Unusual road date for Mississippi State

The average SEC football fan might have done a double take when reviewing this week’s conference schedule and noticing Mississippi State’s matchup.

The Bulldogs (2-0) will face South Alabama (1-0). Nothing strange there. The Jaguars are a Sun Belt Conference team that will also face South Carolina and Navy this season.

It’s the location of the game that might come as a surprise.

Mississippi State will play at South Alabama at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile on Saturday afternoon – the product of a two-for-one agreement between the schools that includes games in Starkville, Mississippi, in 2012 and 2016. The Bulldogs have struck similar deals with Troy and Louisiana Tech, so while it might look strange, the scheduling philosophy has actually worked well for MSU and its fans.

“I’ve never heard a coach say we’ve lost a kid or a recruit over something like that,” Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “I do think our fans appreciate the fact that we’re putting road games in locations where we have fans that can get there. We’re playing in Mobile and we have a lot of fans on the Gulf Coast, a lot of alumni down there between Pensacola over to New Orleans in that space.”

Many major conference schools are unwilling to play such road games, but doing so makes it easier for Mississippi State to meet its goal of playing seven home games per season – and to do it without paying out huge guarantees. Adding that third game to a home-and-home deal typically reduces Mississippi State’s payout to the opponent, Stricklin said.

“If you’re playing seven home games, that means you’re playing three nonconference home games a year and we wanted to be as efficient as possible with our guarantee money to try and get those games as cheaply as possible,” Stricklin said. “And so the two-for-one kind of became something that helped us accomplish those goals – helped us get seven home games and saved us money in doing so.

“I’ll be honest, a lot of SEC schools from a financial standpoint don’t have to do that, and there’s probably some that from an ego standpoint wouldn’t want to do it,” Stricklin added. “We just thought it made sense for where we were and what we were trying to accomplish.”

Mississippi State played at Troy in 2012 and scheduled home games with the Trojans for 2013 and 2015. The Bulldogs will host Louisiana Tech in 2015 and 2017 and will play at Lousiana Tech’s Joe Aillet Stadium – a venue that holds roughly 30,000 fans – in 2016.

That’s a huge difference from many of the monstrous stadiums where State competes during SEC play, but Stricklin said it does not create logistical problems for his program.

“The stadiums are smaller, but other than that, as far as getting tickets and the way we’re treated, everybody bends over backwards,” Stricklin said. “Those are good programs. Troy’s had a lot of success and Louisiana Tech’s had some success. Those are programs that their stadium may not be as big, but the way that they run and operate is college athletics. They do a good job.”

State’s visit to South Alabama’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium has also been met with enthusiasm in Mobile.

It’s the first time an SEC team will play a game at South Alabama, and earlier this week, the school announced that all 40,000 tickets for the game have been sold – the first sellout in the program’s six seasons. To date, South Alabama’s largest home crowd came when 26,783 fans watched the Jaguars face Hargrave Military Academy on Sept. 5, 2009, the first game in program history.

“Five or six years ago, when I took the job, who knew what was going to happen?” South Alabama coach Joey Jones said at his Monday news conference, according to AL.com. “I had some ideas, but I didn't know we were going to be here six years later. But here we are, playing a SEC team here in Mobile, Alabama, and it's a big deal. To have a SEC team come to Mobile and play and have that atmosphere and to be sold out, the excitement around town, that's why you play football.”

Because of the SEC’s new rule that requires its teams to play at least one nonconference game per year (starting in 2016) against an opponent from a Power 5 conference, Stricklin isn’t sure whether his two-for-one scheduling philosophy has a future.

He set up future home-and-home series against N.C. State (away in 2020 and home in 2021) and Arizona (away in 2022 and home in 2023) over the summer and struck a deal with Kansas State athletic director John Currie for a series (away in 2018 and home in 2019) via Twitter in July.

But if he can make the dates and payouts work, Stricklin is not opposed to striking more two-for-ones with schools such as South Alabama, Troy or Louisiana Tech in the future.

“It’s like any other scheduling relationship: You’ve got to find a willing partner and the years and the dates have got to match up and all that kind of stuff. But we’re certainly open to it,” Stricklin said.

“If we do fewer two-for-ones, what it’s going to mean is we’re going to have to pay out more straight guarantee games to get the seven home games every year. I’d love to minimize that from a financial standpoint, but we’ll end up wherever we need to end up based on trying to fit it into what our priorities are.”