South Carolina took the opportunity to leave a positive impression on fans and pollsters throughout the country in Thursday’s season opener.
The results, which were broadcast to the masses on ESPN, could have a longer-term impact on USC’s recruiting efforts. The Gamecocks played in college football’s season opener for the fifth time in six years, a position that gives them the opportunity to leave the annual first impression with prospects.
When recruits are lining up official visits, schools often fight for the chance to land the first or the last visit. The belief is that those impressions overshadow everything in between.
“Those Thursday night games are great for visibility,” ESPN senior writer Bruce Feldman said. “It’s something that people are going to see. A lot of times that Saturday game gets lost with all the other stuff that is going on. People are switching back and forth between four other games. But if you have the Thursday game, you kind of own the night.
“I think even the Friday night games have helped Boise State, because people were getting to see them.”
Heading into the 2010 season, the Gamecocks have made the most of their opportunity, winning each of their Thursday openers since 2005. It’s not a stretch to believe those early wins have impacted recruiting.
USC’s recruiting classes from 2002-05 had an average ranking of 19.3 nationally, according to rivals.com. Since the Gamecocks started routinely playing Thursday night openers, their classes have an average ranking of 17.6. That includes a six-place finish in 2007, about five months after USC shut out Mississippi State in the 2006 opener.
“I definitely think it’s an advantage, because everybody is on TV,” said Matt Stewart, host of CSS’s recruiting show, “In the Huddle.” “Every game in the Southeastern Conference is televised now, but on that Thursday night game, you get the stage to yourself. So, it’s not a choice of what game to watch. They are watching you.
“It’s a great opportunity. I don’t even think it matters whether you win or lose. If you lose and you don’t play so well, a recruit may think he has a better chance of playing right away at that school.”
Considering the calls Steve Spurrier has made for his program to take the next step this season, losses on the field equating to wins in recruiting would probably feel hollow for the Gamecocks. However, there is little doubt that USC needs to continue signing elite recruits like Stephon Gilmore and Marcus Lattimore to annually compete in the SEC East.
For that to happen, Feldman said, the Gamecocks must perform well when they are on the national stage, especially when it’s the season opener.
“You get everything that comes with being the first game on TV,” he said. “You get the hype of having the TV crew there. You get the announcers that a lot of people know, the ESPN Thursday night crew. There is a spectacle element and an excitement because it’s the first game of the year.
“If you bring recruits in there, they are going to be wowed. The first impression is such a chance. It’s a big opportunity. If you can [capitalize], you’re probably going to make a big impression on a kid.”