Field turf and plans for an indoor practice facility drew Steve Spurrier’s attention.
Add the blimp and high-flying camera for Vanderbilt’s season opener and South Carolina’s veteran coach is ... well, he’s impressed.
“They got a lot of firsts going on over there,” Spurrier said. “They’re trying to play football — at Vanderbilt. They really are. They’ve spent the money.”
Recent renovations and additions will be in the national TV spotlight as ESPN comes to Vanderbilt Stadium for the first time since 2008. The Commodores and ninth-ranked Gamecocks will kick off at 6 p.m. Thursday and will be the first college football game on TV this season. Thirty games kick off the Football Bowl Subdivision season on Thursday, but only one other game will be on national TV as ESPN carries BYU and Washington State at 9:15 later that night.
ESPN crew members started arriving on Monday to install SkyCam, a floating device that is suspended by cables above the field. A Goodyear blimp will also be floating by to provide an aerial view.
The primetime scene allows Vanderbilt to tout a plethora of new sights — an artificial playing surface, a bigger video board, a better lighting system and berm hillside seating in the north end zone.
The university's marketing department is encouraging fans to pull out their dark clothing for a “blackout.” Tickets still remain but the Commodores are hoping to sell out the stadium, which now has a capacity of 40,350, for the first time in nearly four years.
“I think it’s going to be the best environment at Vanderbilt since I’ve been here and we’re all excited to get it going,” senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “You go from a practice mentality to where there is nobody out there, just kind of doing it between yourselves, and now it’s you get in front of 40,000 screaming fans it changes the level a little bit.”
Adding to the excitement of opening up the college football season is the caliber of the opponent.
The Gamecocks are coming off a school-record 11-win season and are the favorites to win the SEC East.
South Carolina has rattled off three straight wins against Vanderbilt since 2008, coincidentally also Vanderbilt’s last Thursday night game.
“I think the real important thing for us to focus on is it is an SEC East game,” quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. “If we want to do what we think we can do in this league, we need to win SEC East games. You couldn’t ask for a better atmosphere, being on ESPN, Thursday night.”
The Commodores last opened with a top 10 opponent on Sept. 5, 1996, when they fell to No. 6 Notre Dame. They haven’t started with an SEC team since losing to South Carolina in the 2004 opener. Vanderbilt has lost seven straight season openers against league opponents — the last win came in 1988 against Mississippi State.
“The setting for this game is epic,” safety Javon Marshall said. “There couldn’t be a better opponent. There couldn’t be a better time.”
• Vanderbilt has met its fundraising goal for its new multipurpose facility and expansion of its student recreation center, the university announced Wednesday.
More than $30 million has been raised through university and external funds. The school plans to hold a ground-breaking ceremony in mid-to-late September, with construction to follow. The facility, which will include a 120-yard football field and 300-meter indoor track, is expected to be completed next fall. Several amenities, including an expanded weight training center and a four-lane bowling alley, are projected to be completed during the 2013-14 school year.
“This is an exciting opportunity to offer our faculty and staff larger and additional exercise facilities, our students enhanced wellness programs, and our varsity, club and intramural teams increased indoor practice and playing space — developments that we hope will have long-lasting effects at Vanderbilt and on Nashville," chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said in a release. “The momentum we have been able to build around this project has been incredible, and I cannot thank enough the donors who have had the commitment and vision to make this a reality.”