Much has been made about the 2023 college football season being the last year of the sport as it once was. But this season features some big changes already — on television.
With the Big Ten’s media contract starting this season, we now have more games on NBC (and Peacock) and it’s no longer “The SEC on CBS” but “College Football on CBS Sports.” New announcer teams, new interminable ads, new stars.
Welcome to a recap of the best and worst of CFB on TV in 2023!
Best: Sanders & Sons and Crushing Defeat memes
There’s only one place to start. Jimmy Buffet (RIP) once said it’s always 5 o’clock in Margaritaville, and in much the same way, it was always Prime Time for the entire month of September.
Every game felt like an event — college football junkies trying to determine if the Buffaloes were actually good with a capital G, and the rest of the country tuning in for the glitz of Deion Sanders, Shedeur Sanders, Travis Hunter and whatever the beef of the week was.
If you think Colorado was (is?) overexposed, go back to this moment. Jenny Taft actually isn’t sure whether Travis Hunter is one of Deion Sanders’ sons (in part because of Deion confusing matters) because this was, for most of the country, the first time they were seeing the phenomenal Hunter in action.
Deion Sanders on Fox after CU stuns TCU: “We told you we coming. We told you we coming. You thought we was joking. And guess what? We keep receipts?” 🏈🔥🧾 pic.twitter.com/CIZuHx7qPm
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) September 2, 2023
I could talk about Mark Jones and Gus Johnson’s obvious delight when things were going well for Colorado and borderline apathy when their opponents made plays. I could talk about how silly some analysts got when discussing the prowess of vanquished foes like TCU (4-3), Nebraska (3-3) and Colorado State (3-3) in order to try and build the hype around Prime and company even further.
But let’s highlight the closing moments of ESPN’s broadcast of the Buffs’ dramatic collapse against Stanford. Behold! The birth of a new crushing defeat meme, which will likely live among the pantheon of surrender cobra gifs for years to come (especially since the sports bettors of the world seem to have strongly self-identified with the particular posture of the young Buffs student).
ESPN’s sign-off of Colorado’s meltdown vs Stanford features crying fans. pic.twitter.com/tpX3Rf1kC1
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) October 14, 2023
Worst: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (and commercials)
Moving from something largely good to something largely bad: A brief moment to discuss some math (stick with me here). Let’s say my cousin Throckmorton has bought 400 pieces of fruit: 300 apples and 100 oranges. He goes back to the store the next day and buys another 400 pieces of fruit, this time 280 apples and 120 oranges. Now, the amount of fruit has stayed the same, but obviously the ratio of apples to oranges has decreased.
Folks, there are more commercials in football this year. Not in terms of the raw numbers, but in terms of the ratio of commercials to football being played. The new rules are cutting down on a few plays a game, but the number of ad spots is remaining the same. Your perception is not lying to you. Stay strong, we’ll make it through this together.
Is it the commercials’ fault CFB games feel so long? We checked the tape
Best: A jaunt to Fansville
Speaking of commercials. There hasn’t been a massively zeitgeisty ad this season, nothing akin to the “Fancy Like” earworm of years past. But I do want to give a brief kudos to the Dr Pepper Fansville writers, because they really do a job of keeping in touch with the idiosyncrasies of college football.
For example, take their ad spot centering around how realignment will tear apart a cherished rivalry. As a parting blow, the State fan calls out to Tech’s mascot: “We’re still going to out-recruit you!”
The Tech Platypus’ response is so simple, so lame, so accurate. Does he say “well our coaches develop our talent” or “you’ll still stink no matter how many five stars you recruit”? No, indeed not.
“We have higher academic standards.”
Chef’s kiss. That kind of deep cut comes from a real understanding of college football fandom and the psyche of certain fan bases within it.
Honorable mention: Thus far Caleb Williams hasn’t shown the same chops that Bryce Young did in last year’s performances. To this point the best moment of Heisman House has been the way Billy Sims says “Tikky Tok.”
I’d have two nickels . . .
I’m going to point out a few places where if I had a nickel for every time [____] occurred, I’d have two nickels. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice.
- For every time a head football coach got mad at an octogenarian who does limited media engagements. Again, much ink has been spilt, but Ryan Day get some calluses and Jake Dickert, you were wrong but also right because life’s not black and white.
- For every time a TV announcer referenced the rap lyrics of an artist on the sidelines this season. Well done Mark Jones and Joe Tessitore.
- For every time the sun was doing weird things during college football games. It hasn’t been confirmed, but the sun might have been the source of some of the technical difficulties during the Red River broadcast. This was followed a week later by an annual solar eclipse. Space, the final frontier, meets football, the gridiron game.
- For every time we got a close up shot of a stray football causing some pain. I wonder if there were any liability forms at College GameDay in Durham (Is that too “boring lawyer” of me?) Also, this poor photographer did a great job of making a football to the nether regions cinematic as all get out.
- For every time Marvin Harrison Jr. was called marvelous by Gus Johnson while playing against Maryland in the fourth quarter. Is this so specific that I’m cheating? Maybe. But folks, when you have a good line, don’t be afraid to stick with it.
- For every time Jesse Palmer reminded everyone that he played in the CFL where you can have 12 men on the field. Who’s surprised that Miami did this? Billy Napier then decided to follow Mario Cristobal’s lead. … It didn’t work.
- For every time NBC hired the son of a famous sportscaster to follow in their dad’s footsteps. … Actually, let’s talk about this one a little more.
After the Final Rose: Jesse Palmer’s unlikely journey from Canadian QB to American TV star
Best and worst: A tale of two broadcasts
I’d never hit the mute button on Todd Blackledge, which, when you’re a college football fan, is high praise. Blackledge is a rock solid announcer. He doesn’t take you out of the game with a plethora of personal anecdotes or clearly rehearsed catchphrases, and I’ll never feel confused by a disconnect between what he is focused on and what’s playing out on the field.
NBC has paired Blackledge with relative newcomer Noah Eagle, son of Ian. Eagle has also been perfectly serviceable on broadcasts. He brings energy without feeling hokey or overdone. I think with time and reps the two will be among the best of the broadcast booth, and even now they are only behind Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler for me.
NBC doesn’t get first pick of the Big Ten’s matchups, which is evident when you look at the games that Blackledge and Eagle have called (see: Syracuse at Purdue, Michigan State at Iowa). But the duo did get to shine in calling Ohio State at Notre Dame, a game that, while low-scoring, was full of tension. It was a raucous environment and the booth matched energy while guiding the audience at home through the ups and downs of the contest.
The Irish had another massive home game last weekend against historic rival USC. It was also broadcast by NBC, which held the rights via its exclusive agreement with Notre Dame. Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff was on campus, and again the excitement of the crowd was palpable. But Blackledge and Eagle weren’t in South Bend, Ind. They had instead called Illinois-Maryland earlier Saturday.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) October 15, 2023
No, NBC turned instead to Jason Garrett and Jac Collinsworth, also the son of a famed sports announcer. The two have been working together broadcasting Notre Dame games since last year, and they haven’t improved at all. In a game that had three interceptions from a Heisman Trophy winner, along with a kickoff returned for a touchdown and a scoop and score, the duo sounded at times as if they were describing someone sorting Excel sheets.
Notre Dame fans have been griping about the quality of their assigned booth for more than a year now, and when America tuned in the same complaints were made. The question is whether NBC — which has substantially increased its investment in college football — will seek to upgrade its talent. Right now it feels like there isn’t an A-team and a B-team, because if there were then the A-team would consistently get the better of the two games available to NBC each week.
Our college football media reader survey: Check out the results
When discussing the end of CBS’ contract with the SEC, many Hogs, Tigers, Dawgs and other assorted southern alumni had a common lament: “Wow, I’m going to miss that theme song.”
You’ll run into the occasional “it’ll be different without Gary,” but by and large the departure of longtime analyst Gary Danielson is met with a bit of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ or even some excitement. Because for all that the production values are gorgeous and Traci Wolfson anticipates a player departure, there will always be a moment or two where you want to just tell Danielson to stop talking.
Gary Danielson trying to figure out what is going on- as the ref is announcing the call.
The ref explains that it’s intentional grounding in the end zone and therefore a safety.
“They called holding in the end zone? Is that what they called?” 🏈🎙️🦓 pic.twitter.com/z17gAlLDqP
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) October 7, 2023
Worst and a Best: On Pat McAfee
I was excited when Pat McAfee first joined GameDay. It had gotten a little too staid, a little too rote. I thought he’d break things up and breathe new life into things. But it feels like he just doesn’t get it.
He has a good staff and he knows the internet, so in researching for a location, he’ll pick up on something as niche as the Brady Quinn-A.J. Hawk “a house divided” jersey and borrow it in the lead up to Notre Dame-Ohio State. But then he’ll trash Washington State, or he’ll refer to Oklahoma’s colors as burgundy, or he’ll have another moment where it feels like you can see the theatrical mask go askew and wonder how much does this guy actually care or know about college football?
However, there is something that I think everyone can see McAfee is entirely sincere about, something that has been must-see TV each week: the College Kickers segment.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that college kickers are scapegoats. A game comes down to a field goal, out trots an 18-22 year old, who may or may not have been en route to a Manhattan finance gig, the kick goes askew and what starts to trend? #CollegeKickers.
McAfee has made it his mission to deliver comeuppance to the populace of each college town in America, creating a segment to remind the people who might otherwise be tempted to spout criticism online that kicking is hard. It’s not a long field goal, a thirty-yard chip shot. But it took until Week Seven for one of the student participants to hit the mark, and even then only on the second try.
It’s marvelous TV, too. It gets the crew off set and into the crowd, and the direct interaction has made for hilarious moments and some near physical injuries. And when the try finally hit? Joy, excitement, a near tackle from Herbstreit. So for all the bellyaching I’ve done, maybe McAfee has added some good energy and breathed new life into the product after all. And maybe as time passes he’ll grow more comfortable and less bombastic.
Probably not, but hope springs eternal.
(Top photo of ESPN College GameDay broadcast at Ohio State-Notre Dame: Joseph Weiser / Icon Sportswire via Getty)