Ranking SEC home-field advantages in the age of COVID
Home-field advantage in college football is perhaps more important and influential than any other sport. It’s an immense challenge to walk into another team’s building, where 60,000-100,000 opposing, passionate fans await you, and come away with the victory.
There’s almost nothing like an autumn college football Saturday. The passion for the game, the pageantry and traditions unique to each campus all combine to make the sport special. And stop me if you’ve heard this before, but across the board, it’s most special in the SEC.
We might not agree on much anymore, but in the South, one thing we believe in — no matter your race, economic status, political affiliation or religion — is SEC football. We southerners believe completely in the superiority of our brand of football to everyone else’s, and we have the receipts, mostly in the form of crystal trophies, to prove it. We believe in the superiority of our brand of college football fervently and we are spoon-fed that belief with our peas and carrots as babies. We believe it so much we puff our chests and welcome all challengers, from the East, North, Midwest, West coast (lol) and yes, even the southern parts of Florida too afraid to mix it up with the big boys in the SEC.
It really does just mean more, and making our own school’s home-field advantage the biggest home-field advantage has become an art form. From the 12th man in College Station to the hedges and laser shows at Sanford Stadium to Space Odyssey 2001 in Columbia to the Vol Navy in Knoxville to a flying eagle on The Plains to Tom Petty in The Swamp, each SEC school put its own little signature on its home games. That’s called tradition, and it’s what makes the sport incredible.
How will those traditions and home-field advantages be impacted in the upcoming COVID-shortened season? Who loses the most playing in front of limited capacity crowds? Who, if anyone, gains something? What traditions will live on the best, regardless of capacity?
We explore that topic here by ranking SEC home-field advantages in the time of COVID. All factors were taken into consideration compiling these rankings- from tradition and pageantry lost or kept to the impact of reduced capacity and social distancing measures, thus making these rankings inarguably correct. (Kidding…)
I know, I know. Mizzou fans are rolling their eyes at me and my SDS colleague Adam Spencer is blocking me on Twitter. Fair.
And Mizzou is going to be good, right? They have some players, for sure, and I’m picking them 4th in a strong East.
But Memorial Stadium is one of the more docile environments full (61,000) and at 25% capacity (15,250), it will feel more like a chatty megachurch picnic than a football game.
Sorry, but this will be the worst home-field advantage in the league, and yes I’m looking at …
No one benefits from limited capacity football more than Vanderbilt.
Have you ever turned on a Vandy game when Georgia, Tennessee or Florida visit the Music City?
At least two-thirds of the 40,550 capacity is full of fans of the road team. Vanderbilt is the one stadium in the league where the home quarterback has to use hand signals on 3rd down because he can’t hear.
At 20% capacity, only 8,000 fans get in. Simple math says that means fewer opposing fans, and a better home-field advantage for the Dores.
Kroger Field (61,000) will be reduced, per a school announcement, but the exact numbers are not yet known. Even if it is the high-end 25% announced by other SEC schools, that’s a blow for Kentucky.
Kroger Field, where the stands are close to the field and usually full well before kickoff, is a sneaky-good home-field advantage for the Wildcats. In fact, Kentucky is a very good 16-6 at home over the past 3 seasons, with 4 of the 6 home losses coming by a touchdown or less. They’ll lose something with socially-distanced crowds, and as they lack the football-rich pageantry of other stadiums, they drop a bit as a result.
Hey, if you are going to play the most brutal schedule in the history of college football- and Arkansas is about to do that — you might as well have a nice view of the Ozark mountains, crisp autumn air and a cold beer. You can get all those things on a Saturday this fall in Fayetteville, which sounds like a nice little Saturday.
10. Miss State
I’ve got a fever and as such coronavirus medical requirements dictate that I’m not allowed into the stadium to provide more cowbell.
Fewer fans equals fewer cowbells, which equals less of a strong home-field advantage in Starkville in 2020.
It’s a shame, really. I would have enjoyed seeing Mike Leach with a full building, banging the cowbell with the student section. Next year, I guess.
9. South Carolina
The atmosphere around Columbia will still be great.
You’ll have the Cockaboose train cars and a city full of fans that love their Gamecocks.
And even though “Sandstorm” won’t be as fun with the 20% capacity guidelines issued last week by Governor Henry McMaster, Space Odyssey 2001 is still one of the best entrances in college football.
In the end, you could put Carolina a little higher, but the smaller crowds will likely disproportionately hurt teams with smaller margins of error, like the one Will Muschamp has in Columbia.
8. Ole Miss
Year 1 of the Lane train should have involved Lane, who has gone full Mississippi shag with his haircut and taken to wearing Southern Tide polos, short shirts and trucker hats, strolling through the Grove high-fiving coeds. And remember, this is Ole Miss, where they redshirt Miss Americas.
Instead, capacity will be limited at 25 percent (16,000) per Governor Tate Reeves’ executive order, and the walk through the Grove will be socially distanced and involve masks, if it happens at all.
That’s not the same, and really diminishes the Oxford experience, one the most underrated road trips in the sport.
One of the more underrated sights in the sport is the eagle flying into Jordan-Hare Stadium on a Saturday in the fall as 88,000 orange-and-blue-clad fans rise to their feet and roar. It’s a sight to see and well worth the price of admission. Under Gus Malzahn, now in his 8th year at Auburn, the Tigers have been very good at home, including an 18-3 mark on The Plains the past 3 campaigns.
Auburn announced 20% capacity this week, which will make the sight of the eagle flying quite weird — the steel and gray seat backdrop a less imposing background than 88,000 roaring fans. It also will take a bit of the bite out of one of the league’s louder buildings.
6. Texas A&M
Kyle Field will be reduced to 25% this autumn, meaning only around 26,500 of the league’s largest-stadium will be occupied.
That’s a blow for the Aggies, who fit right into the SEC upon arrival thanks to traditions like the 12th man, the 12th man towel, midnight Yell practice, the Boot Line and more.
How many of those traditions remain, given social distancing guidelines, will be worth monitoring. Still, 26,000-plus will be more than most buildings permit, and you can trust they’ll make as much noise as they can. That, coupled with the Texas heat and the length of the trip for opponents, will keep this home-field advantage strong.
Georgia has taken home “Ls” to Vanderbilt and South Carolina in the Smart era, even with full stadiums.
That said, with plans ironed out to allow for as many as 23,000 fans in Sanford Stadium this fall, the Dawgs will still have a formidable football team, the hedges, the chapel bell and “Light Up Sanford” to inspire the masses, whom the governor has encouraged to make the pilgrimage to Athens and take in the scene — socially distanced, of course — even if they can’t access the building.
The Vols announced plans to have 25% capacity at home games this fall, meaning that, thanks to the 2nd-largest stadium in the league (102,455), we’ll see around 26,000 fans at Volunteer games. That will be among the largest numbers in the league.
Will that be enough to will the Vols to wins in crucial home games against the likes of Florida and Kentucky, both of which visit Knoxville? We shall see.
One great thing: Boating has been a common hobby, due to the natural social distancing, during the COVID pandemic and that should mean the Vol Navy, one of the coolest and most picturesque scenes in all of college football, will be out in full force in 2020.
In other words, Knoxville, always a special place, will remain so.
Under Dan Mullen, The Swamp’s magic appears to be back, with the Gators 11-2 in The Swamp in Mullen’s first 2 seasons, including an unbeaten home slate a season ago.
Florida hasn’t announced an official number yet, but athletic director Scott Stricklin did say earlier this summer they’d look at a plan for as many as 25,000, which would be a little above 25% capacity at The Swamp.
Joe Burrow called Florida “the toughest place he played” in college and Gus Malzahn admitted his team “hadn’t experienced that kind of environment” after Auburn was beaten in Gainesville a season ago.
Can Florida recreate that magic in a reduced capacity setting?
It will be harder. But they’ll have the incomparable Florida humidity and heat, a socially-distanced Gator Walk, and Tom Petty blaring in as quarter three turns to four, which still makes for a nice advantage and experience on any college football Saturday.
Tiger Stadium at night — where opponent dreams go to die — simply won’t be the same without 102,231 well-lubricated maniacs screaming their lungs out.
Prior to Hurricane Laura, which made landfall Thursday morning in Louisiana, public health officials and LSU had been collaborating on a plan. If that plan involves 25% capacity, this will still be one of the league’s “biggest” venues, and you can trust LSU fans in any group to make enough noise to be heard.
It’s all the other pageantry and the spectacle that will be missing, and that explains the dip in ranking from their usual perch at No. 1.
Alabama is an interesting case. Tailgating on campus will be prohibited, and capacity will be capped at 20% (around 20,500). So why are the Tide ranked No. 1?
Because at the end of the day, Alabama is still Alabama.
This is still the program that has lost 2 home games in the past 5 seasons.
This is still the program that has played in the College Football Playoff all but 1 year.
This is still the league’s gold standard.
It will be weird seeing the crimson and white shakers or hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” sung by only 20,000 and not 100,000, but they’ll get to do it anyway. And it will still be the most difficult place anyone goes to get a “W” in the league.