Tennessee football's opener vs. Bowling Green is made for a Thursday night | Toppmeyer
The eyes of football-hungry SEC fans will be on Josh Heupel’s debut as Tennessee’s football coach when the Vols host Bowling Green on Sept. 2.
That’s because, last week, Tennessee smartly moved up its season opener two days to the first Thursday in September, making UT the only SEC team to play its opener that day. Although a weeknight game is more challenging for out-of-town fans who plan to attend, it allows Tennessee to capture a primetime television audience at 8 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
The Week 1 adjustment wasn’t the only SEC schedule change announced last week.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State shifted the Egg Bowl forward two days so that it will be played on Thanksgiving for the 24th time in series history. The rivalry was played on Thanksgiving from 2017-19 before moving to Saturday last season.
Had the Egg Bowl been played on a Saturday, as originally scheduled, it would have attracted plenty of attention within Mississippi. But the Saturday after Thanksgiving is loaded with rivalry matchups such as Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Florida-Florida State.
By moving to Thanksgiving, the Egg Bowl becomes the only Division I game scheduled for the holiday, and it will receive an ESPN showcase at 7:30 p.m. ET.
More than in-state bragging rights could be on the line. Both teams have Top 25 potential, so a win could send the victor on to a quality bowl game.
With coaches Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach on opposing sidelines, the rivalry could be headed for the prominence it reached when Hugh Freeze dueled with Dan Mullen. Just six times in this rivalry's history, which dates to 1901, have both teams been ranked in the Top 25. Most recently, it occurred in 2014 and ’15, with Freeze beating Mullen each time.
Some would argue that playing on weeknights is a move that should be reserved for teams in the Mid-American Conference or Sun Belt, leagues that are willing to sacrifice Saturday games for a better television billing.
But why should SEC teams let the Group of Five enjoy exclusivity on weeknight television slots?
A school like Tennessee, which last celebrated an SEC division title in 2007, is wise not to let hubris get in the way of playing a Thursday night opener in search of a desirable television spot. The Vols last played a regular-season game on a Thursday in 2016, when they played a weeknight opener against Appalachian State.
“Sliding our opener to this Thursday primetime window gave us a wonderful opportunity for our football student-athletes to kick off their season in the national spotlight,” Vols athletics director Danny White said in announcing the schedule change.
The NFL figured out long ago that fans crave football on more than just weekend dates. "Monday Night Football" and "Thursday Night Football" games are considered a top draw.
Playing a weekday game comes with complications, so the move must be used in moderation. A weekday game that follows a Saturday game creates a shortened recovery and preparation period.
But in the case of these two Thursday SEC games, the schedule sets up favorably.
By opening on a Thursday, Tennessee will gain a longer preparation period for its Week 2 matchup against Pittsburgh, which is the Vols’ most challenging nonconference tilt.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State each play on the Saturday before the Egg Bowl, but neither game is against a rugged foe.
The Rebels will play conference doormat Vanderbilt in advance of the rivalry game, and the Bulldogs have an even more favorable setup by playing Tennessee State before the Egg Bowl, which is the final regular-season game for each team.
Making the Egg Bowl a Thanksgiving staple gives the rivalry the platform it deserves.
Meanwhile, the Vols moving their opener against Bowling Green to a Thursday will give that game some attention it doesn’t deserve, but from which Tennessee can benefit.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.