It was just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday inside a television studio on Manhattan’s west side as the first College Football Playoff rankings were being unveiled on ESPN, and the immediate reactions to the results were striking.
“The SEC hatred is about to spike,” said CBS college football host Adam Zucker when Texas A&M was announced as the fourth team, behind Alabama, Clemson and Michigan, that would compete in the national semifinals if the season ended this week.
In addition to anchoring CBS’ SEC coverage every Saturday on broadcast TV, Zucker hosts CBS Sports Network’s Inside College Football, a weekly look at the college football landscape featuring analysts Brian Jones, Rick Neuheisel, Aaron Taylor and Randy Cross. They were in the middle of taping that night’s episode, and you could see the proverbial wheels spinning in their heads as they took a break to see the rankings come out.
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“That’s B.S.,” Jones said after Washington was placed fifth behind the Aggies. “Washington should be three. Washington got hosed.”
Zucker continued reacting in disbelief as Clemson was placed second, ahead of Michigan, despite narrow victories over N.C. State and Troy and a scheduled game against South Carolina State.
“This is just the committee trying to be smarter than everyone else,” he said.
“I’m done with these guys,” said Jones.
“The Pac 12 has got to be like, are you kidding me?” proclaimed Neuheisel, who previously coached at Colorado, Washington and UCLA.
Aside from Neuheisel, who returned to the show in 2014, the quartet of Zucker, Jones, Taylor and Cross have been together since 2009 — the show began in 2003 when the network was known as College Sports Television — and the familiarity they have with one another provides the weekly broadcast with a sense of authenticity and genuine chemistry that some other studio shows may lack.
“We know each other,” Cross told Awful Announcing. “I think more importantly, no one has a thin skin, which is very, very important. Plus, we respect what each other knows football-wise.”
Tim Weinkauf has been Inside College Football’s producer since 2009, overseeing the show’s continuity and growth over the last seven years.
“We get to set the table early in the week, which allows us to have original and unique takes on anything and everything,” Weinkauf said. “We give the guys leeway to be themselves which allows for the open, free flowing, conversational show you see on Tuesday nights.”
Taylor equated the camaraderie on the show to being back in the locker room on a team again — minus the Trumpian locker room talk — where everything is based on trust and mutual respect.
“What’s unique is we have the freedom to be ourselves, we take the game more seriously than we take ourselves and not buttoned up and fit into some cookie-cutter box,” Taylor told Awful Announcing, not long after Cross made fun of Taylor’s mismatching jacket and pants combination. “We’re kind of a motley crew.”
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Before breaking to watch the CFP rankings reveal, the group concluded taping segments of all the weekend’s top games, most notably CBS’ primetime showdown between Alabama and LSU and the top 10 matchup between Ohio State and Nebraska. As Zucker introduced each game to the panel, he integrated CBS’ Sportsline projections and predictions, and most of their opinions are bounced off of that. As you would expect from a bunch of players and coaches, they’re very competitive about their picks.
“A&M gave you the blueprint,” Jones said of beating Alabama, “they just didn’t finish the job.”
Inside College Football is divided into 12 segments, according to a CBS spokesperson, ranging from game previews and group discussion to more social media based and light-hearted subjects.
During the first segment of each episode, Zucker— who led off the show by calling ICF a Tuesday tradition — introduces a word of the day for the group to try to drop into the conversation over the course of the show. Tuesday’s word was “wordmonger,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a writer who uses words for show or without particular regard for meaning.”
Just after the first segment while on a break from taping, Neuheisel had some choice, meaningful words regarding Washington’s current ranking outside the top four.
“I feel because Stanford and Oregon are down, two — at least in the playoff era — programs that have been regarded amongst the elite, I think the narrative in the Pac-12 right now, especially for those who don’t stay up late and watch all the games, is that it’s down,” Neuheisel told The Comeback. “It’s going to have to take something special for them to get a spot.”
“Are they worthy of being four? No,” Cross said. “Not after losing by two touchdowns to Alabama.”
Neuheisel agreed with Zucker and Jones, who wondered why Washington was seemingly penalized for something Clemson wasn’t.
“Why are they being graded down because of a conference, from the outside looking in, that looks topsy-turvy,” Neuheisel said, “as opposed to a Clemson team that narrowly missed losing to an N.C. State team that just lost to Boston College, which one their first ACC game in two seasons?”
Neuheisel then said something millions of college football fans across the country were likely saying to themselves: “All I want is the same logic used across the board.”
In the broadcast, Zucker said that the selection committee was trying to be too cute during the first rankings, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously, according to Cross.
“That’s the one thing I always have to remind myself. The first poll is just sort of a guess,” Cross said. “They’ve always gotta throw a few tweaks in there, and they’ve definitely thrown a few tweaks in there.”
“Having them fourth as opposed to fifth in this particular scenario shows that there is a bent,” Neuheisel said. “And I don’t think you need to tip your hand right there.”
“It’s one of the highlights of the week,” Cross said about doing Inside College Football, “just coming up here and spending a couple of hours doing this. It’s pretty amazing.”
Debates like this week’s Texas A&M-Washington one will go on every week through the end of the regular season, likely lingering until the College Football Playoff actually begins.
“Anyone can look forward to Saturday, that’s a no brainer,” Zucker said. “I look forward to Tuesdays just as much, getting the chance to be part of a TV show with some of most informed and unique takes on the college football universe.”
Inside College Football will be part of the “universe’s” conversation every Tuesday night after the rankings are released, trying to have some substantial, yet fun, football conversation, while trying to keep all the wordmongering you see on a lot of studio shows to a bare minimum.