As expected, CBS officially announced Monday that they’ve chosen the Nov. 9 clash of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers (currently #1 and #2 respectively in both the AP rankings and the coaches’ poll) as their SEC Game of the Week. However, that game’s going to be in the afternoon (at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS’ regular singleheader slot) for the first time since 2010. Despite June comments from ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, though, that’s not because Alabama-LSU “doesn’t have the cachet it used to“; there are going to be a whole lot of people who tune in for that one.
It’s worth a quick look at the history here. CBS’ contract with the SEC allows them to put one game a year on in primetime, usually a window that’s reserved for ESPN/ABC SEC coverage. But in 2011 (the last time these teams were #1 and #2 heading into their regular-season matchup), CBS pulled off a trade with ESPN for “future scheduling considerations” to get an extra primetime slot for that game. From 2012 to 2018, CBS used their once-a-year primetime slot on Alabama-LSU. But they chose differently this year, putting the Notre Dame-Georgia game on Sept. 21 in primetime.
It should be noted that this is probably going to work out okay for CBS, all things considered. Georgia-Notre Dame was a matchup of teams ranked #3 and #7 respectively at that time, and it posted a 6.2 overnight and was CBS’ best September game since 2013, with the primetime slot likely helping there. And while those numbers were slightly down from other CBS primetime games, that’s because the recent ones (again, since 2011) were all LSU-Alabama November clashes, generally involving high stakes for at least one of those teams. Meanwhile, Notre Dame-Georgia was way up from previous games involving Notre Dame.
And Alabama-LSU is likely to do massive numbers for CBS regardless of when they air it, especially if those teams are still #1 and #2 at that point. That’s not a sure thing, as LSU faces #9 Auburn this week (Alabama has unranked Arkansas), but both teams have a bye Nov. 2, so they’ll certainly both be pretty highly ranked heading into this contest. LSU and Alabama have also each proven to be big TV draws and frequent CBS picks (this will mark the Tigers’ third-straight game on CBS, and the Tide’s fourth game there (including one against #24 Texas A&M that CBS chose over #5 LSU-#7 Florida. And this game could have major playoff implications, so there will be a lot of neutral fans watching too. That makes Finebaum’s June comments look a little silly in retrospect:
“Right now, and I hope LSU fans will turn the radio down, but the LSU-Alabama game at Bryant-Denny Stadium does not have the cachet it used to,” Finebaum told The RoundTable on Birmingham’s WJOX 94.5.
“We can spend a week promoting how great that game is going to be, and we get the same game every week.”
…“This year may be different. It’s a new year, and LSU is better, but the last couple of games have been virtually unwatchable.”
…“Notre Dame will be a top-10 team. That game will draw better than LSU at Alabama. It was a smart move by CBS.”
Update: Compare those with what Finebaum said about that move last week, on the same radio station, no less:
Finebaum also said the choice of Notre Dame-Georgia in primetime was a mistake, given how the season has played out.
“How stupid does that look now,” he said.
The Nov. 9 LSU-Alabama game would have been a better primetime choice, he said, as he pointed to the narrative that this is the best LSU team in recent memory with the chance to beat Alabama.
“This LSU team is different. They’re the most exciting LSU team I can ever remember,” Finebaum said. “You make your chops in this business by making the right call, and CBS blew it. They’re sitting there right now with the game of the year, one of the biggest games in the 10 years, and they could have had it in primetime as the biggest game of the college football season and it’s literally buried at 2:30 (Central Time) in the afternoon with 4,000 other games on.”
There’s some basis for Finebaum’s June comments, of course. As that piece on those remarks (by Al.com’s Mark Heim) notes, LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since the 9-6 overtime win in 2011 (a preview of the eventual national championship game rematch, which the Crimson Tide won). And the Tide have won the last five meetings by a combined score of 113-39, including last year’s 29-0 win.
But LSU hasn’t been as highly ranked for most of that time. The Tide and Tigers have been 1-2 in some order in the weekly AP poll 10 times over the years, but nine of those were in the 2011 season (the other one was a week in September 2013). And regardless of if this particular LSU-Alabama matchup actually turns out to be close, the Tigers have already improved substantially from their #6 AP poll preseason ranking, and there will be a lot of people watching to see if they can give the Crimson Tide a challenge.
Of course, the game may not draw quite as well in the afternoon as it might have in primetime. Primetime has that name for a reason, as it tends to be when the most viewers are available (even on the weekends). Still, the overall picture for CBS is more about maximizing their season-long ratings than maximizing any particular game, and the Georgia-Notre Dame primetime pick may not have been a bad one from that perspective; the question is if the gain from that one outweighs the loss from having LSU-Alabama in the afternoon, and it might, or it might not. But regardless of how that turns out, it seems quite likely that Finebaum’s comments that Notre Dame-Georgia “will draw better than LSU at Alabama” may be proven false, even without the latter matchup being in primetime. And it seems all but certain his comments that LSU-Alabama “does not have the cachet it used to” aren’t going to be too accurate this time around.