In recent years, the NCAA has saved its best Week 1 college football matchups for neutral sites — mainly NFL stadiums.
Last season began with a huge matchup between Georgia and Clemson at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, home of the Carolina Panthers. But the viewership paled in comparison to the 2022 opener between Notre Dame and Ohio State, played at “The Horseshoe” — which racked up 10.5 million viewers.
Both games were clashes between top five teams, but the latter also beat every single game on the 2022 Week 1 calendar and was ESPN’s most-watched regular season game on its networks since 2017, according to the World Wide Leader.
However, it took only one week for another college football game to top it in the television ratings. Then No. 1 ranked Alabama traveled to Austin to face unranked Texas for a noon EST game. Despite the Longhorns not being in the Top 25, the game still bested the aforementioned primetime matchup between the Fighting Irish and the Buckeyes — and Texas commit Arch Manning is still in high school.
The people have spoken. They prefer college football to be played on campus, not at Jerry World or the Citrus Bowl. For conference titles, bowl games, and the National Championship, neutral sites are fine. But for years, college football has been reintroducing people to its product without a key component — home field advantage.
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Sans the rabid school spirit from the student section, college football truly is an amateur product. Extra points from the traditional line get missed, footballs sail backward, defensive backs end up 30 yards behind wide receivers, and most quarterbacks are not capable of leading their teams by relying on the forward pass. All of this while the games take significantly more time than they do in the NFL with the clock stoppages after every first down, and also longer halftimes.
Why watch this lesser product? The fans are a much more significant part of the show than they are in the NFL. The fans in Seattle rained down boos all night on Monday when Russell Wilson returned to town, but the intensity still didn’t match what it was at “The Swap” when Utah threw that late interception to give Florida the victory in Week 1.
Those are the moments that make college sports, especially football, an outstanding viewing experience. Auburn’s “Kick Six” against Alabama; Texas Tech taking down No. 1 Texas with Michael Crabtree’s last-second touchdown catch; any of Florida State’s missed kicks against Miami; that mega-pop from the crowd after it has been roaring all day almost leaves the viewer a bit winded from the intensity of the game.
There were a couple of big-time neutral site games in Week 1, but they were Georgia vs. Oregon at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta and LSU vs. Florida State at the Superdome in New Orleans. I’m sure the Ducks, who were blown out, 49-3, and the Seminoles — 24-23 victors — did not feel that the environment was neutral.
The opening weeks of the 2022 college football season have been spectacular, and yes the wacky plays are fun to watch, but without the screaming student sections, it’s really just second-rate football.
Home and homes for out-of-conference from now on college football. The passionate crowds are part of what makes the sport special.