N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien couldn't ask for better exposure as he tries to build his program.
The Wolfpack plays host to South Carolina on Thursday night in an ESPN telecast that will serve as the unofficial start to the college football season.
In O'Brien's third season, N.C. State has the first chance this season to expose recruits to its home facilities and program on national television. Poll voters, who mostly have ignored the Wolfpack in the preseason rankings, also have a chance to become more familiar with N.C. State.
And players know it's a chance to showcase themselves before a primetime viewing audience.
"It's the 'Monday Night Football' of college," N.C. State running back Toney Baker said, referring to the well-known NFL prime-time broadcast. "It's a big deal to open up, and it's great for our program and our university as well."
A carnival-like atmosphere surrounds Thursday night games. Students and faculty make plans to rush over to the stadium as soon as they're finished with classes. Fans leave work early to scramble to their parking spots to tailgate, turning the evening rush hour commute into a nightmare as tens of thousands of football fans clog roads that already are congested.
The ringmaster of this circus is ESPN, whose Thursday night broadcasts serve as a springboard to Saturday game coverage airing on the network and its partner, ABC. In return for the inconvenience, cities and campuses get a chance to put their best foot forward in front of a national television audience in prime time on a week night.
"That's kind of the ESPN approach, to show off the city you're in and the great college environment you're in on a weekly basis and show off the spirit of the individual schools," said Phil Dean, who produces the Thursday night broadcasts for ESPN.
Twelve cameras, including a "sky cam" suspended on a wire to provide aerial views, will be installed to record the game. More than 100 crew members work on the show, including the on-air broadcast team of Chris Fowler, Craig James, Jesse Palmer and Erin Andrews.
About half of the production crew is hired locally on a per-game basis. The other half travels to each location throughout the season.
"You really get a chance to see all these different spots in a lot of towns that otherwise you'd probably never visit," said Palmer, a former New York Giants quarterback and Florida Gator. TV ratings show that Thursday night games deliver a slightly larger audience than ordinary ESPN games. Last year, the series averaged a 2.3 rating with 2,264,000 households, according to ESPN spokesman Michael Humes.
ESPN's overall college football coverage averaged a 2.0 rating, which translates to 1,931,000 households. Those viewers include coaches and players from opposing teams who are too busy with their own games to watch much football on Saturdays.
"It's a great opportunity for us to play the first game of the year on national TV," O'Brien said. "That's why you schedule a game like this. It certainly has energized the Wolfpack Nation. Not that you really need to do that, but it has taken them to a new level, and it's the buzz around town right now."
Playing in such a game can be good. Winning it is better. N.C. State didn't come close to doing that last season, as it lost 34-0 in the Thursday night opener at South Carolina after Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson suffered a concussion in the second quarter.
Thursday night is a chance for N.C. State to demonstrate that it has made progress over the past year.
"[This] is a special treat for the players," O'Brien said. "They look forward to this opportunity to get out there. And it certainly will be an indication of where we are with our program."