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Neutral-site or not, let’s just enjoy College GameDay for what it is

There have been mixed feelings about ESPN’s decision to broadcast College GameDay from TCU’s campus ahead of what is technically a neutral-site game vs. Ohio State.

ESPN College GameDay Built by The Home Depot - Times Square Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

College football would never be college football without a little controversy sprinkled in, would it? Maybe that’s what makes the sport so beautiful — something that is near and dear to seemingly everyone in Fort Worth, Columbus and far beyond.

No matter who you cheer for, Saturday is going to be a beautiful day. The matchup between No. 15 TCU and No. 4 Ohio State is the type of situation which any fan of the games live for. Two successful programs — one a blue-blood and one “new royalty” — set to battle it out on a grand stage for all to see.

There’s anticipation. There’s off-field tension. And even with the game being played at an NFL Stadium, there will still be the pageantry that makes the game unlike anything else. Even ESPN College GameDay, the beloved pregame show that has traveled across the country each season for now more than two decades, is setting their sights on the showdown between the Horned Frogs and the Buckeyes. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Okay, sure, it would have been an incredible sight to see TCU and Ohio State fans cram into the 50,000 seat Amon G. Carter Stadium for a contest as big as this one. And it would have been a thrill for Frog fans to see their team play at The Shoe in 2019. Fair enough, there are plenty of risk-factors with a home-and-home series — injuries and playoff chances among them — and no institution can complain about a $5 million check that comes with the move to AT&T Stadium. But you can’t fully replicate an on-campus atmosphere at a neutral-site — even if one school is just 18 miles away.

Perhaps that last thought weighed heavy on the minds of the higher-ups at ESPN last week. In an unexpected turn of events, GameDay has opted to broadcast the show in the middle of the TCU Campus Commons for a second consecutive season this Saturday, even though there won’t any football game at the venue adjacent to the set.

Hallelujah. ESPN has miraculously spared us from being entirely robbed of the on-campus element for this highly-awaited matchup.

Go ahead and start celebrating on both sides of the aisle. Right?

One might think. Alas, not everyone is so pleased with the idea of TCU getting some extra PR for what is technically a neutral-site matchup — even if the game is being played in Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Or so that was brought to my attention earlier this week (Spoiler: most of those folks probably won’t be sporting purple on Saturday).

First things first: Regarding the frustration from Ohio State fans, I get it. It’s fair to say any fan-base has the right to be a little irritated when a game that is heralded as a neutral-site meeting seemingly benefits your opponent significantly more than yourself — at least in terms of TV time. I’m sure TCU fans would feel the same way if the game was being played in Cleveland and GameDay decided to broadcast from Ohio State’s campus.

False advertising? No. But I won’t argue that there may be at least a perceived slant towards the Horned Frogs here. As I stated earlier, GameDay has repeatedly set up shop at nearby Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth when neutral site contests have been played in Arlington. Such was the case when Florida State kicked off the 2014 season vs. Oklahoma State, and again when Alabama took on Wisconsin in week 1 of the 2015 campaign. Full disclosure: I initially presumed ESPN would make the journey to Jordan Hare Stadium this week to hype up the SEC West showdown between Auburn and LSU. But on the chance they chose TCU and Ohio State, which they did, I fully expected GameDay to broadcast from Sundance Square, not on campus.

I was wrong.

Here we are, with TCU’s campus getting being in the limelight for a second time in less than 12 months. And that’s a dream come true both TCU students and everyone else who has a special place in their heart for the Frogs.

Sure, Ohio State fans who are staying in Dallas or Arlington (not to get nit-picky, but there is a big difference) will have to spend some extra gas if they had hopes of being in the pit behind Rece Davis, Lee Coros, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard. And admittedly, the atmosphere probably wont be as welcoming to Buckeyes fans as it would have been elsewhere.

Still, for anybody who isn’t thrilled with GameDay’s decision to be on TCU’s campus out of a perceived bias or something along those lines, let’s take a step back for a second.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know what ESPN’s true motivation is for what, to the best of my knowledge, is an unprecedented move for a neutral-site meeting. But here’s what I do know:

College GameDay, as much as it is a pre-game show, is about showcasing college campuses all across the country.

Sure, fans of all ages can enjoy attending the show. But the reality is that students drive the atmosphere around the set. The words “GameDay is coming” can often make the entire season for a school — especially smaller institutions like TCU. A reminder that while the Horned Frogs have recently earned national attention, TCU only has around 9,000 undergraduate students and has been a Power-5 program for less than a decade. Even if GameDay is attending a game that is labeled as “neutral-site,” ESPN isn’t going to pass up the opportunity to be on a college campus if feasible — AKA a 20 minute drive. Why the show went to New York City for one week last September, I do not know, and knock on wood that doesn’t happen again anytime soon (Let’s be honest too, the venue is the only thing keeping this game “neutral,” at least in terms of geography).

Believe me, I’m sure ESPN wanted to be on a campus for the 2014 and 2015 kickoff games that saw them venture over to Sundance Square. The only problem? For the sake of fans who want to attend both the show and the game, it’s a little tough to get from Tallahassee or Madison to Arlington in eight hours. This time, ESPN has the rare opportunity to make it work. And before you say that the show could have just gone to a game that is actually being played on a campus, a friendly reminder that TCU-Ohio State has, for some time, been slatted for the ABC prime-time slot. While they still could have gone to LSU-Auburn, it makes a bit more sense for ESPN to hype up a game on a network which they own than one that will air on CBS.

Another stat to be mindful of too. While yes, all that matters is the here and now, Ohio State has been featured more than 40 times on GameDay since the show began traveling around the nation. The show even visited Columbus not once but twice in a span of less than two months in 2017. On the contrast, this is just the seventh time the Horned Frogs have ever been featured on the show, and just the third time TCU has hosted GameDay. Like it or not, the inevitable truth is that Buckeyes will continue to find themselves in GameDay-worthy matchups far more frequently than the Horned Frogs will going forward. Is there really that much harm in providing TCU students with what is quite frankly a rare opportunity in this neck of the woods?

For those who want to vent any frustrations, go ahead and do so (not that TCU fans have any reason to do so). But to the point — once Saturday arrives, let’s all just enjoy the scene for what it is. All politics aside, this is a celebration of the game. It’s a day which both schools — no matter how the scoreboard looks later that evening — should cherish. It may sound cliche, but at the end of the day, it really all is “just a game.” And College GameDay, for as much of a pedestal we put it on, is just a show.

Beyond what goes down on the football field, Saturday will be what you make it. Fingers crossed that the majority of fans on both sides decide to make the most of it — especially when it’s lights, camera action at 8 a.m. CT in Fort Worth.