CHICAGO — Wisconsin and Louisiana State have combined to win 200 games in the last 10 years and each boasts arguably the best college football environment in their region.
There’s nothing like a packed house at Camp Randall Stadium, and there’s no scene that compares to Death Valley at night. Yet these iconic brands with stadiums rocking with 80,000-plus fans seven Saturdays a year, will discard their greatest advantage to meet at a neutral site twice in the next three years.
The schools face off Aug. 30 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. In 2016, they meet at venerable Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Houston is a recruiting hotbed, and the NFL stadiums provide a signature backdrop with national exposure. But the primary reason why the schools are playing off campus is because it’s unlikely they could agree to a series on home sites, where the schools are a combined 125-14 over the last decade.
“As it went forward, it was very obvious that if we were going to play these games, they were going to get played on a neutral field,” Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen said. “I’d love to play it in Camp Randall. Going to Death Valley would be a great experience. It would be a hard place to play, but we all play in hard places.”
Wisconsin has played five non-conference games away from Madison in the last five seasons, including a road game against Northern Illinois in Chicago. This will be the Badgers’ only road trip this year before Big Ten play, and next year Wisconsin opens against Alabama at Arlington Stadium. Four of LSU’s last five openers were held at neutral sites, two of which were in North Texas and another in Atlanta. But in the Tigers’ previous three seasons with a neutral-site game, only once did they have a road non-SEC game the same season.
“We like to play as home, there isn’t any question. We enjoy walking down the hill to that stadium,” LSU Coach Les Miles said. “We enjoy the style of people that come in there that are intimately attached to our football team, and that the opponent has a very difficult time getting the ball snapped. We understand the advantages.
“We also recognize that when you take a team, you’re playing a very quality opponent, certainly Wisconsin is that, in a neutral-site game, and you’re in a position whereas a program you’re going to be challenged, there’s a real necessity to answer that challenge that allows a level of execution and allows a level of play that you need to start the season with.”
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Each school will receive more than $5 million for the two-game package, according to reports. LSU, with its proximity to Houston, handles the first game’s logistics and Wisconsin obviously is in charge of the 2016 game. ESPN Regional Television Services also played a role in setting up the series.
Big Ten schools will play four neutral site games this year, and the other three are designated as road games. Penn State persuaded Central Florida to move their season opener from Orlando to Dublin, Ireland. Navy will play host to Ohio State in Baltimore, an arrangement agreed upon in 2010. Notre Dame moved its Sept. 13 home game against Purdue to Indianapolis.
It’s not unusual for the Big Ten to compete in NFL stadiums. From 2010 through this year, the league has staged 13 games at neutral sites. That includes Michigan State moving a 2010 game to Detroit and Indiana shifting a 2010 home game against Penn State to Landover, Md., home of the Washington Redskins. The most high-profile neutral-site game was held in Arlington, Texas in 2012 when Michigan opened against Alabama.
Iowa received $1 million to play Northern Illinois in 2012 at Chicago’s Soldier Field. In 2000, Iowa opened the season against Kansas State in Kansas City. But don’t expect Iowa to play another neutral-site game any time soon.
With each home game worth about $3.5 million, Iowa’s athletics department is committed to playing seven home games annually to pay its bills. The 2012 game in Chicago was Iowa’s only non-Big Ten game away from Kinnick Stadium. With a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, that allows for just one non-conference game away from Kinnick every two years. Iowa has a home-and-home contract with Iowa State through 2021.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz supported the 2012 game in Chicago because of the high percentage of UI students from that area. But he’s reluctant to play a neutral site game out of the region like in Texas or Atlanta.
“Not to sound like a party pooper but if I was coaching at Alabama, I might be more interested in those games,” Ferentz said. “But for us we’re just trying to build something usually in September. I’m not sure it would be the smartest thing for us to do, unless we just really timed it up right.
“Overall, I kind of like being here (Kinnick Stadium) if we can.”
While playing at neutral sites has become a trend, it also invites scrutiny. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany issued a leaguewide memo on Oct. 23, 2013 — about two months after the Wisconsin-LSU series was finalized — reinforcing the league’s policies for neutral-site games.
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Delany’s letter, which was obtained by The Gazette, highlighted the league’s support for neutral sites provided at least half of the series occur within the Big Ten footprint and under the league’s television agreements. Delany wrote an arrangement would be “disapproved” if a Big Ten game was not designated as the home squad in at least half the games or if it was a one-game event that took place outside the league’s television umbrella.
While Delany cautioned schools to work with the conference before finalizing games, he also champions the idea of high-profile football games. Strength-of-schedule is a major component for the four-team College Football Playoff, which debuts this season.
“We know you are trying to create strong non-conference game schedules as we move into the College Football Playoff environment and as we prepare for our next big television negotiation,” Delany wrote. “We applaud and very much appreciate your efforts in doing so, as this should create value for your teams and fans as well as for our television partners and, therefore, for all Conference members. But please keep in mind the above policies that are important to all of us as we share collectively in the revenue generated by our televised games.”
Of course the games are important, too. For Andersen and the Badgers, facing an SEC power provides an early-season test. It also gives Wisconsin — and the Big Ten — a chance to elevate its profile.
“It would be a huge victory for Wisconsin,” Andersen said. “It would be a huge victory, in my opinion, for the Big Ten and to do what LSU has done and the solid program they’ve been year in and year out and the respect they have, obviously it would be a huge win. I also say, on the flip side of that, if LSU was to win the game, it would be a huge victory for them to beat a Big Ten team and to beat Wisconsin.”
That’s the reason why Wisconsin and LSU are playing in Houston.
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