Forde-Yard Dash: Empty seats fill college football's opening weekend

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (directions to the correct end zone sold separately at Kent State, where linebacker Andre Parker tried like crazy to score on his own team by running the wrong way with a muffed punt):


Maybe not everyone was as excited as The Dash for the start of college football season. Judging from attendance figures, there were some surprisingly soft tickets for the opening weekend of 2012.

There was exactly one announced capacity crowd in eight Southeastern Conference home openers. Before the Labor Day Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech game, six out of seven Atlantic Coast Conference schools had smaller crowds than their openers last year – some of them much smaller. Attendance was down at six out of eight Big 12 home openers from 2011. Five out of eight Pac-12 schools had smaller crowds as well, and Oregon's 13-year sellout streak was in jeopardy until game day.

[Related: Georgia Tech’s uniforms are a mesmerizing honeycomb of awesomeness]

The Dash has some theories on what's going on. The main one: Fans are increasingly less likely to pay higher ticket prices for mismatch games against bad opponents – especially when more games than ever are on TV or online, and the home viewing experience has never been better. The Saturday stadium experience is a wonderful thing, but getting fans to shell out for Elon, Murray State and Chattanooga is a tough sell.

P.T. Barnum said there's a sucker born every minute, and a whole bunch of them grew up to become college football fans. That's the only explanation for why we've put up with the bowl cartel and lousy scheduling as long as we have.

But the public is showing signs of wising up and realizing it has a choice. If the games aren't good enough, don't go. Maybe that's what happened the first weekend of the season. If so, the sport's greedy power brokers had better take heed.

Looking at the big-six conferences, the following attendance figures stood out most (list complete with whiny fan excuses for not showing up):


The good:

Mississippi State (1) was the lone school to list a capacity crowd, putting 55,082 in Davis-Wade Stadium to see the Bulldogs maul Jackson State 56-9. Though Dash spies say that's a tickets sold number and there were empty seats.

The bad: Mississippi (2) had 10,000 empty seats for the debut of new coach Hugh Freeze. While putting a capacity 60,580 in the stands for Central Arkansas might be expecting too much, the Rebels still were down nearly 11 percent from opening attendance in 2011. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: After two terrible seasons, we'll wait and see. Dash response: Ole Miss fans are all tailgate, no toughness.

Florida (3) had 4,000 fewer fans for the '12 opener against Bowling Green than the '11 opener against Florida Atlantic, and nearly 3,000 fewer than the second game last year against UAB. The Gators play their next two games on the road, at Texas A&M and Tennessee. Lose them both and there will be a great deal of scrutiny of the attendance for the next home game, against what looks like a very bad Kentucky team. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: Bowling Green didn't sell its ticket allotment, and it was really hot. Dash response: When isn't it hot on Labor Day weekend in Gainesville? Somehow the heat was bearable when Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier were winning big.


The good:

After the worst of all off-seasons, Penn State (4) fans showed some solidarity by showing up at Beaver Stadium. For the most part. There were 10,000 empty seats, but the place holds 107,282. The crowd of 97,186 to watch Ohio was larger than last year's opener against Indiana State.

[Related: Hours from Penn State, children's charity shows new way to heal]

The bad: Illinois (5) fans were so excited for the debut of Tim Beckman that they left more than 17,000 seats empty in 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium. Their crowd of 43,441 for the Western Michigan game was down 1,713 from last year's home opener against Arkansas State. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: It was supposed to rain buckets. Dash response: It didn't. And even if it did, ponchos are six bucks at Walmart.

Purdue (6) could have a promising season, but that promise didn't translate to opening-day enthusiasm from the fans. A crowd of 40,527 showed up to see Eastern Kentucky, down more than 1,500 from the opener last year against Middle Tennessee. That's nearly 22,000 below capacity at Ross-Ade Stadium. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: We're two hours from Champaign; our weather was supposed to be bad, too. Dash response: Ponchos are six bucks at your Walmart, too.

BIG 12

The good: Kansas (7) had a year-over-year jump of 6,600 fans for the debut of Charlie Weis against South Dakota State, though it still was 3,700 short of filling its 50,007-seat stadium.

The bad: Despite a No. 11 preseason ranking, West Virginia (8) drew 1,638 fewer fans for this year's opening game against Marshall than last year's opening game against Marshall. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: None imaginable. Dash response: None acceptable.


The good:

Proving they know a good bandwagon when they see one, USC (9) fans sold out the cavernous Coliseum for Hawaii. That was an increase of more than 25,000 fans from last year's opener against Minnesota.

California (10) also sold out its newly renovated Memorial Stadium, with more than 63,000 in attendance to see the Golden Bears lose to Nevada. Expect a precipitous drop for this Saturday when Southern Utah comes to Berkeley.

[Pat Forde: Lane Kiffin is college football's most interesting man – and one of its most loathed]

The bad: Arizona (11) had a year-over-year drop of more than 3,000 despite the heralded debut of coach Rich Rodriguez. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: Last year we opened with Northern Arizona, which brought fans. This year we opened with Toledo, which didn't. Dash response: Seriously, Bear Down and show up.

Stanford (12) found out what life is like after Andrew Luck both on the field and at the turnstiles. The Cardinal struggled past San Jose State 20-17 in front of 40,577, a drop of more than 7,000 from the 2011 attendance to open against the same team. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: We're smart enough to know the glory days are gone. Dash response: Couldn't you wait one game to see the evidence first?


The good: The closest thing there was to good news was Boston College (13) putting 39,262 in the seats, up 1,701 from last year's home opener. But the opponent this year was Miami for a league game, and last year it was Northwestern.

The bad: Everyone else. Biggest warning sign had to be North Carolina (14), which announced a crowd 6,500 smaller than last year's home opener and 12,500 short of capacity for the debut of Larry Fedora. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: We're protesting the academic stink hovering over the athletic department. Dash response: Fair enough.


The good:

Louisville (15) had its largest home crowd in history at 55,386, many of them wearing $6 Walmart ponchos to endure the aftereffects of Hurricane Isaac. Also playing archrival Kentucky helps fill seats.

The bad: Pittsburgh (16) fans were apparently pessimistic even before seeing the horrible product on the field Saturday. Only 40,837 showed up for the opening of the Paul Chryst Era, down more than 7,500 from the 2011 opening of the Todd Graham, um, Era. The pessimism was immediately justified in a morbid loss to Youngstown State. Presumptive whiny fan excuse: Chryst is our fourth coach in three years; we're too disillusioned to care. Dash response: If Dashette Olivia Munn (17) were offering free kisses at the 50-yard line, you still wouldn't show up.

And then there was the inter-conference ghost town at the Georgia Dome Friday night. Tennessee-North Carolina State (18) drew just 55,529 fans, a stunningly low number. The next night Clemson and Auburn put nearly 20,000 more in the seats in the same building.

[Related: Tennessee scores 16 points in 38 seconds against N.C. State]


Unfortunately, the schedule of games for this week might be even sketchier than the first week. The Dash certainly doesn't expect the national title to be impacted much by what happens this Saturday. Nevertheless, here are your best options.

The SEC debuts of Texas A&M and Missouri (19)

. A new era of SEC expansionism begins when the Aggies host Florida Saturday afternoon and the Tigers host Georgia Saturday night. The Gators will get an earful from the A&M corps of cadets and the Bulldogs will be greeted by a full hillside of fans at Mizzou's Faurot Field. Added intrigue comes from Mother Nature and impetuous youth. The Aggies' season opener against Louisiana Tech was postponed to Oct. 13 by Hurricane Isaac, which means redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel will take his first college snaps against Florida. Meanwhile, Missouri junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson told the Columbia Daily Tribune he watched Georgia's opener against Buffalo and was unimpressed. "It's like watching Big Ten football. It's old-man football." We'll see how the "old men" fare against the new kids on the toughest block in America.

Nebraska at UCLA (20). In the debut of Jim Mora, the Bruins looked freshly explosive against Rice. They scored their most points in a game (49) since the 2005 Sun Bowl, and that was with freshman quarterback Brett Hundley taking his first snaps. But that was Rice, and this is Nebraska. The Cornhuskers gave up just 260 yards total offense to Southern Mississippi. This will be a good test of UCLA's improvement after the Rick Neuheisel malaise.

Washington at LSU (21). Not many reasons to think the Huskies can pull a monumental upset in Death Valley – not after wheezing to 14 offensive points against San Diego State and producing zero plays of longer than 20 yards. Keith Price is an intriguing talent at quarterback for Washington – if his offensive line can keep him alive against the LSU pass rush. There are so few matchups of teams from power conferences this week that this is getting more attention than it probably deserves.

Purdue at Notre Dame (22). Home game for the Fighting Irish but a much easier travel week for the Boilermakers. They simply have to bus 2½ hours to South Bend, while Notre Dame is working to recalibrate after being in Ireland last week to open the season against Navy. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. ET, 8:30 Dublin time. Then there are the quarterback issues. Purdue starting quarterback Caleb TerBush has been reinstated after a one-game suspension, and so has Notre Dame's Tommy Rees. The Irish will stick with Everett Golson this week with Rees in the mix for backup duties, but the picture is less clear for the Boilers. Backup Robert Marve complicated things by playing lights-out in the romp of Eastern Kentucky and is listed with TerBush as co-starter on this week's Purdue depth chart.


That would be the state of Pennsylvania (23). Traditionally one of the great football states in America, the power programs there are now reeling.

Penn State lost its opener to Ohio by 10 points, getting shut out in the second half and being outgained by 147 yards. Pittsburgh was worse, losing its opener by 14 to Youngstown State and never leading against a team that was 115th in the final Sagarin Ratings of 2011. Two first-year head coaches, Bill O'Brien and Paul Chryst, and both flopped.

Last time both schools lost their opener in the same season? Try 1972.

Both programs are grease fires. Penn State figures to only get worse over the next four years, as massive NCAA sanctions take hold and further reduce the talent and manpower and morale in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions might need to get Savannah State on the schedule five years from now in hopes of winning a game.

[Eric Adelson: Penn State opens post-Paterno era with loss]

Pitt has staggered through coaching chaos, from Dave Wannstedt to Mike Haywood (for two weeks) to Graham (for one year) to Chryst. How athletic director Steve Pederson has kept his job while bungling multiple major hiring decisions is mystifying.

It has, inconceivably, come to this: Historic doormat Temple (24), with all of three returning starters on offense, looks like the best team in the state.


Cordarrelle Patterson (25)

, Tennessee. The Dash was driving into Knoxville on signing day last February when word broke on the radio that the Volunteers had landed Patterson, a highly touted junior-college wide receiver. That signing coup paid immediate dividends in Week One, with Patterson scoring on a 41-yard reception and a 67-yard run as the freshly explosive Vols whipped N.C. State. For a team that scored 12 or fewer points in half its games last year, he's a potential savior.

The freshman running backs (26). Three true freshmen made the most of their relatively limited engagements Saturday. Alabama's T.J. Yeldon had 11 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown in a beatdown of Michigan. Georgia's Todd Gurley had 100 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries, plus a 100-yard kickoff return TD as well. Miami's Duke Johnson had touchdown runs of 54 and 56 yards, on his way to 135 yards on seven carries. Each will be a much greater part of opposing scouting reports going forward.

Jim McElwain (27). The first-year head coach at Colorado State got started the best way possible, beating rival Colorado in Denver. The Rams had lost eight straight games prior to that triumph, and had lost seven of their last nine in the series with the Buffaloes.

Bob Davie (28). After a decade in the ESPN broadcast booth, Davie returned the sidelines at New Mexico and presided over a 66-21 rout of Southern. Yeah, it was only Southern – but this is only New Mexico. It took the Lobos four games (one of them overtime) to score 66 points last year.


Tony Levine (29), Houston. Well, that was a disaster. Not only did the Cougars go from winning 13 games last year under Kevin Sumlin to losing their opener by 17 points to FBS newbie Texas State under Levine, but then offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt resigned Monday. You cannot start too much worse than that. Houston was a 34½-point favorite over Texas State.

Justin Fuente (30), Memphis. At least Fuente is at a place where they're accustomed to futility. The Tigers, 5-31 the previous three years, lost 20-17 to FCS Tennessee-Martin, Sagarin's No. 180 team in the nation last year. The game also was delayed by severe weather, prolonging the agony for whatever is left of the Memphis faithful.

The replacements for Andrew Luck and Kellen Moore (31). Given the thankless task of replacing the future college Hall of Famers from Stanford and Boise State, respectively, Josh Nunes and Joe Southwick struggled in comparison. Nunes was 16 of 25 for just 125 yards and a touchdown against San Jose State, and the Cardinal were 2-of-13 converting third downs after having a stellar 50.7 percent conversion rate last year with Luck. Southwick was 15 of 31 for 169 yards, no touchdowns and an interception against a fierce Michigan State defense, failing to lead the Broncos offense into the end zone in a 17-13 loss. They'll get better in the weeks to come.

[Dan Wetzel: Boise St. coach Chris Peterson has a hard time dealing with losses]

Charley Molnar (32), Massachusetts. He's an offense guy, having served as the coordinator at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly before moving to Amherst this off-season. So it's not good when your offense produces zero points, three first downs and 59 total yards. Back to the drawing board for the Minutemen.


Zach Mettenberger (33)

, LSU. If he's going to be a major upgrade from Jordan Jefferson, it's not evident yet. Mettenberger was 19 of 26 for 192 yards, with one touchdown and one red-zone interception. He also took a couple of sacks, one of them a hard shot to the chin on a blitz he never saw coming. But the Tigers so completely overpowered North Texas on the ground and with their defense that they didn't need to do anything heroic in the air. That formula may not change much going forward.

Trey Metoyer (34), Oklahoma. The Dash said in August that the Sooners' receiving corps was Kenny Stills and a bunch of question marks, and Oklahoma fans insisted Metoyer was a star waiting for an opportunity. The redshirt freshman, who looked great in the spring, got his opportunity against UTEP and didn't do much with it: four catches for 21 yards. Stills, meanwhile, had 121 of Oklahoma's 222 receiving yards. But the Sooners won.

Johnathan Gray (35), Texas. Despite the presence of talented sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, some expected true freshman Gray to leap to the top of the depth chart and be the star of a crowded backfield right away. Didn't happen in the opener against Wyoming. Gray had five carries for nine yards while Brown and Bergeron both rushed for more than 100. The Longhorns won.

Charlie Weis (36), Kansas. The Schematic Advantage was not too overpowering against South Dakota State in Weis' first game as coach of the Jayhawks – especially through the air. Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist had pedestrian passing numbers, completing 17 of 36 for 169 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. But Kansas did win, and that didn't happen often the previous two years under Turner Gill.


Frank Solich (37)

. He's been at Ohio for eight years now after getting pushed out of the thankless job of following Tom Osborne at Nebraska. Now it looks like he has his best team in Athens. The veteran Bobcats dominated the second half at Penn State to score one of the biggest victories in school history, and it may launch an undefeated season. Ohio's toughest remaining game is probably at Marshall Sept. 15. Win that one and we could be looking at 13-0.


Brady Hoke (38). He was the toast of Ann Arbor after an 11-2 debut season, but got roasted a bit after the blowout loss to Alabama Saturday. Inquiring minds wanted to know why Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges almost totally went away from quarterback Denard Robinson's strength, running the ball. He ran it just once in the Wolverines' first 28 snaps. By the time of Robinson's second carry, the score was 31-0 and the game was over. Give the man a bus token.

[Pat Forde: Alabama shows that it's back for more]


Al Wilson (39), former Tennessee linebacker. If anyone knows the whereabouts of the defensive captain and crushing leading tackler on the Volunteers' 1998 national championship team, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson, is alive and well and living in Seattle. The Throwin' Samoan is working in banking and helping coach football at Ballard High School.


When hungry and thirsty in the great football (and eating) city of Dallas, The Dash suggests a visit to Smoke (40), a high-end barbecue joint that lived up to its considerable pre-meal hype. Try any of four different sauces on the coffee-cured brisket, which comes two ways: chopped and covered with slices. The accompanying potato salad and pickles are stellar as well. Add a local Franconia Wheat beer (especially when the temperature is in triple digits) and thank The Dash later.

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