College Football Preview 2014: ESPN’s Long and Winding Road to a First-Ever Playoff

The fervent anti-BCS calls of college-football fans around the nation have finally been heeded: there will be a College Football Playoff this season. And ESPN is ready to bring it to them.

ESPNCollegeFootballAlthough the ultra-hyped four-team playoff won’t kick off until New Year’s Day, ESPN has plenty of action to cover in the meantime. The ESPN stable of networks will carry a whopping 450-plus college football games this season, starting with 55 games in six days this week to kick it all off. Ideally, this whirlwind of games will help prep the network for another jam-packed Bowl Season come December that leads into back-to-back triple-headers over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

“From the production side, we are faced with the challenge of having a lot more games in a very tight space: six A-level games in a 48-hour period of time really challenges our resources, announcers, facilities, and many other things,” said Ed Placey, senior coordinating producer for college football, ESPN, at the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit last week. “That has been the biggest part of attempting to rework what is already a robust college-bowl schedule to begin with.

“We still have 38 of the 39 bowl games,” he continued, “but with a higher concentration of the elite bowl games on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. So there are still some wrinkles we are working out.”

A Tight New Year’s Turnaround
Under the new College Football Playoff (CFP) system, two semifinal games will rotate each year among six bowls (Rose and Sugar on Jan. 1 this season) with the College Football Championship Game taking place the following Monday (Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium). This will put ESPN’s operations for the championship game in a unique position, because the NFL Playoffs will be taking place concurrently.

“The largest unknown that is a concern to us right now is the NFL Playoffs,” said Placey. “We will be monitoring the standings and the playoff-schedule possibilities because we could literally have a game at AT&T Stadium in Dallas 24 hours prior to the National Championship Game. We have faced those possibilities in the past — in New Orleans around a Saints playoff game — but it really puts you in a tight turnaround.”

Weekly Rankings Show Leads Into ‘Selection Sunday’
ESPN’s buildup to the CFP will be immense, to say the least. In the past, BCS rankings have been released on Sunday night, forcing ESPN to televise its rankings-analysis show on an NFL-oriented night. However, with the new CFP Selection Committee likely meeting on Monday or Tuesday, ESPN can extend the college-football week by building an entire Tuesday-night show around the release of the latest Top 25 rankings.

“Tuesday suddenly becomes a college-football night, which has not been the case in the past,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, VP, programming and acquisitions, ESPN. “We will continue to have a college-football show Sunday night that will roll into the Tuesday-night show, where rankings will come out, and we will get to speak to [CFP Selection Committee Chair] Jeff Long to get an idea of why teams are ranked where they are. Then, before you know it, it’s the start of another college-football week. It lengthens the discussion time for college football throughout the week.”

The CFP rankings show will debut Oct. 28 and culminate with a “Selection Sunday” edition on Dec. 7, when ESPN’s cameras will have access inside the committee room — although audio “is still up for debate” — according to Bill Hancock, executive director, College Football Playoff. Dec. 7 is an NFL Sunday, however, so ESPN plans to start the show at 12:45 p.m. ET (following a shortened edition of NFL Countdown) and reveal the four playoff teams within the first 15 minutes, before the 1 p.m. kickoff of the NFL games.

“We understand that, come 1 p.m. ET, people will be flipping the channel [to NFL games],” he said. “If you are a fan and all you want [is the four playoff teams], you will get that in the first 15 minutes. If you want to stick with us, we will be there till 3 p.m. ET talking to all the coaches involved.”

In the meantime, however, the committee’s work is far from finished.

“While they are analyzing things, the committee will be at work filling the slots in the [Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach] Bowls,” Hancock noted. “Towards the end of the show, we will come out and reveal the matchups for those other games.”

A New Way To Bring in the New Year
ESPN and the CFP Selection Committee have big hopes for “New Year’s Six,” as it is being billed. The semifinals and four additional premier bowls (Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach this year) will close out the college-football season with a bang.

“It is going to completely change how people celebrate New Year’s,” said Ben-Hanan. “I like to think that there will be some huge screen in Times Square showing some football. There will be some opportunities to connect [ABC’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve] and the Bowls. We will have more on that to come.”

Hancock seconded that notion: “If we made a mistake in the BCS, it was probably spreading them out over Jan. 2, 4, 6. Bringing them back to the holiday period will be good for the game. I really think this will change the paradigm for New Year’s Eve in this country. Folks are going to have to be watching these three games throughout the day, into their New Year’s Eve parties, and into New Year’s Day.”