For LSU, the good outweighs the bad when playing neutral site games

In 2009, LSU receivers coach D.J. McCarthy recruited an offensive line prospect from the Dallas area named Evan Washington.

The coach didn’t explain to Washington that the Tigers’ future schedule included two high-profile games in Arlington, Texas, just a few miles from Washington’s home.

He didn’t have to mention it.

“I knew Dallas was in the talks,” said Washington, now a fifth-year senior who admitted to signing with the Tigers, in part, because of those Dallas-based games. “It’s nice being able to come home every now and then.”

When No. 13 LSU meets No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday in Houston, the Tigers will play their fourth neutral-site game in the last five seasons.

A primary reason for the neutral-site games, official say, is to promote the brand and boost recruiting. Washington’s situation is proof that the method works.

The school also gets to cash a multi- million dollar paycheck, and it affords an easier route to scheduling — home-and-home series can be difficult to come by.

What it also does: Water down a nonconference home schedule that’s seen few marquee games in a plush and newly expanded venue. A good chunk of LSU fans would rather see the Badgers in Baton Rouge on Saturday.

“It’s great to go play in an NFL stadium, but there’s nothing like Tiger Stadium,” LSU linebacker D.J. Welter said. “It definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing us starting out the year and maximizing our games in Tiger Stadium.”

LSU is on a recent neutral-site binge, a string of high-profile games away from the confines of newly expanded Tiger Stadium. Over the previous five seasons, the team has played regular season games against TCU and Oregon in Arlington and North Carolina in Atlanta. The Tigers will play Wisconsin again in 2016 — this time at Lambeau Field.

Neutral-site games show no signs of slowing.

LSU officials are in “preliminary talks” with Orlando, Florida, and New Orleans for possible neutral-site games, said LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva. Those two cities contacted LSU officials about games, he said.

The school continues to prefer three cities — Atlanta, Dallas and Houston — for neutral-site venues.

Why? Mostly the money and the recruiting.

A prime example is Houston, a massive metropolitan city in a state flowing with football talent.

Six Texans were a part of LSU’s No. 2-ranked 2014 signing class. That’s the most Texas signees in one LSU class since Nick Saban took charge of the program in 2000.

In all, LSU has signed at least three Texas players in 13 of the previous 15 classes. “We’re going to recruit in that area,” coach Les Miles said about the game in Houston. “So it’s a great place for us to be.”

Houston comes with an added bonus: The city is LSU’s largest alumni base outside of Louisiana.Throw in the check — ESPN is paying LSU $3.4 million — and the game is a win-win-win for the university.

For the 70,000-plus season ticket holders, neutral-site games leave a less than savory group of non-conference home games. This season that list includes Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State.

This isn’t a first.

LSU has hosted just two major conference teams in nonconference games from 2009-2013: Washington and West Virginia. The Tigers have won 15 nonconference home games over that span by a margin of 31 points.

The three neutral site games during that time had a nine-point margin of victory.

Contracted nonconference home opponents over the next fives seasons include Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, McNeese State, Western Kentucky, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Jacksonville State, Troy and Georgia Southern.

“Our ultimate goal is to hold the crystal ball over our head,” said LSU associate athletic director Verge Ausberry, who handles scheduling with Alleva, in a reference to the former BCS national championship trophy. “There’s ways of doing that.”

LSU’s scheduling method is to play one major conference team (now mandatory), two mid-majors and one Football Championship Subdivision team each season. Eight other SEC schools follow this format this season. Four of the five that do not, don’t have a major conference team on the slate.

The watered down home schedules is the price paid for playing that one power conference team away from Baton Rouge on a neutral field.

Oh, but the price is so good.

LSU’s $3.4 million payday Saturday is more than the school nets from a home game in Tiger Stadium, Alleva said.

The two-year deal just sweetens things. The Green Bay Packers will pay LSU $2.1 million for the game at Lambeau Field in 2016. That’s $5.5 million for two games, well more than, say, a home-and-home series with the Badgers.

“When I play home and home with an opponent, I get a good pay day here at Tiger Stadium,” Alleva said, “but when I go on the road, I get nothing.”

Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said over the summer that LSU dismissed an idea of playing a home-and-home with Wisconsin. LSU officials disagree.

“Regardless of what Wisconsin has said, they didn’t want to come to Tiger Stadium,” Alleva said.

LSU isn’t the only school figuring out that neutral-site games are profitable. There are 19 regular season neutral-site games scheduled for this football season, including five involving SEC teams.

LSU has future home-and-home series scheduled with UCLA (2021-24) and Arizona State (2022-23), but there’s opportunity for neutral-site game against a power team to be added in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Could the Tigers be returning to Houston?

“I think that would be our hope,” said David Fletcher, executive director of the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff.

The event is in the second year of a four-year deal with ESPN, a relationship, Fletcher said, that’s in the works of being extended. Like neutral-site games in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, NRG Stadium in Houston is the site of an SEC bowl tie-in. The AdvoCare Bowl pits teams from the SEC and Big 12.

Teams could, conceivably, begin and end the season in the same city. That’s not a concern, Fletcher said. The kickoff event, in fact, is targeting SEC and Big 12 teams, he said.

For LSU, returning to Houston isn’t a big deal. It would only mean another trip into fertile recruiting ground and another paycheck that breaks the bank.

Meanwhile, Washington gets to play Saturday in front of his Dallas-based family, among others.

“Got family and Houston too,” he said. “I like that we’re playing games in Texas.”