Gamecocks stick with football scheduling formula, weigh neutral site options

dcloninger@thestate.comJune 17, 2014 

Marcus Lattimore and the Gamecocks opened the 2011 season at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., against East Carolina. The Gamecocks will play in Charlotte again in 2015, this time against North Carolina.

C. ALUKA BERRY — The State

The SEC decided to do something about some of its schools playing their required eight conference games and then filling their other four games with “cupcakes.” Beginning in 2016, all SEC schools are required to schedule at least one game per year against a team from the ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten or Big 12.

The mandate doesn’t affect South Carolina. The Gamecocks play archrival Clemson (ACC) every year.

But the Gamecocks also won’t be taking an easier path toward scheduling with three guarantee games and then the Clemson game. They’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing, which is schedule a “name” opponent along with Clemson, and then play two guarantee games on top of that.

“Last year, as far as the schedule’s concerned, we opened up with North Carolina, we played Clemson, we played eight games in the league,” athletic director Ray Tanner said. “In ’15, we open up in Charlotte against North Carolina. Coach (Steve) Spurrier is very open to playing those extra games. Not all coaches would be. I think that played a role in us finishing fourth in the country.”

USC has drawn praise for continuing to schedule a “name” school among its three open choices, while also giving a small in-state school a chance to play in a big stadium on TV. Furman comes back to Williams-Brice Stadium this year, but The Citadel, Wofford, S.C. State and Coastal Carolina have taken turns since 2006.

East Carolina will also visit Columbia as part of a series that will last off-and-on until at least 2022, and South Alabama fills this year’s slate. Tanner and USC have continued to follow what former AD Eric Hyman liked to do – schedule one in-state school, one “name” school and one wild card.

It’s a good system of giving fans strong games that they’ll come to see, keeping seven home games and still playing a strong-enough schedule to be highly thought of for postseason consideration. It does come with a cost, though – those other two opponents have to be guaranteed a lot of money.

“It goes back to the marketplace,” Tanner said. “Some schools are getting away from the FCS games -- we’re not doing that, but some schools are. You look at that pool of schools, and they know who they are. And they know if you’re not going to do home-and-home, it’s the marketplace. It’s going to be the price of doing business.”

The Gamecocks won’t be doing home-and-home series with any of the other in-state schools or a school like South Alabama, so they have to pay. East Carolina, South Alabama and Furman will take home a combined pot of just under $2.5 million this year from USC. It’s a better alternative than scrambling for opponents that don’t demand too much, thus driving down some of the brand that Gamecock football has become.

USC is a heavy consideration for big TV games, because of Spurrier and because of 33 wins over the past three seasons. That opens another window for the schedule that Tanner has already taken advantage of – playing at a neutral site.

The Gamecocks opened in Charlotte in 2011 and will do so again in 2015. Because of the state’s geography, many neutral-site games are not conducive to ticket sales, but having Charlotte to the north and Atlanta to the west gives USC two strong options.

“I’m a big fan of the neutral games our fans can get to,” Tanner said. “I actually got a call from Indianapolis. Atlanta’s certainly where our fans can get to, Charlotte is where our fans can get to. That gives them seven home games-plus. That’s good for budgetary reasons.”

The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta has hosted Clemson twice and picked among several SEC teams over the years. This year, it will hold two games under the event banner, with Ole Miss and Alabama the SEC representatives. Next year, Auburn returns.

The Gamecocks haven’t been selected for the game, but Tanner said there have been conversations. Gary Stokan, the President of Peach Bowl, Inc. and the overseer of the CFA Kickoff, visited with Tanner at the SEC Spring Meetings.

The event is booked for this year and next, but in 2017, the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium is set to be completed. The first football game in that building could go to the CFA Kickoff, and perhaps USC could be invited.

“I think you look at the way you look at the schedule, certainly in the odd years when we have Clemson at home, it gives us the opportunity to do something in a neutral capacity,” Tanner said. “Stokan and I were together at North Carolina State, and there’s a number of schools they’re talking to. Whether we’ll merge in that, I don’t know.”

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