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Gazzolo Column: Playing well in opener can set tone for big season

Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 6:21 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Winning isn’t always everything.

For McNeese State, winning this weekend’s season opener isn’t expected but it sure would be a plus.

Like last year, the Cowboys will begin this campaign with a game against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe.

McNeese will travel to Tampa where it will play South Florida Saturday evening, one year after opening with a victory over Middle Tennessee State.

It is one of those money games that helps keep the Cowboys financially afloat and have become the life blood of all Football Championship Subdivision programs.

They have become the reverse of the pay-for-play world. The little schools get paid to play.

That means the Cowboys are big underdogs, but in the past they have more than held their own in such games.

By beating Middle Tennessee, head coach Matt Viator’s crew got to cash the check and pick up a big win. That is pulling off the old FCS daily double.

“It was great to win that game,” said Viator. “If you can win, it goes a long way in helping your program.”

It sure goes a long way in building your brand.

College football fans are still talking about the time tiny Appalachian State went up to Ann Arbor and beat mighty Michigan in 2007. It would be hard to remember any other game played that year.

ASU went on to move up a division and Michigan went on to get a coaching change and has never really been the same.

While a victory Saturday over South Florida won’t be a program maker for the Cowboys, it sure would help in drawing back interest into a team that has been stuck in the middle of the pack recently.

“It is a fun game for all of us, but it is also a great opportunity for the team and school,” said Viator. “You get to go play a BCS school and kids love to do that. Coaches also love to do that.

“You get a chance to see where you stand against the bigger programs.”

This game is good for McNeese in many ways. You look around the state and other programs that used to be behind the Cowboys are playing on national television three, four or sometimes five times a year. They also are getting their money games but the weekly exposure is doing wonders for those programs.

For McNeese, this is the one time when they can make the rest of college football stand up and take notice of it. And those kids in high school who are thinking about coming to Lake Charles also want to see how the Cowboys will play.

You don’t want to get blown out.

“We have a pretty good history of playing hard against the big schools,” said Viator. “You want to keep that up. You want to show them and everybody else that you can compete.”

Getting run over doesn’t help anybody.

That’s why this game is important for McNeese, especially when it comes to scheduling future such contests.

The Big Ten has already started talking about not playing down a level and other leagues may follow depending on what direction the college playoff system is headed.

Getting these games, like next year when McNeese travels to Nebraska, might very well become harder to pick up as bigger conferences decide not to share the growing financial pie.

“I don’t worry about that because I can’t control that,” said Viator. “I would miss these types of games, I know that.”

So this week is more than just a can’t lose contest for McNeese. It is a chance to audition itself to other big programs looking to bring the right lower-level school in for a pay check.

And playing well in the season opener can set the tone for a big season for the Cowboys.

So maybe winning isn’t everything this weekend. But it sure would make for a nice daily double, again.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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