This weekend, Fox will once again air both the Pac 12 and Big Ten championship games on back to back nights Friday and Saturday. Friday night, Fox will visit Palo Alto for #8 Stanford hosting #16 UCLA. Saturday night, the entire crew travels more than halfway across the country to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game as #12 Nebraska faces unranked Wisconsin.
Once again, Gus Johnson and Charles Davis will pull double duty and call both games on back to back nights. Davis just pulled the same feat last weekend as he called a college game on Saturday and subbed for Brian Billick for the NFL on Fox Sunday.
While last year's conference championship doubleheader was the unveiling for the new and improved Fox College Football series, the 2012 version will be a true test of how far they've come in a year with many high profile additions… and how far they have to go.
First, the games themselves lack any real sizzle. Neither the Pac 12 nor the Big Ten title game has any impact whatsoever on the BCS title race. In fact, each conference will be missing arguably their best team from the championship matchup with #5 Oregon and unbeaten Ohio State watching from home. Moreover, UCLA and Stanford just played last week in Los Angeles and the Cardinal easily handled the Bruins. And while Nebraksa has had a very good season on the Legends side, Leaders representitive Wisconsin actually finished third in the division (behind OSU and Penn State) at 4-4 in league play and enters the game losers of 3 out of 4. You'd have just as much luck selling Panthers-Eagles on Monday Night Football this year.
The ratings for both games won't be great unless a multiple overtime instant classic breaks out. With matchups that aren't so strong, it'll be an interesting test for how well the Fox College Football brand has made a name for itself in drawing in viewers.
The other huge test will be the progress of Fox's college studio show with Erin Andrews, Eddie George, and Joey Harrington. Fox's coverage starts at 7:30 both nights with a half hour pregame show. Early on this season, the show was widely criticized for a gluttony of errors. Even though the Fox pregame received much publicity with EA's big move from ESPN, the show was hurt early on by those glaring mistakes and several overruns of Fox MLB games that significantly preempted pregame coverage.
It seems that the Fox college football pregame has failed to gain any momentum since those early season jitters. The amount of chatter and conversation about Fox and Andrews has been almost non-existent during the heart of the college football season. While ESPN's College GameDay is as strong as ever, how many of your friends who are college football fans talk about the Fox pregame or are even aware that it exists? ESPN's new star Samantha Steele is even getting more facetime and blog buzz than Andrews at this point. It has to be said that EA's arrival at Fox has failed to create the excitement the network certainly had in mind when giving her a key hosting role.
The booth will be strong with Gus Johnson and Charles Davis forming one of my favorite announcer pairings. I'm well aware Johnson's announcing style isn't for everybody, but just about the only thing I remember from last year's Fox doubleheader was Gus finally being unleashed during the exciting Big Ten title game after a year of so-so games.
Friday and Saturday night present a huge opportunity for Fox College Football, and Andrews' studio crew in particular, to make a positive impression. The only competition Friday night is the MAC title game while Saturday night's games feature Texas-KSU and the ACC title game. The SEC championship should be finished by the time Fox hits air Saturday night.
It's a watershed weekend for the entire brand. After its BCS debacle a few years ago, Fox had some work to do to be a trusted entity for college football fans once again. Although the network has definitely improved with its second entry into the sport, several questions remain. How many viewers will they be able to pull in with an average slate of games? How far has the studio show advanced? Are high-profile additions like Gus Johnson and Erin Andrews truly making a difference? With ESPN securing all the major bowls into infinity, Fox's real estate in the college football market is being marginalized. They need a strong weekend to win more viewers over and prove they can still be a major player in the sport moving forward.