Media day season is in full swing as college football fans get their first taste of the upcoming college football season. One conference that took part in media day festivities this week was Conference USA. While the question of how their new additions adjust has the attention of several fans, Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler briefly discussed an intriguing possibility. Keeler floated the idea of playing the UTEP-Sam Houston State game at a neutral site.
UTEP benefits significantly from a neutral site road game against Sam Houston State in several ways. UTEP has not played in a bowl other than the New Mexico Bowl since 2005. The program has lacked diversity of Bowl-type atmospheres throughout 17 years.
Additionally, with the departures of SMU and Rice from Conference USA, the Miners’ opportunities to play in Dallas or Houston are rare. While not exactly close to El Paso, both cities are realistic road trips for UTEP fans with much to do. In the current alignment of Conference USA, the only drivable road games are at Huntsville, TX and Ruston, LA, not great tourist destinations or booming cities.
A Sam Houston State-UTEP neutral site game has several potential destinations ranging from NFL stadiums to college cathedrals. The stadiums below make plenty of sense.
The Cotton Bowl
Dallas should be the site of a SHSU-UTEP game as it is somewhat a middle ground between the two schools and Sam Houston already has a yearly game in Houston.
Despite hosting just two college games a year, the Cotton Bowl holds a reverent place in college football lore. It is a bucket-list trip for all college football fans. UTEP has only one appearance in the Cotton Bowl, a 1997 loss to SMU, while Sam Houston State has never played in the venerable stadium.
Sam Houston State likely would bring a strong traveling party as Dallas is only 2.5 hours away from Huntsville. Meanwhile, it being over ten years since UTEP’s last appearance in Dallas and just their second appearance at the Cotton Bowl may also entice several Miner fans to Dallas.
The main drawbacks of the Cotton Bowl are its age and size. It is no secret that the Cotton Bowl is behind the times in amenities. Even though age may lure fans in, it will also push several fans away with its lack of modern amenities. Additionally, the Cotton Bowl seats 92,100, meaning there will be a higher ticket-selling demand and scores of empty seats.
Other Dallas Options:
As I outlined in my article about other Dallas-Fort Worth stadium options for the East-West Shrine Game, the two schools have numerous choices in the Metroplex.
Frisco’s Toyota Stadium is a quaint venue with a capacity of 20,500 and already hosts the Frisco Bowl and FCS Championship Game. Both schools would not have much of a requirement to sell tickets, but being a relatively older MLS stadium, the scenery is understated.
Choctaw Stadium, the former home of the Texas Rangers, is also feasible. It has a larger capacity than Toyota Stadium but smaller than the Cotton Bowl, seating 48,114. One of the more underrated ballparks during its MLB lifespan, it is a great place to watch a football game, with features such as the centerfield pavilion adding to the ambiance.
The stadium has hosted multiple FCS games and is the current home of the XFL champions, the Arlington Renegades. Being a former ballpark, the stadium does have some poor sight lines, but this is a small percentage of the seats.
Across the street, the Texas Rangers’ current ballpark, Globe Life Field is also a viable option. The shiny new ballpark hosted the Air Force-Army game in 2021 and 2022, drawing crowds of over 32,000 each year. Despite having a retractable roof, the roof is barely open, making for bland scenery, but this is a world-class venue that fans would gladly make the trip to, compared to Toyota Stadium.
In Houston, two venues are realistic options, NRG Stadium and Shell Energy Stadium, the home of Houston Dynamo. NRG Stadium is the ideal destination for both fanbases, especially UTEP. However, a UTEP-Sam Houston State game at NRG Stadium has to wait until after 2024 since Sam Houston State plays Texas State there next season. UTEP fans remember the Miners nearly beat Colorado in the 2004 Houston Bowl but have no other appearances at the Texans' home.
Shell Energy Stadium makes sense and creates a lighter ticket-selling burden than NRG Stadium seating 22,000. It is also a newer, more state-of-the-art stadium than Frisco’s Toyota Stadium and has experience hosting college football with Texas Southern calling the stadium home.
Yet, it makes little sense for Sam Houston to eschew playing at NRG Stadium or adding another game in Houston at a less-impressive stadium. Playing at an MLS stadium does not have the lure for recruits that a game in an NFL stadium or the Cotton Bowl. As a result, Shell Energy Stadium and Toyota Stadium should be the last resorts.
For a conference lacking a wealth of rivalries and a sprawling geographic footprint, adding excitement to series like UTEP-Sam Houston State is a must for the league. Luckily, plenty of venues make sense for Sam Houston State and UTEP. Finally, a neutral site game gives UTEP fans a rare opportunity at a trip to a bustling city and Conference USA a spotlight game.
*** Mark Pollak’s 2018 book, The Playing Grounds of College Football, A Comprehensive Guide, 1869-Today, aided my research immensely.