For the second straight year, LSU will open its season against a non-conference opponent at a neutral site. Last year the Tigers played North Carolina at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. This year Les Miles and his boys travel to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas — aka “Jerry World” — to play last year’s BCS runner-up Oregon. The game, dubbed the “Cowboys Classic,” will kickoff in prime-time on September 3 on ESPN-ABC. Alabama will play in the same game next year against Michigan.
Non-conference games have emerged as the new bowls in recent years, as venues, networks, and organizers see potential profits in selling what most fans, particularly in the SEC, traditionally view as mere appetizers to the conference schedule. The schedules also reflect the political balancing act between maximizing the number of wins and avoiding the perception of merely paying cupcake teams for easy wins.
While the strength of a school’s non-conference schedule may affect its rankings in the polls and the Bowl Championship Series standings, the NCAA and the SEC do not regulate the opponents a school may schedule. The SEC sets the eight-game conference schedule, and the NCAA limits all schools to a maximum of 12 regular season games. The only further caveat is that in order to be bowl-eligible, a school must have at least as many wins as it does losses against schools from a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. In 2005, however, the NCAA created an exception that allows each FBS school to count one win per season against a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) school towards bowl eligibility. In plain English, a team can go 6-6 with one win against a I-AA opponent and still be bowl-eligible.
Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of FBS-FCS games — about 70%, according to a January report in The Oregonian — as the bigger schools cash-in their tickets for what is almost always a profitable home victory. In 2011, but one SEC school (Tennessee) will play a I-AA opponent, and those will all be home games.
On the flip side, every SEC school except Ole Miss will play at least one school from another BCS automatic qualifier conference this year. (Ole Miss will play BYU, which is now an independent.) Vanderbilt is the only SEC school that will play two AQ-conference schools, 2010 Big East champion Connecticut and Wake Forest. The remainder of the non-conference schedules are filled out with schools from lower-tier conferences, primarily the Sun Belt (seven games vs. SEC opponents in 2011), Conference USA (five), and the WAC (four).
But it’s the games versus other BCS automatic-qualifier conferences that deservedly draw the most outside attention. Aside from the traditional cross-conference rivalries — Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, and Arkansas-Texas A&M — there are the one-time match-ups that mimic postseason bowls, including the LSU-North Carolina game scheduled for Cowboys Stadium.
In some cases the relationships with the postseason bowls are not hidden. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, scheduled for September 3, features Georgia and Boise State — hardly a traditional rivalry — in a game sponsored by the same organization that stages the postseason Chick-fil-A Bowl (once known as the Peach Bowl) in Atlanta. LSU played in this game last year, and SEC schools are committed to the Kickoff Game through at least 2014, against either Boise State or an ACC school. In 2012 there will be two games scheduled on opening weekend, Auburn-Clemson and Tennessee-North Carolina State.
And like the postseason bowl, the regular season game is quite lucrative for the participants. According the Chick-fil-A Bowl, LSU received $2.1 million — higher than the payouts of 22 post-season bowls — for playing against North Carolina in last year’s season opener.
Despite the popularity of the Chick-fil-A and Jerry World kickoff games with ESPN and even fans — LSU and Alabama easily sold out their ticket allotments for this year’s games — it’s not clear if there’s any room for expanding these sorts of non-conference blockbusters. Many schools are understandably reluctant to give up an easy home game against a weaker non-conference opponent for a neutral-site game against a school of equal or greater strength. Coaches like Nick Saban and Les Miles may take an “I’ll play anyone, anywhere” stance, but for most coaches, these types of games won’t be a regular feature of their schedules; they’re an occasional luxury when the timing is right — say when you already have seven home games scheduled (or your athletic department really needs the big payday).
It’s also worth noting that these games are tied to huge stadiums that need all the outside business they can get. Jerry Jones in particular still owes hundreds of millions of dollars on his stadium. At least one report suggested he “overpaid” for next year’s Alabama-Michigan Cowboys Classic game. There aren’t too many other 100,000-seat stadiums that are desperate enough to pay a premium to lure two out-of-state college football teams. It’s not even clear if an SEC team will participate after 2012.
The Chick-fil-A game — two games in 2012 — is likely here to stay. It offers the SEC a primetime kickoff spot in the heart of its territory, it promotes a natural cross-conference rivalry with the (admittedly weaker) ACC, and the payout likely exceeds what participating schools could earn playing another home game against a Sun Belt school.