K’Lavon Chaisson has already made his mark at NRG Stadium.
LSU’s highly recruited freshman edge rusher sealed his high school team’s state championship in the Houston stadium in 2015, sniffing out a jet-sweep pass on fourth-and-goal in overtime to lift North Shore over Westlake.
Chaisson finished that game with a strip-fumble, two sacks and four tackles for loss, said former LSU defensive tackle Shaun Wynn, Chaisson’s defensive line coach at North Shore.
“He played lights-out,” Wynn said. “He was everywhere.”
LSU opens this season at a neutral site — Houston’s NRG Stadium — for the sixth time in the past eight years. The program is one of the nation’s leaders in these types of games.
Why? Because of players like Chaisson, a highly touted recruit who in February signed with LSU over in-state power Texas and now gets to open his freshman season near his own backyard.
“It’s all about recruiting,” said Verge Ausberry, the school’s deputy director of athletics. “It’s about the university and the national publicity we get.”
Chaisson is one of many current LSU players who are oh so familiar with the state (Texas), city (Houston) and venue (NRG Stadium) in which the No. 13 Tigers will play BYU to open the season Sept. 2. LSU’s roster includes more players from Texas (15) than any other state outside of Louisiana.
Nine Texans are on the projected two-deep depth chart, including six from the Houston area: Chaisson, safeties Eric Monroe and Grant Delpit, tackles Toby Weathersby and Austin Deculus, and outside linebacker Corey Thompson.
It’s not a coincidence that five of the Tigers' seven neutral-site games between 2010 and 2018 originated or will originate from Texas: The games are in 2010 (North Carolina in Atlanta), 2011 (Oregon in Arlington, Texas), 2013 (TCU in Arlington), 2014 (Wisconsin in Houston), 2016 (Wisconsin in Green Bay, Wisconsin), 2017 (BYU in Houston) and 2018 (Miami in Arlington).
Don’t look for these neutral-site games to end any time soon. LSU plans to hold a season-opening game in New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the next “four to six years,” Ausberry told The Advocate earlier this month. Nothing is finalized, he said, but discussions are ongoing.
“We’d like to play a Power Five (team) in New Orleans — the right opponent,” said Ausberry, who works with athletic director Joe Alleva in creating LSU’s football schedule. “We target four cities: New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston.”
The school believes those four cities make up its “footprint,” he said, for athletic and university recruiting.
The late-night text messages Dave Aranda receives are of football videos playing on an iPad …
The benefit isn’t solely recruiting. This is about money, too. LSU will make a combined $23.75 million on those seven neutral-site games, from a low of $2.1 million (2014 at Green Bay) to what is believed to be a school-record payout of $4.75 million for next year’s game against the Hurricanes.
That average is about $3.4 million per game, more than LSU makes in revenue from a home game, school officials have said. Neutral-site games pay both ways, too. Home-and-home series between major conference teams have a drawback.
“When I play home-and-home with an opponent, I get a good pay day here at Tiger Stadium,” Alleva said in 2014. "But when I go on the road, I get nothing.”
After next week, the Tigers will have played more games against nonconference Power Five foes in Houston since 2014 than they've hosted in Tiger Stadium since 2009 (two). The BYU game will be the third for LSU in the city, including a win in the Texas Bowl in 2015.
David Fletcher, executive director of the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff, is fine with this.
“It’s becoming a yearly thing,” he said this week, “and we love it.”
Houston is LSU’s largest alumni base outside of Louisiana. Purple and gold flooded NRG Stadium in 2014 and again in 2015 for the bowl.
Eleven days before the BYU game, LSU has sold 23,000 of its 25,000-ticket allotment, said Brian Broussard, who's in charge of ticket sales and operations at the school. That amount does not include tickets purchased through the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff.
Matt Canada isn’t running the toss dive any time soon.
BYU has sold out of its allotment “and then some,” Fletcher said. The Cougars were allotted about 9,400 tickets.
BYU has to travel the farthest (about 1,430 miles) of any school to play in the kickoff game's five-year history, but Fletcher doesn’t expect that to affect attendance. Wisconsin (1,198 miles) and Arizona State (1,172) have played in previous games.
“BYU has a fantastic national following. A lot of history of great football,” Fletcher said. “We expect them to have a great traveling crowd. We know LSU has an incredible level of support from the Houston area. We expect a full house. We know it will be a pro-Tiger crowd.”
Nothing, though, is quite like a home game at 102,321-seat Tiger Stadium.
For the 70,000-plus season-ticket holders, tasty neutral-site games lead to a less than savory group of nonconference home matchups. Over the past eight seasons, LSU has hosted 22 nonconference opponents. Two of them have been Power Five foes: West Virginia in 2010 and Washington in 2012. The Tigers snap a four-year stretch without a major conference opponent this year by hosting Syracuse.
Will the Orange break another skid and keep it close? LSU has won those 22 games by a margin of more than 32 points. Just two of them have come by single digits: LSU beat Louisiana Tech 24-16 in 2009 and edged West Virginia 20-14 in 2010.
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The school will soon host some marquee nonconference matchups, and it begins with Texas in 2020. The Longhorns and Tigers agreed in a 2019-20 home-and-home series. LSU will travel to UCLA in 2021 and Arizona State in 2022. Those schools will visit Tiger Stadium in 2023 (ASU) and 2024 (UCLA).
Still, the draw of neutral-site cash and exposure is there, and LSU will take advantage.
“We’ve got a lot of things on the horizon,” Ausberry said. “We definitely want to do something in New Orleans. It’s a hotbed for us. Been talking to a few folks for that.”
Ausberry said a game in New Orleans could follow the same format as the two-year neutral-site contract with Wisconsin: near LSU (in Houston) for Game 1, and then near UW’s campus (in Green Bay) for Game 2 two years later.
“It could be New Orleans and play somewhere else, like Chicago at Soldier Field or Jacksonville,” Ausberry said. “We love that model.”
A game in New Orleans could also be part of a format similar to what the school agreed to with Rice. The Owls are visiting Tiger Stadium in 2024, and the teams are meeting at NRG Stadium in 2020.
Yes, that’s right: another game in Houston for LSU.
“We always want to be in that Houston area,” Ausberry said. “We have to be there.”
Matt Canada’s first game as a play-caller came in Brownwood, Texas.
The Advocate received a copy of the game contract between LSU and ESPN for the Tigers’ Sept. 2 season opener against BYU in Houston and spoke to David Fletcher, executive director of the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff. Check out the details:
- LSU will be the home team, occupying the southeast locker room and east sideline.
- LSU will wear white uniforms.
- LSU has sold 23,000 of its allotted 25,000 tickets, the school said. BYU sold its allotment of tickets, Fletcher said. The Cougars were allotted about 9,500 tickets.
- Big 12 officials are scheduled to work the event, according to the contract, but officials have not yet been hired, Fletcher said Monday.
- The decision to open the retractable roof will be made by ESPN at its discretion and will be “guided by the safety of the (players) and comfort of the fans,” the contract reads. Fletcher said to expect the roof closed because of the hot temperatures.
- LSU will be paid $4 million by ESPN for participating. The lump sum is paid to the school within 30 days of the event.
- LSU will receive three complimentary 20-person suites and 75 parking passes and 400 complimentary tickets.
- ESPN made available 1,000 upper-deck tickets for LSU students, at $20 each.
- Parking lots surrounding NRG Stadium will open six hours before kickoff (at 2:30 p.m.).
- The Bud Light Fan Fest outside of NRG Stadium is set to begin at 4:30 p.m. with live music and giveaways.
- Pregame festivities will include a spirit walk welcoming each team into NRG Stadium. The Tigers arrive at the stadium at 6:30 p.m., after BYU arrives at 6:15, Fletcher said.