We may have had an unplanned look into College Gameday’s future this past weekend.
As GameDay entered its final minutes, Lee Corso, the show’s normal closer who reliably whips the crowd into one final frenzy with his mascot headgear pick for the host game, was once again missing in action due to a family matter. Corso, now 88 years old, has missed a handful of shows over the past few years, largely due to health issues. His on-set screen time has been reduced and viewers have openly wondered if this is indeed the final year in Corso’s incredible run with GameDay (although perhaps a middle-ground of taped remote segments might make sense).
Every week about two million people watch (a very hefty audience for a pregame show) as Corso delivers his pick. The ESPN stalwart often puts on a masterclass, hiding his intentions before ultimately delighting the crowd with the selection of the home team or basking in the boos when he turns heel and picks the road team.
Every College GameDay ends on that pinnacle moment and it’s almost a letdown when the actual games start and we’re often left with a meh game and a dull crowd. The headgear segment has been one of the most reliable, consistent, popular, and viral things ESPN does. And yet, in the not-so-distant future, ESPN will have to re-choreograph it when Corso inevitably departs the show. Will the headgear pick continue? Kirk Herbstreit has said multiple times he will not carry that tradition forward and it would have to be someone else, if anyone. Who will be College GameDay’s new closer?
When in South Dakota … Corso picks North Dakota State!
Pat McAfee is distraught ?
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 26, 2019
Enter Pat McAfee, who, last Saturday closed College Gameday with Corso out, and picked the touchdown-underdog home team Utah Utes to beat the Oregon Ducks with an enthusiastic rallying cry that could easily be confused with a WWE promo. The home crowd, many of whom are massive McAfee fans, erupted. Steve Smith, a former Ute, then doubled down, giving another exclamation point to the final moments of GameDay, a fun ending to the show, especially after the first two picks came in for Oregon.
I had no idea what to expect when I came aht here to Utah..
THIS PLACE IS AWESOME..
?️?️THE UTAH UTES DON'T LOSE AT HOME AND TODAY THEY AIN'T LOSING
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) October 28, 2023
It was once again another successful GameDay but there wouldn’t be much more cheering that day in Salt Lake City. Hours later, Utah would go on to lose 35-6.
There are four more Saturdays left this season (aside from the 3 to 4 GameDays at neutral locations) when thousands of fans will show up on campus and stand for hours in what will most likely be bad weather, yelling and screaming as if they were reacting to an actual live game as those game picks are made. As we wind down another fun and unpredictable college football season, an interesting question has emerged. Will Pat McAfee go the entire season without picking against the host school and disappointing his rabid and loyal fans? And if he is expected to one day replace Corso as the crowd-charmer, can he bring himself to pick for the road team?
If we exclude GameDay’s two neutral location weeks (Week 1 in Charlotte and Week 6 for the Red River Rivalry), McAfee has gone with the home team for all seven picks. In those picks, McAfee has gone 3-4, guessing correctly with Colorado beating Colorado State, Washington beating Oregon, and Ohio State beating Penn State. McAfee missed by picking Alabama over Texas, Notre Dame over Ohio State, Duke Over Notre Dame, and Utah this past weekend.
This place is BEAUTIFUL..
NERDS RUN THE WORLD..
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 30, 2023
Prior to this season, McAfee has picked against the host city three times, picking Montana over Montana State, Tennessee over Georgia, and NC State over Clemson. His three road picks were all incorrect, perhaps giving him pause in selecting road teams going forward. All in all, McAfee has made 19 picks when not at a neutral location, going 8-11 in total, 0-3 when picking the road team, and 8-8 in picking the home team (all picks pulled from the pick tracking site, GamedayCole.com)
Looking ahead, GameDay is at Alabama this week where the Tide is a 3-point favorite against LSU. McAfee is close to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, paying him to make appearances on his show. With that and the spread in mind, a pick for LSU seems highly unlikely, but we’ll see. Looking beyond Saturday, only one week seems to offer a few attractive options to go with a road team pick.
Week 11: Georgia hosting Ole Miss, Florida State hosting Miami, Washington hosting Utah, Oregon hosting USC, and Penn State hosting Michigan. Of these five games, the best bet in terms of a road pick would be if GameDay went to Happy Valley, setting up a possible Michigan road pick.
Week 12: Tennessee hosting Georgia, Oregon State hosting Washington, Miami hosting Louisville, and USC hosting UCLA. This feels like where we’re most likely to see a pick for a road team since they’ll probably be favored in most if not all of those games. That said, Oregon over Utah seemed like a good off-ramp from breaking the pattern and the Utes were the pick.
Week 13: Michigan hosting Ohio State (almost a certainty when you look at the schedule).
The dilemma of home crowd euphoria and loyalty versus the integrity of the pick
Regardless of what plays out with Corso and potentially Herbstreit, who is currently juggling three gigs, McAfee’s addition to GameDay seemed to serve two main objectives:
1. Attract a younger audience
2. Amp up the crowd participation and atmosphere
He’s been wildly successful at both. Early on in his first year at GameDay, it was pretty clear McAfee was an absolute natural working the crowd.
PEYTON IS BACK..
HEUPEL HAS EM GOING..
HOOKER IS A GUY..
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) October 15, 2022
He has an absolute knack for this. Does he practice these? How far in advance does he make his picks and sketch out what he’ll say? Every single week his sermon to bro church is just an absolute banger. The crowd, many of whom are huge McAfee fans, gets exactly what they came there for.
Does McAfee really believe in these picks or is he just averse to rejecting a crowd that clearly loves him (or as my better half said, pandering)? This is just my personal thought on the matter but I think McAfee is a people-pleaser, especially to those who go out of their way to support him and his show.
Last year, before McAfee signed with ESPN, he flew into the host city, did GameDay, and left without developing much of a relationship with any of the host cities. This year, McAfee’s show is now taped on Fridays in the host city, attracting hundreds to thousands of his fans, most of whom are students or fans of the host school. He appreciates them coming out, does giveaways, hands out food and money, signs autographs, sings their songs, and brings on their heroes and local celebrities to talk up the school.
It’s like a mini College Gameday and the crowds for his show are a stark departure from anything else ESPN airs during the week. This is really WHY ESPN signed McAfee. He’s a rockstar to a demographic that has proven difficult for ESPN to make inroads with (younger viewers, many of whom have eschewed cable and, by extension, ESPN who is now hoping to convert these fans into subscribers, followers, and bettors).
I believe that Ohio is the TOUGHEST state in the union BUT..
TOUCHDOWN JESUS HAS BEEN BLESSING ME FOR THE LAST 24 HOURS..
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 23, 2023
For McAfee, picking the home team is almost akin to a rockstar coming back on stage for a final encore. Thus far, he has given the home crowd what they’ve wanted in each city this season and in 16 of 19 shows not taped at a neutral location. The video below does a good job chronicling what every weekend is like for McAfee as he immerses himself into the culture of each host school and perhaps an insight as to why he always gravitates towards picking the host school.
These weekly trips have to be taxing as McAfee is now on television six days a week and has to fly two days a week (AKA the Michael Strahan fall schedule). Adding the pressure of letting down your adoring fans to the toll that his travel and work schedule must already take on him could just make the whole thing not worth it. McAfee has even gone as far as to say that he’s not sure if it’s in the cards for a GameDay return next year. That came on the heels of a reader poll from The Athletic in which nearly half of those surveyed didn’t like McAfee on the show.
For him and ESPN the juice is probably only worth the squeeze to delight the thousands of cheering fans behind you, giving them a fun memory, and keep it moving. He’s right half the time anyway.
Perhaps just always picking the home team for the cheap pop is the perfect outcome for McAfee and his rallying speeches, leaving Desmond Howard and Kirk to be the bad guys if needed. It’s undoubtedly good for McAfee, who leaves each host city like a politician who just rallied the base.
College GameDay needs a climactic ending, McAfee loves to be loved, and ESPN needs more young viewers to latch onto the company. In other words, McAfee overpicking the home team certainly seems like it’s going to be a feature and not a bug. And it’s something viewers will have to get used to if he indeed opts to move forward on GameDay, perhaps sliding into Corso’s coveted role as the show’s closer.
If he does stay, it’s a decision I’m sure ESPN and his fans will celebrate with the same enthusiasm and excitement as home fans celebrating his weekly game pick.