Ranking the SEC's neutral sites for 2016
This year, the Southeastern Conference will showcase itself in seven off-campus venues.
There is the traditional (Jacksonville), there is the unique (Bristol), there is the end of an era (Atlanta).
If you were considering a road trip to check out one of the games, here’s how they stack up:
No. 1: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX
GAMES: Sept. 3, Alabama vs. Southern California; Sept. 24, Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
The Taj Mahal of football stadiums!
It’s large, capable of seating 105,000 people if 25,000 of them don’t care to sit.
It has a big TV overhead. Better than watching the game with your own eyes, supposedly, unless punts clang off it.
It is enclosed, leading one to debate if Jerry Jones or D.D. Lewis is more blasphemous.
It’s the cutting edge in major stadium design and successful in landing every major event one can imagine in a relatively short period of time. Consider right before Jerry World was completed, the Cotton Bowl received $57 million worth of improvements, and then Jerry World took the actual Cotton Bowl away from the Cotton Bowl!
All this is well and good, though the place still is smarting from the Super Bowl XLIII fiasco when many ticket-holders couldn’t get into the game despite Jones promising it would be the best Super Bowl event ever held.
But the best aspect of Jerry World isn’t the actual stadium, it’s the fact that it’s in Dallas-Ft. Worth or Arlington, to be exact. With all due respect to Atlanta, there’s no better area for activity before or after the game.
Our favorite hangout is a “Dukes of Hazzard”-themed sports bar five minutes from Jerry World, where waitresses as gorgeous as Catherine Bach or Jessica Simpson flirt, serve extraordinary food and a stocked bar, line dance to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and, depending on the night and city ordinances, have been known to wear nothing but cowboy boots and body paint.
They’ll even come out and wash your car with a smile.
It’s enough to make you consider Texas Christian for potential SEC expansion!
Stadium Features: 7
No. 2: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FL
GAME: Oct. 29, Florida vs. Georgia
The annual Florida-Georgia game has been played in Jacksonville since 1933, except for two years when the Gator Bowl was transitioning into EverBank Field to house the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But that’s why the yard has lost its cache. With all teal and statues of jaguars around, it no longer seems to be held at the venue of one of the great bowl games created to settle a long forgotten tie between South Carolina and Wake Forest in 1946.
Instead, the game feels like something of a secondary tenant to the Jaguars.
The thing is the transformation has been nice. Two years ago, a two-level party deck with two swimming pools and 16 cabanas were added. True, this is only going to be enjoyed by a select few and speaks of fans paying less attention than they should to the actual game going on, which seems to almost always be the key to the SEC East race.
But was that ever NOT the case for a game called “The World’s Largest Cocktail Party?”
The pool draws us in. The tradition draws us in. The fact one side is dressed all in red and black and the other in orange and blue draws us in. It’s one of the last neutral site college football rivalries, and frankly even though some Georgia fans complain about it not being a true “neutral site” game due to the fact it’s played in Jacksonville, the common complaint of Jacksonville culture is that it has a South Georgia feel.
Besides, the Dawgs prevented Florida’s national championship bids in the game in 1985 and 2012. How much of a home field advantage do the Gators really have?
Stadium Features: 6
No. 3: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
GAME: Sept. 3, Georgia vs. North Carolina; Dec. 3, SEC Championship Game
When the Georgia Dome is a memory next year, it will be easy to dismiss the place. Its lifespan will have been only 25 years, short for a sports venue. It won’t have the history of its predecessor, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which brought major pro sports to the Southeast and allowed Hank Aaron to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. And even if the 1996 Olympics wouldn’t have come without the Georgia Dome, the same could be said that it wouldn’t have come if Fulton County Stadium wasn’t still standing.
But the Georgia Dome has served the SEC well by taking over the SEC Championship Game. People complained when the title game debuted at Legion Field. Too old, too cold!
The Georgia Dome was just right.
Media in the Georgia Dome could actually hear the crowd, something absent in many open-air stadiums where the press box is sealed and allows the game to be played in silence, thus making it easier for reporters to write but harder to tell the story.
It’s comfortable, easy to get to and helped all of its tenants grow. The Atlanta Falcons were perhaps the most anonymous team in the NFL prior to its construction. They became the team of the “Dirty Bird” and went to the Super Bowl five years after it opened.
In 22 years at Fulton County Stadium, the Peach Bowl featured a game with a nationally ranked team only nine times and never in the top 10.
In the 23 years at the Georgia Dome, the Peach Bowl has featured ranked teams 21 times with three of the last four games featuring teams in the top 10.
Georgia State could not only field a football team, they became an FBS team almost immediately because of the Georgia Dome. The Atlanta Hawks set an NBA attendance record there and made the playoffs both seasons they called the venue their home. The Final Four, the Super Bowl, even the Sugar Bowl were able to come to Atlanta because of the Georgia Dome.
But the venue’s legacy will be the SEC Championship Game. Just as Joe Namath made the Super Bowl the third time it was played with his cocky guarantee, the Georgia Dome made the SEC title game the third time it was played by offering a comfortable, accessible, modern venue for the game in a cosmopolitan setting.
Perhaps a big reason why the Big 12 Championship Game is no longer played is it was held at six different venues. The SEC Championship Game has always had a true home in the Georgia Dome, and that shouldn’t be forgotten as a reason for the contest’s success.
Stadium Features: 5
No. 4: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI
GAME: Sept. 3, LSU vs. Wisconsin
Truth be told, a football stadium is just that, a football stadium. Generally speaking, they do not have the romanticism an old baseball park has, or the quirks a unique golf course offers.
One of the few exceptions to this in football is Lambeau Field.
The venue isn’t especially old. Its 1957 construction does not merit the same kind of nostalgia an old major league baseball park has. Babe Ruth may have played at Fenway Park, but Don Hutson and Clarke Hinkle did not play at Lambeau.
And while it is steeped in tradition, it is pro football tradition. One could even say it is the antithesis of the appeal of the SEC, a reminder that football first began at northeastern colleges before trickling down to the professional ranks in the Midwest.
But that would be prejudicial. The fact Green Bay can have an NFL franchise — and one of the best — is the NFL equivalent of Oxford and Starkville being in the SEC.
And who’s to say Lambeau doesn’t have SEC cred? Bart Starr! Reggie White! Maybe Sterling Sharpe didn’t play in the SEC, but he played at South Carolina. And along those lines, Brett Favre may be the most SEC-esque player never to play in the SEC!
A trip to the Packers Hall of Fame leads to a debate over whether the Pack’s 13 NFL championships are as impressive as, say, Alabama’s 16 national championships.
Furthermore, LSU fans making the trip to Wisconsin may be surprised to learn Green Bay really isn’t all that dinky-pooh. It’s the nation’s 70th-largest TV market, not exceedingly large, but still in the top third of population centers in the USA.
Nobody says Green Bay is more cosmopolitan than Honolulu, but it is larger.
Is this more of a home game for Wisconsin than a neutral site game for LSU? Of course. But would a Tigers victory make a statement about SEC power?
They always do.
Stadium Features: 4
No. 5: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
GAME: Sept. 5, Ole Miss vs. Florida State
It’s tough to be the Citrus Bowl. It’s a New Year’s Day Bowl but served as nothing but a consolation game since Georgia Tech earned a UPI Poll national championship in the 1991 game.
The stadium underwent a $200 million renovation in 2014, giving the yard a whole new lower bowl and a 60,000 seat capacity, presumably in the hopes of getting Central Florida into a top five conference.
But that’s as big as it’s going to get for the place. A trip to Orlando means eating at chain restaurants and hopefully avoiding the unaffiliated motels with graffiti on the ceiling of your room. The trip to the football game is secondary to the prerequisite trip to Disney World. The NFL has already announced next year’s Pro Bowl will be played there, but they’ll never put an actual franchise there.
It’s even, like the Gator Bowl, sold out to corporate sponsorship. It’s Camping World Stadium.
The game will feel like a home game for Florida State. Frankly, it seems like a bullying effort to UCF, akin to if Tennessee played at the Liberty Bowl to let Memphis know they’ll never be what the Vols are.
The matchup is good. If Ole Miss can come away with a victory, there’s no telling how good the Rebels could be in 2016.
It’s a nice road trip. It’s an easy flight, a pleasant trip assuming it doesn’t rain, and a real challenge for both teams.
It’s very good. There won’t be the tradition of Lambeau or the glory of Jerry World, but then again, you won’t have to stay in a tent, either.
Which you may actually prefer if you skimp on lodging.
Stadium Features: 3
No. 6: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, TN
GAME: Sept. 10, Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech
The buzz surrounding this game is it may draw the largest crowd ever to watch a college football game. BMS can hold more than 160,000, and if the fans holding tickets to the reported sellout show up, it will shatter the current record of 115,109 for the Notre Dame at Michigan game in 2013.
Though the talk of the Hokies and Vols playing at BMS has gone on for years, one must ask if it’s really a good idea or if it represents some sort of cheap gimmick for Tennessee to once and for all say they had the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in their attendance competition with Michigan. Attendance has been declining for years for NASCAR races at BMS and was not even filled to half capacity for the April Food City 500. There’s a certain twinge of desperation to this game.
It’s not just that fans in the upper levels of the venue will be far removed from the field. It’s that fans will have to see past a race track to concentrate on an infield-turned playing ground. True, there will be a Colossus TV overhead showing the game, but who goes to a football stadium to watch the game on TV?
This in a metropolitan area where East Tennessee State once dropped their football program, in part because fans did not like the sight lines at their old venue. Incidentally, ETSU will be playing an FCS game at BMS the following week, supposedly for old Cleveland Indians fans who miss the days of seeing their team play in front of 70,000 empty seats at Municipal Stadium.
Additionally, Bristol is, to put it mildly, less-than-cosmopolitan. There is one sports bar in Bristol, and it’s in Virginia. Lodging will mean, for many fans, camping at the venue. A night on the town in Bristol means church on Wednesday.
Throw in the fact BMS is difficult to get to as it is five miles from the nearest interstate exit, has no public transportation and a small airport, and fans will be battling traffic for hours once they get into their cars at midnight to either find their hotel room miles away or to drive through the night for hours to get back home to Knoxville and Blacksburg.
This one has disaster written all over it.
A football game at a NASCAR track is unique but ranks dead last in everything else.
Stadium Features: 1
No. 7: War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock, AK
GAME: Oct. 1, Alcorn State vs. Arkansas
This isn’t really a neutral site game as the Razorbacks have been playing at War Memorial Stadium for 68 years as an alternate venue.
It seats upwards of 54,000 fans, has a nice press box and is a fairly intimate setting.
It’s a nice thing for Arkansas to move off campus and play in the state capital every now and then.
But the opponent is blah. The venue is unspectacular. It’s the Arkansas equivalent of the Packers playing at County Stadium.
Arkansas fans can take solace that this game isn’t really a neutral site like the other six are. It isn’t designed to be something historic or flashy or a game that will shape the course of the season.
It’s an easy victory for the Razorbacks and a chance to play in the state’s largest city. Nothing more, nothing less.
Stadium Features: 2