When the SEC Network debuted in 2014, one declared “must-do” was to bring its “SEC Nation” pregame show – the second-year network’s equivalent of parent ESPN’s “GameDay” – to each of the conference’s 14 schools every year.
South Carolina’s turn had been scheduled for its Oct. 10 clash with powerhouse LSU. Then nature, in the form of the state’s historic rainstorms and flooding, knocked those plans for a soggy, sad loop.
Even if Columbia could’ve managed to host a game the following Saturday with its law enforcement and emergency workers stretched to the limit, there was no way the SEC Network wanted to try putting a happy face on the destruction.
“The opening of our show, the theme song (by Robert Randolph & the Family Band), is about ‘taking the party wherever we go,’ ” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN senior vice president for college networks and head of the SEC Network. “At that point, seeing the news, the people displaced, it was going to be difficult to take that tone after people lost their homes and even their lives.
“It really was necessary to move” – the show (to Tennessee) and then the game (to Baton Rouge). “Then, we weren’t sure we could get back to South Carolina.”
It took some doing, but on Saturday, the two-hour program will come to Williams-Brice Stadium and Gamecock Park, airing 10 a.m.-noon for South Carolina vs. The Citadel to highlight the regular season’s next-to-last weekend.
“We’re committed to get to all 14 teams each season, and with Charleston also impacted (by flooding), this was the right thing to do,” Druley said.
Seven weeks later, SEC Nation arrives to a totally changed landscape: Steve Spurrier resigned, Shawn Elliott the interim coach, the 3-7 Gamecocks assured of no bowl game for the first time since 2004. And, of course, the hot topic: who’ll be USC’s next HBC?
SEC Nation’s traveling crew of Joe Tessitore, Marcus Spears, Tim Tebow and Paul Finebaum – Greg McElroy will be absent, doing analysis at Missouri-Tennessee – won’t lack for talking points.
Especially Finebaum, SEC Network’s acerbic commentator and national radio talk-show host, who will make his own debut, working as the game’s sideline reporter for SEC Network Alternate’s (online) coverage.
“He’d talked about (doing) it for a while,” Druley said. “This seemed like a good opportunity. To my knowledge, he’s not done that before.”
“It’s a long story,” Finebaum said Thursday. “I thought it’d be fun, a non-traditional approach. I imagine it’ll mostly be chatter about next week,” when the Gamecocks host No. 1-ranked Clemson. “I’m not auditioning for a future assignment, but it’ll be a fun way to spend the game.”
USC-The Citadel is only SEC Nation’s second non-conference game in 2015, but the show will give the Gamecocks its usual full treatment. Feature topics include Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s announced retirement because of lymphoma, Alabama’s defensive line and – the local angle – how USC athletes pitched in to help with flood recovery.
SEC Nation also will visit tailgaters, feature USC’s “Military Appreciation Day” activities, and present a profile on Elliott, looking at “his enthusiasm, his unique run-out tradition,” Druley said. “And we’ll definitely spend time talking about the Ball Coach.”
Because of Saturday’s noon kickoff – previous games hosting the show were at 3:30 p.m. or prime time – Druley said SEC Nation will cover some pregame activities live, including Finebaum’s takes from the sideline.