Hot Take: Playoff committee should make a clean break from New Year’s Eve semifinals
It’s an easy rule to adopt and follow in perpetuity, even if it doesn’t include a catchy song-parody commercial starring Jimmy Kimmel:
January 1st or New Year’s Eve Saturday.
For the rest of time, this should be the College Football Playoff committee’s mantra when pondering the annual dates of its national semifinals, which occur around the New Year’s Day holiday.
It’s a knee-jerk but also necessary reaction to last year’s meh-level ratings for the CFP semifinals on New Year’s Eve, first pitting Clemson vs. Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl (afternoon slot) and then Alabama vs. Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl (prime-time slot).
For the games, ESPN announced a 9.7 overnight rating for the Orange Bowl and a 9.9 overnight rating for the Cotton Bowl.
On the plus side, the most recent semifinals both cracked top-7 viewership of ESPN’s college football games for 2015. On the down side, the above numbers were dwarfed by the inaugural semifinals from the previous season — with the Rose Bowl (Oregon vs. Florida State) earning a whopping 15.5 overnight rating and the Sugar Bowl (Ohio State vs. Alabama) collecting a 15.3 overnight rating.
To be fair, five factors were working against the CFP semifinals in Year 2:
- The Year 1 semifinals occurred on Thursday, Jan. 1, with the other major bowls taking place the following day. The reasoning for this: The Rose Bowl has a contractual agreement to always be on Jan. 1, unless that day falls on a Sunday, which is NFL territory. In that case, the Rose Bowl would commence during the 5 p.m. EST window on Jan. 2.
- The Florida State-Oregon showdown, from Year 1 of the CFP experiment, featured the college game’s previous two Heisman Trophy winners — Jameis Winston (2013 Heisman) and Marcus Mariota (2014 Heisman). A few months later, the quarterbacks would go 1-2 in the 2015 NFL Draft.
- All things being equal, the Rose Bowl typically pulls down the highest TV ratings of any major bowl. For my money, it’s also the greatest atmosphere college football has to offer, by a long shot.
- The Michigan State-Alabama semifinal from Year 2 was a one-sided blowout, with the Crimson Tide holding the Spartans to only 16 first downs, 29 rushing yards, 239 total yards and zero points. The Ohio State-Alabama game from Year 1, by comparison, included a wild comeback from the eventual champion Buckeyes.
- The uber-hype of Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer also helped that Sugar Bowl semifinal. Counting Meyer’s national title from the 2014 campaign and Saban’s crown from last season, the two coaches have absurdly combined for eight national championships since 2003.
To be clear, I don’t mean to be too rough on the CFP committee for its early TV decisions. After all, in two short years, the Playoff has already proven to be a massive success throughout the nation, even though one of the Power 5 conferences will automatically get shut out of the four-team Playoff.
Also, it’s hard to envision two dominant teams from the same league ever reaching the semifinals in the CFP era, given how the committee rewards bonus points for conference titles. As such, there are no loopholes or safeguards for elite-level wild-cards, even if they’re prohibitively better than the other league champions. (As a real-life example, we’ll likely never have a repeat of the Alabama-LSU BCS championship from four-plus years ago.)
That aside, my overall gripes with this process are minimal, minus the CFP committee’s stubbornness about airing the season’s most important games on New Year’s Eve. Especially on weekday evenings. Saturdays, I think, would be fine.
Thankfully, that rationale is losing steam.
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At this week’s SEC Media Days, Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, stated the CFP committee would explore the feasibility of moving the national semifinals away from New Year’s Eve.
In fact, when talking to Mad Dog Radio (SiriusXM), Hancock hinted at possible changes after the 2017 college season. “This year’s (New Year’s Eve) semifinals will occur on a Saturday, and next year, everything takes place on January 1. So, we’ll have some time to think about it.”
The above statement represents a significant departure from back in January, when Hancock (formerly the BCS system’s top executive) told USA TODAY:
“We are committed to (playing on New Year’s Eve). … Two years does not make a trend. Let’s watch this. Let’s see what happens.”
On Atlanta radio this week, Hancock offered an interesting hypothetical about the traditionally fickle media, saying they wouldn’t be pooh-poohing the CFP/New Year’s Eve experiment, if the TV ratings for Year 1 and 2 had been reversed.
In the larger sense, that’s possibly true. But I’ve been screaming from the rafters about this TV injustice for a few years, citing two reasons:
- My beloved alma mater played in the Cotton Bowl semifinal (Big Ten affiliation), and I still had no interest in staying home for New Year’s Eve. It’s the most social night of the year and typically free of TV distractions, meaning sports executives should reflexively cede that joyous evening to second-tier college bowls and/or those waiting for some oversized decorative ball to drop at Times Square in New York.
- In 1996, the Orange Bowl committee experimented with a New Year’s Eve matchup in the prime-time Tuesday window as part of the NCAA’s patchwork Bowl Alliance, which predating the Bowl Championship Series). I have two ugly memories from the occasion:
- Nebraska and Virginia Tech — a pair of top-10 programs that traditionally travel very well — attracted only 51,000 fans.
- While momentarily watching the game with a friend at the bar, I vividly recall him looking at the half-filled stadium and saying, “This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. God help us if they have ever play the championship on New Year’s Eve.”
Twenty years later, and my friend absolutely nailed the obstinate viewing habits of college football fans. On some level, we can embrace the old Bluebonnet Bowl – a 1980s staple from the Houston Astrodome – or the old Peach Bowl or Chick Fil-A Bowl from Atlanta on on New Year’s Eve, as long as these non-championship outings serve as background noise for the ongoing holiday revelry.
It’s also why we love the El Paso, Texas-based Sun Bowl so much. It’s the perfect on-again, off-again distraction while we’re cooking a New Year’s Eve feast or searching for the cleanest party suit in our closet.
Which brings us back to this when it comes to scheduling these all-important playoff games …
January 1st or New Year’s Eve Saturday.
It’s a great mantra, for sure. Just ask the NFL.
In the 1970s and 80s, the league occasionally hosted playoff games on New Year’s Eve. But soon thereafter, the powers-that-be figured out that it’s bad business to stage postseason outings on a family-driven holiday (Christmas Eve, Christmas Night, Labor Day weekend).
You know what’s also bad for business? Staging a College Football Playoff semifinal on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
Even the late, great Dick Clark never worked that early on the biggest day of the social calendar.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.