A year ago, college football was celebrating an exhilarating postseason. TV ratings were smashed as Ohio State powered its way to the national championship.
Questions about the inaugural College Football Playoff were quickly put to rest. From all corners — schools, teams, fans, media — the sport had found a successful formula.
Call this year a sophomore slump.
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Ratings were down. The highest profile games entering Monday’s title contest between top-ranked Clemson and second-ranked Alabama, were mostly duds.
The Crimson Tide and Tigers tried to save the season. They provided a thriller, with Alabama prevailing 45-40. The postseason had its best game.
It was about time but the question remains. Was this year the exception or last?
Or is a simple matter of the calendar?
Clearly, college football was energized last year. When the sport made recapturing New Year’s Day a stated goal, old-school fans celebrated and younger ones were intrigued. Everybody paid attention.
But college football knew then that because of contracts with the Rose and Sugar Bowls that lock those games into Jan. 1, even in the two of three years they’re not designated as the national semifinals, the sport would move its two marquee games to New Year’s Eve.
America responded by not watching. Ratings for Clemson’s victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and Alabama’s shutout of Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl were down 36 percent over the inaugural semifinal games.
ESPN isn’t happy. It owes more than $20 million in makeup ads to satisfy unhappy advertisers.
Viewers aren’t the only customers who lost interest this year. About six hours before Monday’s kickoff, ticket prices on the secondary market dropped below $150 on Stubhub.com. The face value for tickets to the game at University of Phoenix Stadium were $450, $550 and $650 depending on seat location.
The national semifinal games experienced similar drops in secondary market tickets.
The falling ticket prices may speak to a preplayoff era concern: Fans can’t afford or aren’t willing to play for two trips. They could resist the semifinal trip in hopes of their team reaching the final.
As for the ratings, college football came up against a powerful force: New Year’s Eve celebrations. It may be the only day of the year football can lose. Plus, the first semifinal game started on the West Coast at 1 p.m. on a weekday.
Before the high profile games, the bowl season will be remembered for its abundance. Forty games and not enough teams that qualified automatically with at least a 6-6 record meant three teams that finished 5-7 punched a postseason ticket. Wouldn’t you know those teams — Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State — all won.
The most relevant regular season in sports again delivered. There were so many remarkable finishes it’s difficult to single one out. Miami, Fla.’s eight-lateral kickoff return to defeat Duke and Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal and return to defeat Florida State were among the most amazing.
But the winner had to be Michigan State’s victory over Michigan, when Wolverines punter Blake O’Neill bobbled and couldn’t get off a kick before he was swarmed by Spartans defenders. Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the loose ball and raced to the end zone as time expired, dislocating his hip under a pile of celebrating teammates.
The defending champion Buckeyes remained atop the polls until early November, when they were supplanted by Clemson, which finished the season as the lone top team.
The Heisman race had a similar baton pass. LSU running back Leonard Fournette chugged toward the award until he ran into Alabama’s formidable front. When the Crimson Tide’s Derrick Henry outgained Fournette 210-31, the Heisman race shifted gears and Henry outpointed Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey for the award.
A marvelous regular season had come to an end. An anticlimactic postseason would soon begin.