all, what are most of these neutral site games but in-season bowl games, or classics, both occasions where it's rare not to see both bands present. But were my suspicions rooted in fact, or did it just sound good? Certainly Band on the Road would hold the answer.

The first thing I realized is that for such ado, there are actually relatively few neutral site games that pit Power 5 conference teams (and I'm including Notre Dame and BYU here) against one another. Some are annual rivalry games, like Texas-Oklahoma and Florida-Georgia. A third fall in the first week, in a border war in the Carolinas and kickoff games in indoor stadiums in Atlanta, Houston, and Arlington. The remaining few are scattered throughout the schedule at other NFL stadiums or, in the case of Notre Dame-Boston College at Fenway, a baseball stadium. The fear of their takeover is much overstated, but for programs like Alabama that seem to find themselves in one each year, that may mean little. But of the dozen games mentioned, only two have a road band ruled out by publicly stated band schedule: Wisconsin's Badger Band won't make the trip to the Metroplex for College Gameday, and BYU won't be headed to Kansas City to play Mizzou. All others are either confirmed or plausible based on distance, including a few of the longest trips: Arizona State to Houston, Notre Dame to Boston, and Louisville to Atlanta. The last is particularly notable because an Atlanta trip has the potential to fall within Louisville's conference slate by way of Georgia Tech, and yet I can vouch firsthand that the Marching Cards didn't make a shorter conference trip last fall to Clemson. It would seem, then, that the lure is that of the big game.
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