College football is now just around the corner and this year’s Week 1 games are perhaps the best ever. A number of the biggest brands in college football are playing each other, but there is one drawback: a lot of these games are losing some of their greatness because they are being played on neutral sites. This is a trend that probably won’t slow anytime soon, but it really needs to.
In the first week of the season there are eight games being played at neutral sites: Cal vs. Hawaii in Melbourne (yes a college football game in Australia), Colorado vs. Colorado State in Denver, Georgia Tech vs. Boston College in Dublin (yes another game overseas), Oklahoma vs. Houston at NRG Stadium (home of the Texans, not the Cougars), LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Georgia vs. North Carolina in Atlanta, Alabama vs. USC in Dallas, Arizona vs. BYU in Phoenix, and Ole Miss vs. Florida State in Orlando. Some of these could be fantastic games. But something is lost when college games are played in NFL stadiums. For example, Alabama/USC could be a phenomenal game, but it could be so much more fun as a home and home series. Imagine USC rolling into Bryant-Denny Stadium or Alabama at the LA Coliseum. Same thing goes for the Ole Miss/Florida State game. How crazy would The Grove be for a game against Florida State? The one exception to this is the LSU/Wisconsin game. Lambeau Field is one of possibly three stadiums in the NFL that has a college atmosphere (the other two being Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and Century Link Field in Seattle). Throw in the fact it’s Wisconsin playing there and it could be even better than if it had been a home and home series (it sort of was anyway with these two teams playing two years ago in Houston).
Even one of the schools that epitomizes college football tradition, Notre Dame, has not been immune to the neutral site bug. In 2009, the Irish began the Shamrock Series as a way to expand the Irish brand, i.e. a cash grab. The Shamrock Series is billed as a home game away from home for Notre Dame. Special uniforms are designed for the games. Some of the venues have made sense while others have been head scratchers. The first game of the Shamrock Series was in San Antonio against Washington State (head scratcher), next at Yankee Stadium against Army (home to many a ND/Army game in the 40’s), next at FedEx Field in the DC area against Maryland (head scratcher), Soldier Field in Chicago against Miami (Chicago is right next door to South Bend), at Jerry World in Dallas against Arizona State (head scratcher), Indianapolis against Purdue (makes sense) and last year at Fenway Park for Boston College (head scratcher). This year the venues and opponents start repeating when the Irish play Army in San Antonio.
All that being said there are certain college football neutral site games that should always be played at their current neutral location. Part of what sets college football apart is the tradition and some of these games have been played at neutral venues for ages. For example, the Florida/Georgia game should always be played in Jacksonville, the Texas/Oklahoma game should always be played at the Cotton Bowl, the Army/Navy game should always be played in Philadelphia and the Arkansas/Texas A&M game should always be played in Dallas.
It’s good that there are a number of big teams playing each other in the first few weeks of the season. But the fact that a lot of these games are being played in soulless, sanitized NFL stadiums kind of dampens the mood. These games are extraordinary money makers for the programs involved, the TV networks and, of course, the venues. So these types of games won’t stop any time soon, but just because they won’t doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.