Luke DeCock

Tar Heels taking a risk with neutral-site opener, but rivals want in

How Larry Fedora’s North Carolina team fares against South Carolina in Charlotte may have a lot to say about the Tar Heels’ season. NC State and Duke would like a chance to play in similar neutral-site games.
How Larry Fedora’s North Carolina team fares against South Carolina in Charlotte may have a lot to say about the Tar Heels’ season. NC State and Duke would like a chance to play in similar neutral-site games.

Larry Fedora acknowledges there are inherent risks in opening the football season against an SEC opponent at a neutral site on national television. The North Carolina coach also feels the TV exposure and recruiting impact from playing South Carolina in Charlotte on Sept. 3 offers a potential reward that far outweighs those risks.

“Everybody wants to start out with a win, that’s No. 1,” Fedora said. “Obviously, the pros are, it could be a great thing for this conference. Everybody is talking about it. It’s good for recruits. It’s good for our team as they prepare through the summer, to know that they have that big game coming up. The negatives are, if you’re not successful, how you manage your team not starting out with a win. That’s part of coaching.”

These games are lucrative, and there aren’t many to go around – Arlington, Tex., tops the list, followed by Atlanta and Charlotte – so it’s a great opportunity for North Carolina, and one Duke and N.C. State would both like to have, although they face different issues in getting one.

For the Blue Devils, it’s waiting for the long arc of football scheduling to catch up with their improved stature in the game. For the Wolfpack, it’s shedding the stigma of what happened the last time they garnered such an invitation, in Atlanta in 2012.

Duke would just like an invitation, period. The Blue Devils haven’t been in this position long, but they’re suddenly an attractive property to television networks. As Duke builds its reputation, a neutral-site game against a marquee opponent would be a major step – and would put considerable pressure on the growing contingent of Duke football fans to buy tickets.

“We’re in the process of looking at opportunities,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I would like to challenge our program. Certainly, we’ve put ourselves in that position. Now you just have to execute and hope the scheduling gods, which includes a lot of people who work in television, can work it all out.”

N.C. State got that shot in 2012, when it played Tennessee in the Georgia Dome, but it was less than a satisfying experience. The game was moved to Friday so Clemson and Auburn could play Saturday, which was widely perceived as a snub by Wolfpack fans – who stayed away in droves from the 35-21 loss, buying only 15,734 tickets from a 31,000-seat allotment.

Even if Atlanta is off the table for the Wolfpack for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t mean others aren’t interested. N.C. State at one point had a game lined up against South Carolina in Charlotte that fell through, and there’s mutual interest there if the timing and opponent can be determined.

“Sometimes you say to yourself, ‘Is this the year I want to have that game? Is this the way I want to start the season?’” N.C. State athletics director Debbie Yow said. “If you have a young team, where we are, you think about, ‘Is this the year we want to bite that off?’”

The logistics are complicated, from ensuring enough home games to how far out games are scheduled now. N.C. State also has all but two of its openers booked through 2024, although some could presumably be moved if necessary. Duke, meanwhile, plays Notre Dame in 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2023 and Baylor in 2017 and 2018, but not necessarily to open the season.

“What’s difficult in that regard, more difficult than anything else, is we schedule so far out in college football,” Cutcliffe said. “Once you get something laid at your doorstep like that, now you’ve got about 15 working, moving parts to deal with.”

There are risks, but there are certainly rewards – enough that it’s worth working through the scheduling issues if the opportunity presents itself. North Carolina gets that chance this September. Duke and N.C. State would like a shot of their own.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947