DT Anthony McFarland says Tiger Stadium is the best college venue in the land, but things may be a bit different on Sunday
Michael Clayton, the former Louisiana State gridiron star, has the proper sense of appreciation but a few missing pieces of information when he contemplates the fact that he will once again play on his field of college glory this Sunday.
"That's what makes it exciting," said Clayton of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' latest road trip, to LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. "Who gets that opportunity?"
Well, to name a few, Simeon Rice and Ken Dilger.
Chicago's venerable Soldier Field was being renovated in 2002, which forced the Bears to play all of their home games that season at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium in downstate Champaign. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the last of eight visitors on that home-away-from-home schedule, which happily sent Rice and Dilger back to the stadium in which they had starred in their college days.
If the Bucs game at LSU's Tiger Stadium on Sunday is half as meaningful and historic to the Bucs' franchise as their last campus tour, it will be a great trip for Clayton and his teammates.
Who knows if the collegiate setting had any effect on the Buccaneers, but they beat Chicago that afternoon to clinch a playoff bye en route to the franchise's first Super Bowl championship. The visitors' locker room was certainly cramped and drafty at Memorial Stadium, but it had televisions, which meant the Bucs could watch Green Bay's 42-17 loss at the New York Jets early in the afternoon and realize that the NFC's second seed was within their reach.
The score was 15-0 on a day dominated by defense and Martin Gramatica's kicking. It was also – this is the historic part, to many opinions – the first Buccaneer victory in a game played below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
It probably won't be that cold Sunday in Baton Rouge, and no matter what happens it won't punch the Bucs' ticket to the playoffs. But it is a critical game and it is an exciting opportunity for Clayton, as well as another former first-round pick out of LSU on the Bucs' roster, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. McFarland played for the Tigers from 1995-98, was a first-team All-American as a senior and remains a very vocal supporter of LSU in the Bucs' locker room. He says Tiger Stadium on a college game day is an unmatched experience.
"It's a great atmosphere to play in," he said. "When you get 95,000 people in there, it was voted by far the best place to play in college football. Hopefully we can get it close to that atmosphere."
Clayton, a Tiger from 2001-03, helped LSU go undefeated in his final college season and earn a share of the national championship. Moreover, he was born and raised in Baton Rouge, so this is a true homecoming for the second-year receiver. This trip obviously means a lot to him.
"It's awesome to go home, not only to Louisiana but to your home town of Baton Rouge," said Clayton. "It's just going to be a wonderful feeling stepping into that stadium again."
Of course, the impetus for the Bucs' detour to LSU country is nothing as innocent as stadium renovations. The Saints have been forced into an unusual "home" schedule split between Baton Rouge, San Antonio and even, on one occasion, the Meadowlands in New Jersey by Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans shortly before the season. Thus, this homecoming is a little bittersweet for the two Louisiana natives.
"I truly wish that I wasn't going because that would mean what happened to New Orleans wouldn't have happened," said McFarland. "But it is what it is and we've got to go do it. I never thought I'd get the opportunity to go back, so it's good to get the opportunity to play there."
Is it truly the best site to watch a college football game in the land? Well, some folks in Ann Arbor, Knoxville, Gainesville, South Bend and a dozen other locales might argue, but Tiger Stadium can certainly make a reasonable claim for that honor. The place is incredibly raucous and into the game when the Tigers are on the field, and the tailgating is apparently a sight to behold.
Of course, those Tigers will be in Atlanta on Saturday night to play the SEC title game, so a good portion of their fan base will be out of town, too. As for Saints fans, making it to the game isn't as simple as it was in 2002 for Bears fans, whose biggest challenge was staying awake during a mind-numbing two-hour car ride through middle Illinois. Many New Orleans residents are still displaced, and football understandably isn't a top priority.
The listed attendance for the Saints last game in Baton Rouge, against Chicago on November 6, was just under 37,000, or about half the usual attendance at a game at Raymond James Stadium and a bit more than a third of what Tiger Stadium can hold. Since most NFL venues sell out every weekend, playing in front of a significant amount of empty seats will be an unusual experience for both teams. That's especially true for McFarland and Clayton, who always played in front of packed home crowds.
"I'm used to seeing it a certain way, and the history of college football is used to seeing it a certain way," said McFarland. "Due to the circumstances, we as players have to go play the game. Often times, we don't really pay attention to the crowd. We realize that it's going to be us against everybody that's in the stadium anyway, so the crowd isn't going to play as an important factor for us. Maybe for the Saints, because I know how it is for us when you're at home you've got the crowd behind you. But the facts are what they are. You've got to play the cards you were dealt and both teams have to go play the game."
Oh, and one other aspect of the trip is going to make the game a bit odd for the two former Tigers: Playing the role of visitors. Clayton thinks the two will get a warm reception from the folks in Baton Rouge, but they will technically be the enemy on game day. That will mean visiting some unfamiliar portions of the stadium, but Clayton doesn't expect that to be a problem.
"Yeah, it's going to be a little awkward being on the other sideline and coming out of the visitors' locker room," he conceded. "But, hey, once you're on the field who cares what sideline it is?"