BYU and West Virginia are playing a football game Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). That’s not unusual, as BYU plays plenty of Power 5 opponents, and West Virginia has a non-conference schedule to fill out.
But the location is unique.The Cougars and Mountaineers will meet at FedExField, the roughly 80,000-seat home of the Washington NFL team in Landover, Md.
Landover is far from both Provo and Morgantown, and it’s nowhere between them. Morgantown is 1,860 miles east of Provo, and Landover is another 210 miles east of Morgantown. Most neutral-site games are either somewhere between the participants or in the same state as one of them. Not this one!
So, why’s it happening?
BYU has a few reasons to play a game like this one.
A Washington-area game makes tons of sense for BYU. The flagship Mormon university has several thousand alumni in the region, and this is the only East Coast game BYU will play all year, unless you count a trip to Cincinnati. BYU fans travel well, whether that’s to big cities like Phoenix or little ones like Murfreesboro, Tenn. This game gives BYU a chance to connect with its Eastern fans, of which there are many.
"This is a unique opportunity for our fans on the East Coast to see our football team play in person," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said when the game was announced in 2010. BYU has been dreadful when playing in the Eastern Time Zone, going 8-20 in such conditions since 1972. But there's no definitive evidence it's not smart to schedule these games.
It’s also a chance to beat a quality opponent in something other than a home game. That also means a loss isn’t a home loss, which is nice. The downside is limited.
West Virginia loves its neutral site games and has for years.
The Mountaineers want to schedule quality opponents outside their conference, and that’s not easy. Morgantown’s a hard place to win, and it’s not an easy sell to lure popular programs into a game there. But neutral sites make things easier.
To this end, in 2017, West Virginia will play Virginia Tech at this same FedExField. In 2018, it’ll play Tennessee in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2020, it’ll reportedly play Florida State in Atlanta. The Mountaineers also played Alabama at the Georgia Dome in 2014.
Washington also happens to be a popular place for WVU alumni. Data on LinkedIn suggest more Mountaineers have settled in the D.C. metro area than in any other outside of Pittsburgh.
Mix everything together, and you’ve got a football game that makes sense.
BYU does some alumni outreach and gets to demonstrate it can fill up a football stadium wherever it travels. (If that impresses Big 12 decision-makers, so be it.) West Virginia gets a good opponent and doesn’t have to play on the road, strictly speaking.
The game should be fun, too. BYU and WVU are both top-40 teams by S&P+. They’ll play in what ought to be a pretty full NFL stadium, and a lot will be on the line. BYU would fall to 1-3 with a loss, and the Cougars can safely treat this as at least a little bit of an audition for the Big 12, even though head coach Kalani Sitake insists it's not a big deal for him. Via the Salt Lake Tribune:
"That doesn't add anything [to the game]," Sitake said Monday when I asked him about it at his weekly press briefing. "I am not worried about anything other than West Virginia, a well-coached team. They got some momentum. They are coming off a bye. We are focused on the opponent, not worried about all the politics and everything behind it. That has not even entered our minds. Right now we are focused more on ourselves, trying to get ready and making sure that we play assignment sound football so we can make some improvement on the offensive and defensive and special teams phases. That has no bearing on what we are doing, on our preparation right now."
For its part, West Virginia can move to 3-0 and push itself toward the top 25 before it gets mixed up in a tricky league schedule. It can keep itself at the top of its league before things really get started in it.
And after it’s over, both programs will keep on playing games in places other than Provo and Morgantown.