Vanderbilt opened the 2012 college football season in the most high-profile fashion — against a conference rival, under the lights of an August Thursday night and televised on ESPN. For a rising program seeking attention, the only bad part was the 17-13 loss to No. 9 South Carolina.
Now, it appears that ESPN, the SEC and the Nashville Sports Council are aligning to make it happen again.
The Commodores season opener against conference opponent Ole Miss is expected to move from Saturday, Aug. 31, at Vanderbilt Stadium to Thursday, Aug. 29, for a prime-time ESPN broadcast. Meanwhile, a neutral site matchup between the Kentucky Wildcats and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at LP Field will now kick off that Saturday.
Specific times for each game have not been set.
Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart and Nashville Sports Council president and CEO Scott Ramsey both confirmed that the Kentucky-Western Kentucky game, the fourth and final meeting of a four-year contract between the schools, would be played on Saturday instead of Thursday this season.
“It’s a good matchup at a neutral site with the proximity to both schools, and both schools have large alumni bases in Nashville. It’s an opportunity for our student athletes to play in a NFL stadium,” Stewart said.
The four-year deal between the schools stipulated that both of Western Kentucky’s “home games” would be played at LP Field, with WKU paying the Wildcats a flat fee and splitting ticket revenue with the Sports Council, which manages game-day operations.
The last LP Field meeting in 2011 was moved to a Thursday night at the behest of ESPN, which aired the game on ESPNU. According to both Ramsey and Stewart, that created a problem for many fans, who couldn’t travel on a weeknight. The game, a sloppy 14-3 UK win, drew only 24,599 fans at 68,798 seat LP Field.
In addition to a Saturday kickoff, the 2013 matchup will feature two brand-new coaches in Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Western’s Bobby Petrino, who was a perfect 4-0 against the Wildcats while head coach at Louisville. Western Kentucky beat Kentucky 32-31 in overtime at Commonwealth Stadium last season.
“Saturday allows for a better travel experience for fans, but also a better game for Nashville. Moving the game to Saturday will allow for fans to spend at least one night in the city,” Ramsey said.
In addition to the 2011 game against WKU, the Wildcats have played at LP Field as a Music City Bowl participant in 2006, ’07 and ’09 — twice contributing to an announced attendance of more than 68,000.
As it stands, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference have not officially confirmed that their game will move to ESPN on Thursday night. However, one source at the University of Mississippi confirmed that the agreement for the two teams to play each other in a conference game in Week 1 of the season was made “with the understanding the game would receive national exposure in the Thursday night slot.”
Since the 2005 season, anytime the SEC has paired two conference teams against each other in the opening week of the season, it’s been for the national Thursday night broadcast on ESPN. Over the past 10 seasons, the season-opening Thursday night game has featured at least one SEC team seven times.
The last school to open the season with conference opponents without a national viewing audience? The Commodores, who hosted South Carolina and Ole Miss in 2004 and ’03, respectively, on regional television.
Officials from neither school would comment on the record, but one noted that the likely schedule change would happen after the SEC football meetings in Sandestin, Fla., this March.
Vanderbilt defeated the Rebels 27-26 this season, their third consecutive victory over Ole Miss and fifth in six years. However, the Commodores have not beaten a BCS-conference team in a season opener since the creation of the BCS designation in 1998.
Vanderbilt finished the 2012 season 9-4, and were ranked No. 24 in Sports Illustrated’s 2013 Early Top 25 last week.
When the announcement is made official, ticket sales will be closely watched by Vanderbilt. Despite the momentum of a bowl campaign in James Franklin’s first season, the Commodores failed to sell out last year’s Thursday opener.
In an interview before the 2012 South Carolina game, Franklin was enthusiastic about the challenge of opening with a conference foe as both a marketing device and a recruiting tool for future players.
“I think these games are great opportunities. We’re getting at a point now where we’re exciting enough to show recruits what we’re about when they see us with this kind of spotlight.”
The real winner stands to be Nashville-area football fans, who will see three SEC teams play in three days, plus nearby WKU in Petrino’s first game. By coincidence, the slate looks like the kind of opening weekend bonanzas seen in Atlanta and Dallas.
Ramsey said that there were no immediate plans to bring a season-opening game to LP every season, but that the Sports Council is “always looking for the right fit,” citing past games between Wyoming and Tennessee, and Middle Tennessee and Louisville.
“Certainly we love these opportunities, but we’re careful. Things are also set to change here soon with conference scheduling. But we love the opportunities to host these teams,” Ramsey said.