Night Move Makes Dollars and Sense

There could be plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Big Orange Country if Tennessee decides to move it's season opener against UNLV from Saturday to Sunday night to accommodate ESPN, but the benefits to recruiting could be bountiful.

It's hard to estimate how much impact having the national stage all alone on college football's opening weekend might have on the success of a recruiting campaign that shapes up as critical to Tennessee's future success. Playing before a capacity crowd under the lights at Neyland Stadium in retro uniforms will leave a strong impression on blue chip prospects.

Timing is as critical to recruiting success as it is to any other aspect of life, and a nationally televised game in September free of NFL or college competition is invaluable. Certainly far more so than the option of playing on a Saturday afternoon against a crowded TV lineup. Even more than playing a national championship game in January at a neutral site. By that time most of the big names in the Class of 2005 will have already committed or limited the field and visits. UT didn't have a great recruiting year in 1999 despite winning a national title only a month before national signing day.

However, in early September most top prospects will still be deciding on where to take their visits and many, no doubt, will be tempted to make Knoxville one of their official destinations after witnessing the pure electricity that is part and parcel of Tennessee football under lights. The further illumination of bright promise of a new season nine months after a Peach Bowl loss should amp up emotions another notch, as the pent up emotions of 108,000 passionate partisans roll down like Smoky Mountain thunder and all the color and pageantry of college football is captured in perfect character.

Granted, ESPN isn't a Tennessee fan favorite given the the sports network checkered history with UT. Its on-air personalities practically led the campaign to give Charles Woodson the Heisman Trophy over Peyton Manning in 1997. ESPN, located in Bristol, Conn., also aired promos three years ago portraying Big Orange supporters as ignorant hayseeds, to say nothing of its perpetual cheer leading for the UConn Lady Huskies and thinly veiled attempts to paint Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols as the heavy.

But to reject this opportunity would be looking a gift horse in the mouth, and that's something no school can afford to do in the annual battle for thoroughbred football talent. Because it's Labor Day weekend fans will still be able to travel to the game without major inconvenience which wouldn't be the case if the game was played on Monday night as originally suggested.

There are occasions when television dollars don't justify schedule changes, but this isn't one of them. In summary: TV schedules make for strange bedfellows and all is fair in love, war and football recruiting.

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