There was a lot to enjoy about LSU’s home opener last Saturday.
It was the first time to see the team and the band come down the hill, past the habitat that is the new home of Mike VII. And it was another peek into coordinator Matt Canada’s new offense, though aside from the vertical passing game, it was pretty much shoving aside an outclassed opponent to work in freshmen during a 45-10 shakedown cruise for this Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener at Mississippi State.
Overall, though, LSU’s predictable romp against the FCS-level Mocs was, as local radio host and noted Alabama enthusiast Charles Hanagriff (kidding about that Alabama part) correctly observed, a game to be endured.
Attendance in Tiger Stadium was announced at 97,289, but the crowd at kickoff was probably 80,000 at best. At halftime, it was down to the hardiest core crowd of a few thousand, the band, and reporters up in the press box trying to beat tight night game deadlines.
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There was no doubt plenty of grumbling around the tailgate parties before and after the game about playing an FCS team — Division I like LSU, but on a completely different competitive level from teams in Power Five-leagues like the SEC.
With the Florida game moved to Gainesville after last year’s Hurricane Matthew debacle, Alabama on the road and a rare road game at Tennessee as well, the highlights of LSU’s home schedule will be Oct. 14 against Auburn and, possibly, its home finale Nov. 25 against Texas A&M.
Verge Ausberry, the deputy director of athletics at LSU in charge of scheduling, has as difficult a balancing act in his job as anyone. He’s charged with populating an entertaining non-SEC schedule while not burdening the team with too many tests that could take away from the Tigers’ chances of contending for conference and national honors.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ausberry said. “We have to do what the other SEC schools are doing to try to win the championship. We think with our strength of schedule, if we’re undefeated or lose one game, we’ll be in the (College Football) Playoffs.”
It’s easy to make the argument that games against FCS teams like Chattanooga are unappealing for fans who have to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for tickets. For every scare an FCS team like Nicholls State puts into Georgia last year (losing 26-24) or Texas A&M this year (losing 24-14 after being tied in the fourth quarter), there are 10 or 20 wins.
To date, SEC teams are a staggering 252-7 against FCS and what were formerly called Division I-AA teams since the divisions were created in 1978. That’s an overwhelming winning percentage of .973.
One can also make the argument that at LSU, the school is following the formula its SEC opponents follow, and maybe exceeding it.
LSU has two Power Five opponents this year: BYU, which it beat 27-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and Syracuse, which visits Tiger Stadium on Sept. 23 for the first time.
Every SEC school plays an FCS opponent this year, per rule, but LSU is one of only four along with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina playing two Power Five teams.
(BYU, as an independent, is not a member of a Power Five conference, but the Cougars and Notre Dame are generally regarded as Power Five-level teams.)
“It’s hard to make everyone happy with scheduling,” Ausberry said. “The bottom line is, playing in the national championship game and the SEC Championship Game is the goal for your team. When you look at our team playing 20 freshmen and four or five starting for you, it’s not an easy schedule.”
Ausberry remembers when he was an LSU linebacker in 1986, when the Tigers’ five-game nonconference schedule included Texas A&M (then in the Southwest Conference), North Carolina, Notre Dame, Tulane and, the mid-major that shocked LSU that year, Miami (Ohio).
“Today you’ll never hear of a schedule like that,” he said.
In the Power Five conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — 43 of the 64 member schools play FCS teams. The huge exception is the Big Ten, where only Maryland and Rutgers face FCS teams this year. Teams there may schedule FCS games in years they play four home and five road Big Ten games.
Ausberry said there’s no momentum in the SEC for either a nine-game conference schedule — which might reduce the chance to play an FCS team — or banning FCS games altogether.
“If people want to change the formula, we’re fine with it,” Ausberry said. “But we’ll continue to schedule like everyone else.”
LSU playing big nonconference games at neutral sites is also unlikely to change, though there are more sexy home-and-home series coming into view.
LSU opens in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against Miami (Florida) next year, and plays FCS-level Southeastern Louisiana at home, along with Louisiana Tech and Rice. The Tigers play Texas home-and-home in 2019-20, and between 2021-24 have home-and-home series with UCLA and Arizona State.