LINCOLN, Neb. — With nary a conference championship since 1999, and now on its fifth coach since Tom Osborne’s teams ruled the mid-1990s, Nebraska has been an afterthought in college football most of the last two decades.
This week, the Cornhuskers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) are front and center again. Their game against No. 5 Ohio State (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday night was always going to be a big one. Add a visit from ESPN’s “College GameDay” show in the morning, and it’s become huge.
“This is a good opportunity to highlight our program, the direction the program is going, the improvement we have made, the path that we are on,” second-year coach Scott Frost said. “It’s going to be great to get national attention here in Lincoln.”
Yes, if Rece Davis, Desmond Howard, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso show up on campus, chances are your team is playing in the top game of the week.
The party starts early.
Crowds congregate behind and around the set from 9 a.m. to noon EDT holding signs with messages supporting their team, taking a shot at the opponent or maybe asking people at home to send money for beer. The folks cheer or boo depending on what they hear — or which mascot head Corso puts on when he predicts the winner of the host school’s game. A favorite segment features a “guest picker,” typically a celebrity with ties to the school or area who joins the panel in predicting winners of the day’s key games.
The atmosphere, to say the least, is raucous. And, for that week’s host, it’s akin to a three-hour advertisement aimed at prospective recruits.
Saturday marks the 317th time GameDay has originated from a campus. It’s the seventh visit to Nebraska, but the first since 2007.
“This is Nebraska. This is big-time college football,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “I’m excited that College GameDay’s back here this Saturday, and that’s the way it should be again.”
Ohio State has hosted the show 18 times, most of any school. Alabama is next, at 13, followed by Michigan, Florida and LSU, at 12 each.
Ohio State this week will tie Alabama with 45 appearances in the featured game.
The GameDay crew, including people in front of and behind the cameras, decides mostly by committee where they will go each week, coordinating producer Drew Gallagher said.
Lincoln was selected around midnight last Saturday, shortly after the Cornhuskers came from behind to win at Illinois. Had Nebraska lost, GameDay might have gone elsewhere, though the fact Ohio State is coming to town weighed in Lincoln’s favor.
“With Ohio State right now, there’s a little bit of curiosity, especially with Justin Fields,” Gallagher said. “He hasn’t really been tested in a road environment like this. This has also been the kind of game over the several years that Ohio State has struggled in. Factor it all in — the scene, Lincoln on a Saturday night — and it was a pretty easy decision.”
ESPN during the offseason maps out possible GameDay sites for the first month of the season. Schools receive letters outlining how much space would be needed, along with other requirements. Gallagher said he’s never heard of a school not wanting GameDay to come.
Fan bases often lobby for a visit through social media campaigns, and schools themselves sometimes ask. Nebraska was notified last week it was a candidate. Gallagher said a person from the athletic department, whom he declined to name, then initiated contact to sell the network on why Nebraska would be the best choice.
GameDay’s visit comes the morning after new basketball coach Fred Hoiberg holds a public scrimmage followed by a performance by rapper Rick Ross. Some of the football and basketball programs’ top recruiting prospects will be visiting.
ESPN no longer estimates on-site GameDay attendance. A number is hard to lock down because it’s not a ticketed event and people come and go. The highest reported attendance was 18,000 at Missouri in 2010, hours before the Tigers upset third-ranked Oklahoma.
Average viewership across ESPN’s platforms is just under 2 million through four shows this year.
According to Omaha-based Universal Information Services, which measures the impact of media mentions, the GameDay appearance at Georgia last week generated an estimated $1.3 million in publicity value through local and national broadcast mentions (the figure didn’t account for the three-hour show itself). Publicity value is the estimated cost of promotion, based on advertising rates across TV and radio platforms, that would produce an equal amount of exposure.
The buzz here has been high. Two days after the Lincoln visit was announced, the publicity value already had matched the $1.3 million produced in a full week for the Georgia stop.
“A lot of this stuff is for the fans. People eat it up,” Frost said.
That’s true, and something not to be minimized. The fan base that started selling out games in 1962, and continues to do so despite the program’s recent struggles, has become one of the Huskers’ biggest talking points in the absence of significant wins or championships. A scene where thousands of people in red gather around the GameDay set sends a message to prospects.
GameDay’s visit also shows Frost’s work has not gone unnoticed.
“If we weren’t improving and getting better and going in a really good direction that was obvious to a lot of people,” he said, “we wouldn’t have those guys on ESPN coming to town.”