Josh Kendall

Football or faith? USC fans might have to choose on Sunday

THIS is the matchup we’ve all been waiting for.

These two titans haven’t been on each other’s schedules in ages, but finally Sunday they meet. The church of college football versus the church of, well, the church.

In the Midlands of South Carolina, one of the deepest notches on the Bible Belt, there aren’t two more formidable powers. With South Carolina’s game against Georgia rescheduled from Saturday night until Sunday at 2:30 p.m. because of the impact of Hurricane Matthew, we finally get to see who will win the hearts and minds of the people.

The Big Guy opened as a double-digit favorite in Las Vegas, but the early money was pouring in on Williams-Brice Stadium. Now we’ll find out who Southerners choose when faced with the decision between college football and faith.

“I’m not sure I’m going to like the answer,” Oran Smith, the president and CEO of Palmetto Family, a Columbia organization that aims to present biblical principles in the centers of influence, said with a chuckle.

The principle at play here is Sabbatarianism, the Christian doctrine that points to the bible’s fourth commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Exodus 8, 11)

“Just trying to think of some sort of principle involved, and that’s what it comes down to me. I think we are created by God for a couple of things that Sunday does for us,” said Smith, a member of the First Presbyterian Church, who is a former member of Gov. Carroll Campbell's economic development staff. “I think every soul needs a day to worship, and I think every body needs a day to rest. I think that’s sort of the biblical principle. That’s sort of the way we are created.”

Smith has seen devout sportsmen from Tim Tebow to NASCAR’s Petty family struggle with this principle for years. Erskine College, a Christian liberal arts college in Due West that is part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian tradition, recently debated whether its sports teams should play on Sundays, Smith said.

“It sort of became a controversy in the church,” he said. “The movement was put down, so that there was no official vote about whether Erskine could play on Sunday, but that kind of shows the controversy that sometimes can erupt when you have a religious belief that comes in contact with more of a societal norm.”

Plenty of Gamecocks, of course, would argue that “2001” is a holy experience and that there’s no more joyful noise (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth,” from Psalm 98:4) than “Sandstorm” after a South Carolina score.

This is the first time the Gamecocks have played a home football game on a Sunday that anyone can remember, but it’s certainly not the first time sports and the Sabbath have collided. Pro football has long pitted its product against Sunday services, but it feels different when it’s ol’ State U, Smith said.

“We still like to think college is a little more informal, and it’s not as professional and, technically, it isn’t, even though it’s such a big-time corporate environment now,” Smith said. “We like to think it’s still just the colleges playing these pickup games.”

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said he expects a significant home field advantage despite the game change.

“With our fan base, absolutely,” he said.

Gamecocks athletics director Ray Tanner is less certain of what the environment will be like, but is hopeful his team has a big home crowd for the sold-out game.

“Certainly in a perfect setting playing a night game on a Saturday we would have probably had our optimal fan base,” Tanner said. “Sunday may not be quite as good, but you can’t ever tell.”

Jeff Kersey is the senior pastor of Mt. Horeb United Methodist Church in Lexington. The nearly 4,000-member congregation makes up the largest Methodist church in the state of South Carolina, but he expects he’ll lose a few of his attendees this weekend.

“The people that are strong Carolina fans will go to the game,” Kersey said. “I understand fans going to the game. That’s part of the culture here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Of course, the faithful fans could do both – attend church in the morning and still make the game’s 2:30 kickoff, but that only works under the assumption that a college football game is only about the three or four hours the teams are on the field.

“For most people, it’s a whole day event with the tailgating experience,” Kersey said.

Kersey also urged the state’s residents to keep the focus on those affected by Hurricane Matthew, no matter where they are sitting Sunday.

“Many of us are football fans, but most of all we are fans of all those facing a big battle with Hurricane Matthew,” he said. “We are all cheering and praying for them to be overcomers and to be safe. Long after the game is over, I know the people all over this state, no matter who we pull for, will come together to help those in need.”

As for those who miss services at Mt. Horeb this week, Kersey is confident he’ll see them on Oct. 16, fresh off the Gamecocks’ bye week.

“If they miss church on Sunday, I have every confidence they will be there the next weekend,” he said. “We will expect a real big crowd next week.”

Game info

▪  Who: South Carolina (2-3, 1-3 SEC) vs. Georgia (3-2, 1-2 SEC)

▪  When: 2:30 p.m., Sunday

▪  Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250)

▪  Series history: Georgia leads 48-18-2, but USC has won 4 of the last 6. This is the 69th all-time meeting. Only Clemson (113) has faced the Gamecocks more often than Georgia.

▪  TV: SEC Network (Brent Musberger, play-by-play; Jesse Palmer, analysis; Kaylee Hartung, sideline)

▪  Radio: 107.5 FM (Todd Ellis, play-by-play; Tommy Suggs, analysis; Langston Moore, sideline)

▪  Satellite radio: Sirius 126/XM 192

▪  Line: Georgia by 6 1/2

▪  Weather: Sunny, with a high near 77

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC