PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. – In the brief and relatively successful history of the College Football Playoff, this year’s edition could well boast its most anticipated field.
There are three 13-0 teams – No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson – who all can prompt animated arguments as to why they’re national title favorites. There’s also plenty of star power, with all four Heisman Trophy finalists, the projected top two picks in the upcoming NFL draft (LSU’s Joe Burrow and Ohio State’s Chase Young) and the runaway favorite to be the No. 1 pick in 2021 (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence).
If there were ever a year for college football to deliver a television ratings and relevance muscle flex, this would be it. But an awkward scheduling quirk looms over this edition and could undermine the CFP’s exposure.
The CFP semifinals will arrive abruptly on Saturday, a likely heavy holiday travel day. Then there is an unprecedented 16-day gap between the semifinals and the title game. The way the schedule unfolds appears to be doing little to distinguish such a strong set of games amid a crowded time on the sporting calendar.
The awkward schedule revives the annual question: Are college football leaders maximizing their best product?
Between the semifinal games on Saturday and the championship game on Jan. 13, there will be nearly 20 other college bowl games, a full Sunday of NFL games and eight NFL playoff games over the next two weekends. The hardcore college football markets like Birmingham and Columbus – places that treat the Camelia Bowl like the Super Bowl – will surely be tuning in. But the absence of the most meaningful semifinal games on New Year’s Day combined with the unusually long layoff is bound to create confusion and distraction for casual fans.
Originally, this year’s College Football Playoff semifinals were scheduled to be played on Dec. 31. Because of the way the calendar fell, the title game couldn’t be played on the following Monday – the usual day of the week for the title game – because that fell on Jan. 6. That didn’t give teams a full week to return, rest and travel to the next location. So the title game got pushed to the following Monday.
Three years ago, CFP officials abandoned their arrogant idea to hold the semis on New Year’s Eve in non-Rose and Sugar Bowl years. The idea was generally dreadful, as it banked on millions of people abandoning decades of New Year’s Eve traditions – parties, dinners, galas – to start a new tradition of watching eight hours of football. Ratings dipped nearly 40 percent from 2014 (New Year’s Day) to 2015 (New Year’s Eve).
While this year’s semifinals were pushed off New Year’s Eve – much to the delight of ESPN executives – the title game stayed on Jan. 13.
“It was too late to change the championship,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview this week. “The gap is there because of the move away from New Year’s Eve. The next time the calendar falls this way, the title game is on the sixth.”
Does the 16-day window offer more buildup for what promises to be a vintage championship matchup? Or does the lag offer too much distraction – NFL playoffs, other bowl games, etc. – from what could be the most anticipated game in College Football Playoff history?
In the small CFP sample sizes, the only certainty of a guaranteed ratings bonanza for the CFP semis comes when the games are played New Year’s Day. The 2014-15 playoff semifinals did monster ratings on Jan. 1, with Oregon-Florida State (Rose Bowl, 14.8) and Ohio State-Alabama (Sugar Bowl, 15.2) the two highest-rated semifinal games. The only other comparable semis came on Jan. 1 in 2017-18, with Alabama-Clemson (Sugar, 11.4) and Georgia-Oklahoma (Rose, 13.7).
The rest have lagged behind, with the largely forgettable Alabama-Washington game in 2016-17 playoff (Peach, 10.7) the only one of the six semis to crack a double-digit rating. The other ratings have been fine, but it has to irk college officials that the Rose Bowl’s non-playoff games – like Ohio State-Washington’s 8.9 last year – rate in the same ballpark as the semifinals.
Hancock is curious to see how the games do again on a Saturday, which will offer more data on how games will rate on a new schedule. One of the aspects hurting the CFP semifinal data is that many of the games have been uncompetitive. That was the case last year when the games were played off New Year’s Eve and on a Saturday, as Clemson blowing out Notre Dame (Cotton, 9.4) and Alabama handling Oklahoma (Orange, 9.9) offered little drama.
The tenor matters in title games, too, as last year’s Clemson blowout of Alabama rated the worst of the five title games (13.8) because Clemson won 44-16. Ohio State’s national title win over Oregon in 2014-15 is the highest-rated title game at 18.6.
The simple answer to revive the middling ratings of semifinal games is complicated in execution. That would be making the semifinals a New Year’s Day tradition. But the Rose Bowl’s contract has that late afternoon time slot boxed out until 2026. Imagine the howls of laughter at NFL offices if someone mentioned playing the NFC title game in a time slot that wouldn’t maximize the rating. “That kind of is what it is,” Hancock said of the New Year’s conundrum. “We feel good about the viewership and the popularity of the event.”
Jamming the Rose Bowl contract with ESPN through 2026 before agreeing to go to a four-team playoff was a legacy financial muscle flex by outgoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. The late SEC commissioner Mike Slive responded by spearheading a mirroring Sugar Bowl deal in the New Year’s Day night slot, as to not be completely outflanked. Those games are either honoring tradition or holding up progress, depending on where your allegiance and bank accounts lie.
“If you ever get the Rose Bowl out of their circumstance, then the games would be on Jan. 1,” said a Power Five athletic director. “Really, they’re the ones. At some point in time you have to say, ‘You can’t hold up the train.’”
Delany, not surprisingly, doesn’t agree. “I probably bristle a little bit when the Rose Bowl is brought up as some sort of obstacle,” Delany told Yahoo Sports. “The Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-12 have done more than their share to make this (CFP) an integrated whole.”
In attempting to gameplan around the Rose Bowl’s New Year’s monopoly, the CFP whiffed badly on its New Year’s Eve idea. Viewers and fans are again being impacted this year, with this awkward schedule another unintended consequence. And with a College Football Playoff that may have the most exciting field in its six-year history, the sport faces the grim reality of another year of not maximizing its best product.
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