MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The idea came to Jacksonville State athletic director Greg Seitz more than a year ago. He already knew his Gamecocks were opening the 2017 football season at home against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He expected both teams to be ranked. He also knew Pete Derzis, ESPN senior vice president for college sports programming and events.
"I talked to Pete," Seitz said Saturday. "I told him we had this great opener. We talked to Johnny Williams, who's executive director of the Camellia Bowl here in Montgomery. We talked about opening the season a week early against UTC here in the Cramton Bowl, with ESPN televising the game. It worked out perfectly."
It certainly looked perfect as Saturday's opening kickoff approached between JSU's No. 5/6 Gamecocks and the No. 12/13 Mocs inside the officially neutral Cramton Bowl, which lays claim to the first night football game played in the Deep South back in 1927.
Though this crowd was clad decidedly in Jax State red, there was a healthy sprinkling of UTC blue and gold among the expected gathering of 17,000 or more, as well as that ESPN national television audience.
"It's not every day that a FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) program gets a 6:30 national television game on ESPN," UTC interim AD Scott Althizer — new AD Mark Wharton won't take over until early September — said as he watched the Mocs warm up.
"It's all about recruiting, and now we have something else for (new UTC coach) Tom Arth to show recruits when he visits their homes. Anything that helps one FCS program helps us all. Look what it's done for North Dakota State."
Indeed, while the Mocs and Gamecocks played in the so-called "Week Zero" window for the first time, North Dakota State has twice embraced the ESPN stage on this early weekend. The Bison are the only program to win five straight FCS titles, accomplishing that feat from 2011 through 2015. Since all but one of those national championships were won before their first ESPN opening-week appearance, it may be difficult to claim television exposure as a chief reason for those titles. But those early appearances have almost certainly raised NDSU's profile nationally.
Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino has lobbied for these early games for years.
"I used to tell them, 'Think of all the attention we'd get,'" Iamarino said inside the Cramton Bowl press box. "People are starving for college football this time of year. It's not just a great deal for these two schools and these two conferences, but it's a chance to show the whole country that we play pretty good football at this level."
As Iamarino also pointed out, they've been playing pretty good football at the FCS level for at least a decade. Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007. The Citadel knocked off South Carolina two years ago. Georgia Southern won at Florida in 2013. North Dakota State stunned Iowa last season.
Said Seitz, when asked if it's a financial risk to give up a home game for a neutral-site game such as this: "We don't think we'll lose anything. When you factor in this on ESPN's flagship station, that it reaches 100 million homes, we think this is an easy call."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com