With the start of the college football season less than three weeks away, I invited four of our college football writers -- Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples, Pete Thamel and Martin Rickman -- to join me for a roundtable on a number of television-related topics. As expected, the group brought the heat.
1. How would you counter-program against ESPN's College GameDay?
Mandel: Set up on the other side of the stadium? I don't know, that's a tough one. GameDay has become so much more than a pregame show. For many people, it's part of the Saturday college football experience. People wake up unfathomably early for the privilege of standing behind the set and holding up a sign. You can't beat the show at its own game, so I wouldn't do another guys-talking-behind-a-desk football program. Maybe it'd be best do something where coaches and players are featured more prominently, for those who would rather watch Nick Saban preview the Alabama game than Desmond Howard.
Staples: This is a really tough question, because unlike all of the NFL pregame shows, GameDay does pregame very well. It's one of the best products ESPN puts out. This is a result of chemistry among the talent -- even recent additions like Howard, David Pollack and Samantha Ponder have mixed in well -- and a production team that has had a long time together to find the correct formula. How do you fight that? By doing something different. Fox put out the most cookie-cutter pregame show it could last year, and it stood no chance against GameDay. Strong opinions could draw in viewers (even the ones who say they want straight coverage) because GameDay has thus far left the bloviating to Mark May and Lou Holtz on Saturday night. That may be the route Fox needs to go. Its news channel dethroned an industry juggernaut by going partisan. You can't pick a side in college sports because there are too many parties -- the LSU nominating convention is by far the most fun -- but you can tap into a passion that almost rivals political fervor. That's why I'm fascinated by the Clay Travis hire. I'll explain that later.
Thamel: It would be difficult to counter-program against GameDay, and I certainly don't envy the folks at Fox Sports 1. GameDay is the best thing ESPN does, and I honestly can't think of a close second. The show is timely, gets great access and has fun without a "back-back-back" type shtick. To compete, I would imitate. Tap into what makes college sports so popular: the passion, local flavor and rich texture of the people and places that make the sport unique. Fox has erred in the past trying to be too racy and in your face, and it comes off feeling forced and contrite. It needs to leverage the billions it's spending on college sports access and hire hosts and storytellers who are nimble and knowledgeable. Still, good luck playing catch up.
Rickman: Focus exclusively on one specific element of college football. If it's analysis, break down film, talk about matchups, and bring in current and former coaches -- hire a top-notch pool of intelligent talent. If it's the fans, then amicable studio people and interviewers are an absolute must. Spend time at various campuses, tell dynamite feature stories and highlight the unique things that make college football great. You're not going to beat GameDay. You're not going to replicate GameDay. You need to offer viewers something they can't get anywhere else, with a voice unique to your network.
Deitsch: I'd take a job with FX or Lifetime because it's not happening. But I do like Rickman's suggestion.
2. Who is the most annoying on-air person (TV or radio) discussing college football?
Mandel: It used to be a dead heat between Mark May and Lou Holtz, but May has recently blown Holtz out of the water. May's whole act consists of antagonizing certain fan bases (Ohio State, Notre Dame) and then just beating that shtick to a pulp. (The kids call it "trolling.") Holtz at least delivers actual football analysis from time to time, especially after games. May is a self-perpetuating spoof playing over and over on loop.
Staples: Me, every time I'm on the radio or television.
Thamel: The Holtz-May dynamic isn't stale; it's fossilized. ESPN has so much quality product in college football, so many compelling games and stories, yet it still feels the need to face these two off to scream at each other. I can avoid the other contrived programming the network force-feeds viewers, but for college football fans, it's nearly impossible to avoid this tired act. I'm sure someone likes it, just like someone listens to Nickelback. I just don't personally know anyone.
Rickman: May, hands down, or any time Colin Cowherd decides he wants to talk about college football. There are plenty of other people I enjoying listening to on air, but those two give me visceral reactions I'd rather not have at any time in my day.
Deitsch: What's left to say about the hackneyed, overplayed and spectacularly insulting Holtz-May pairing? Everyone outside of ESPN's executives can see the manufactured nonsense. Still, I have great confidence that in an attempt to push the needle with attitude-infused television and the trolling of SEC fan bases, Fox Sports 1 will have someone who approaches the level of Holtz and May next year.
3. Where do you stand on the CBS' SEC team of Gary Danielson and Verne Lundquist? Why?
Mandel: I think they're perfectly imperfect. Verne is no longer at the top of his game. He'll miss a play or two. That's a given. Gary is an SEC shill. We accept that, too. But the CBS 3:30 p.m. game is now the must-see game of many Saturdays, and it's hard to imagine an afternoon at Jordan-Hare or the Swamp without their voices. Danielson is arguably the sharpest in-game analyst (especially breaking down replays) in the biz. While sideline reporters are often regarded as afterthoughts, everyone knows Tracy Wolfson is part of that team and looks forward to the way she says "Cooach" when interviewing Saban or Steve Spurrier.
Staples: Hey, did you know Riley Cooper and Tim Tebow are roommates? I do, because Verne told us approximately seven million times in 2008. Verne and Gary are at a bit of a disadvantage compared to, say, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit. Musburger and Herbstreit get to bounce around, calling games in the ACC, the Big 12, the Big Ten and the Pac-12. They sound like national announcers because they don't call the same handful of teams every week. There is a bit of distance. Verne and Gary call SEC games and the Sun Bowl. That means that every week, Verne and Gary call a game that probably involves Alabama, Florida, Georgia or LSU. So they get familiar with those teams, and they come off sounding more like local guys because of that familiarity. I don't worry about the SEC homer complaints as much. They broadcast SEC games to an audience consisting mostly of fans of SEC teams. They spend their entire week preparing to call an SEC game, so they aren't digging that deep into teams from other leagues.
Thamel: I'm a huge fan of Verne, as his voice is synonymous with big-time SEC football. He clearly enjoys the broadcasts and is generally prepared and knowledgeable. I don't dislike Danielson, but I've always been surprised that CBS hasn't given the color job to someone with more of a Southern flavor. The SEC is such a unique niche; it'd seem natural to have someone from that soil there to speak about it.
Rickman: I think the team of Danielson and Lundquist works because it isn't perfect. It's a throwback to how broadcasting used to be, and for certain games (especially big SEC tilts), it's exactly what I want. I don't need crazy graphics packages or strong color. I just want to watch football with as few distractions as possible. Danielson struggles at times, but for the most part he owns up to his mistakes. Uncle Verne is part of what made me fall in love with college football in the first place.
Deitsch: I'm in the tank for Lundquist because of my respect for his career and his thoughtfulness as a person. So any in-game mistakes -- yes, he has made some over the last few years -- get overruled because I love the voice. I never understand the over-the-top dislike of Danielson from some corners, but I know it exists. He's not Herbstreit or Mike Mayock but he does a professional job.
4. If Lee Corso walks away from College GameDay next year, who would be a good replacement on that set?
Mandel: I'd make a run at Rick Neuheisel. Anyone who watched the Pac-12 Networks last year or listens to SiriusXM knows he's a natural. He knows the game, he's funny and he's not afraid to ruffle some feathers. He'd fill that role nicely without trying to groom an exact facsimile of Corso. However, it might be hard to convince him to give up the beach for 15 consecutive weeks of travel.
Staples: This is a bar argument college football writers have had for the past five years, because it's a fascinating question. Corso is so unique. He's a former head coach at a high enough level who isn't ashamed to make fun of himself for the sake of the audience's entertainment. Let's agree that his replacement will have to be a former FBS head coach who led a program in a BCS league. Almost everyone is automatically eliminated for the following reasons:
• They still want to coach again and will soften their opinions accordingly.
• They're done coaching, but their ego is the size of a Winnebago and they can't be seen cutting up on a television set.
• They have no sense of humor that they're aware of.
That said, two guys might fit the bill. The best options seem to be Gerry DiNardo or Neuheisel. DiNardo, who works for the Big Ten Network -- full disclosure, I worked on a BTN show with him during the 2011 season -- has the right mix of head-coaching bona fides (LSU, Indiana) and impishness. He enjoys mixing it up, and he's funny as hell. Neuheisel, who works for the Pac-12 Networks, also has the résumé (Colorado, Washington, UCLA) and a personality made for television.
Thamel: Corso is one of the great faces and voices of college football, but it's obvious that his time on GameDay is nearing its end. That's sad for everyone. Someday, I could certainly see Les Miles zinging one-liners and Les-isms from that chair, telling everyone to have a GREAT Saturday. Just please don't put Lou Holtz there. Anyone but him.
Rickman: I don't know if GameDay should replace Corso as much as give Chris Fowler a bigger role. He's incredibly gifted. Then maybe ESPN can use a rotating cast of people until it finds a new star. Holly Rowe has been doing great work lately. Rece Davis could always use more airtime. Sage Steele might be good in a more improvised situation. It's going to take time to fill the hole left by Corso, so there shouldn't be a rush to find the answer right away. Assemble the puzzle piece by piece rather than smashing it all together.
Deitsch: For starters, the show should find someone with a different voice. GameDay should avoid replacing Corso with another over-the-top personality, and producer Lee Fitting is bright enough to know that. Quite frankly, I don't think the show would miss a beat without a replacement. But the archetype should be a smart ex-coach from a major conference. Stanford's David Shaw would make a great candidate in about 20 years.
5. Is Erin Andrews the right person to host Fox's college football studio coverage?
Mandel: Based on what we saw last year, no. Erin's rapport with coaches and players is one of her biggest strengths, and it seemed unnatural seeing her stuck behind a studio desk. Still, it's hard to say how much of that was her and how much of it was the scattershot production and blandness of her co-hosts.
Staples: Erin will be fine as long as the folks at Fox put other good elements around her. An anchor can't carry a show by him/herself.
Thamel: I'll pass on this one. Haven't seen enough of her in studio.
Rickman: I think she's fine. She was a bit awkward at times last season, but I don't know if that was a result of her feeling out Fox in general or the team with which she worked. Fox is paying plenty to have Andrews on board, and she clearly is dynamic enough to carry a show. The network has been trying her out in various places, including So You Think You Can Dance recently, and I think getting her out of her comfort zone will be a good thing. The key is making sure she has someone she can play off; who Fox pairs with Andrews will be extremely important.
Deitsch: So far, she hasn't been the answer, though Fox's executives did not exactly help her out with staffing last year. Let's be honest: Fox Sports 1's studio show has little shot to make an impact when compared to GameDay. It's the equivalent of comparing Stanley Kubrick to Brett Ratner. Andrews is much better in the field than the studio, no matter now much Fox wants to spin it. But here's the deal: If you want to be respected as a top host in sports television -- like James Brown, Bob Costas, Rece Davis, Chris Fowler, Ernie Johnson, etc. -- you have to drive compelling conversation about a sport. At times, that means going to uncomfortable places and being critical of people, even if it costs a few relationships. That's what smart sports viewers deserve and that's often what separates the generic hosts from the great ones. I've yet to see Andrews lead a conversation to that place. Fox might never require that of her, but it'll also never swipe ESPN's audience if it's merely the auxiliary public relations for the conferences it covers.
6. What do you think of Fox/Fox Sports 1's moves for college football?
Mandel: Deitsch is going to kill me, but I really like the Clay Travis move. Much like Bill Simmons showed on NBA draft night, a funny and opinionated writer who knows the sport has a lot more to offer than another generic ex-jock like Joey Harrington. Kudos to Fox for taking that route.
Staples: In the blogosphere, the Travis hire was almost universally panned. I actually think it could work. Everyone is assuming Clay will bring the same fan-baiting, SEC-centric approach that he brings to his website to the show. And he will, to a point. But Clay is a lot smarter than that. (He's a lawyer. Just ask him.) Clay didn't go from blogger on the CBS website to talent on a network show by accident. Every step of the way, he has identified what his target audience would respond to and then given the audience an abundance of that material. (Notice that I didn't say he identified what his target audience wanted, I said what the audience would respond to.) People don't actually know what they want to watch/read. Clay will do and say things that will make the audience respond. For instance, he may say something like "Oklahoma would be the ninth-best team in the SEC." (At some point, he probably will say that.) Sooners fans will see comments about what Clay said on Twitter and immediately switch to Fox's pregame show to see what this fool is talking about. Some may stick around when they realize he slaughters every sacred cow (not just theirs) and that some of his wacky theories are either thought-provoking or hilarious. That's what Clay gets that a lot of the folks in the college football media don't. It's sports. It's fun. Also, trolling Alabama fans is page views and ratings gold. If we wanted serious, responsible coverage, the PBS NewsHour would be the highest-rated show on TV.
Thamel: Fox hasn't hired anyone new that would compel you to watch its channel. (Other than Bill Raftery, but that's a different sport.)
Rickman: Too early to tell. I'm not the biggest fan of Travis' written work, as I often find it too misogynistic and self-serving. Will his voice and personality translate better on camera? It's too early to say. It's worth a shot, I suppose. Harrington never really did much for me. He was always a bit too stiff and unfeeling. I'm excited to see what Joel Klatt can do, if only because his rise through the broadcasting ranks has been so rapid. Fox needs to show flexibility and innovation if it hopes to compete with GameDay, and I hope the network is ready to fail early and fail often in order to ultimately make it work.
Deitsch: How do I know Fox brass is high on Klatt? Because every Fox executive I've spoken to says something to effect of "Joel Klatt is someone you should pay attention to." Of course, this is the same network that once aired Temptation Island, so buyer beware. The Andrews-Harrington-Eddie George trio didn't produce interesting television, so any alternative should be better. The addition of Mike Pereira should be very, very good and Petros Papadakis usually speaks his mind. As for Mandel, well, I knew it was you, Mandel. You broke my heart.
7. How successful will the SEC Network be?
Mandel: Massively, massively successful. For one thing, the fact that ESPN owns and runs it already puts it at an advantage over the other conference networks, because of both cross-promotional abilities and ESPN's experience. And remember, while everyone focuses on football and basketball, the overwhelming majority of these channels' live events are the non-revenue sports. The SEC is the one conference that truly cares about baseball. It also has Tennessee women's hoops, Georgia gymnastics and Alabama anything. Fans will watch.
Staples: It probably will be the most successful of the conference networks because it will have some decent football games and because SEC fans are more likely to identify with the conference and not just the individual schools. I was at a restaurant in the Florida Panhandle in June when I saw a guy sitting at the bar wearing an SEC belt. Not an Alabama belt or a Tennessee belt. An SEC belt. No one buys Pac-12 belts, which is why DirecTV hasn't caved to that league yet. If a provider doesn't carry the SEC Network, torches may be employed.
Thamel: People will watch. They'll watch the spring games. They'll watch the old games. They'll watch the coaching shows. They'll watch the Signing Day specials. People in SEC country care way more than anyone else. It's just that simple, and it's really not close. Why isn't the Pac-12 Networks getting picked up? Pretty simple. People don't care enough out there.
Rickman: It'll be plenty successful. It's a network devoted to the best college football conference with the most passionate and devoted fans. If the network showed nothing but old games or Les Miles interviews for 24 hours a day, it'd still get viewers.
Deitsch: Very successful. The network has a rabid regional footprint as well as fans interested in programming beyond football and basketball. It has already made a wise investment by bringing in the popular radio host Paul Finebaum. Will the SEC Network be a "national network," as ESPN president John Skipper indicated in May? I think that's a reach. Still, Skipper is right that interest will stretch beyond the SEC's 11-state footprint, and it will have a larger presence than the Pac-12 Networks.
8. What do you think of Dan Hicks replacing Tom Hammond on NBC's Notre Dame games?
Mandel: No real opinion. The games will still be four hours long and go to triple overtime every other week.
Staples: It will sound more like speed skating than figure skating?
Thamel: I'll pass again. I haven't seen enough of Hicks.
Rickman: I always thought Hicks did a pretty good job with Olympics stuff, and he certainly deserves his shot at this gig. If anything, he's almost too much of a pro. I already come close to falling asleep during NBC's Notre Dame games, so I have no problem with the decision to shake up the booth.
Deitsch: I think it's a very good move because Hicks and analyst Mike Mayock have gelled in the games they've called together. Whether it's been swimming or golf, Hicks is a professional broadcaster. He'll do the work required for a good broadcast, and he expanded on why he wanted to call Notre Dame and how intrusive Notre Dame has been.
9. Yes or no: Will Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel be the most dominant on-air story in college football this year?
Mandel: I think that's pretty obvious already.
Staples: It depends on how long the case takes and what ultimately happens. If the investigation drags on throughout the season, it will dominate all coverage. If he's cleared prior to the season or early in the season, he'll play under a Cam Newton-like cloud -- and everyone will be on high alert for more scandal. Pretty much the only way this storyline doesn't dominate is if the NCAA declares him ineligible either before the season or early in the season. Then it will be a massive, thermonuclear story when it breaks, but it won't dominate the rest of the season.
Thamel: It's hard to imagine that Johnny Football won't hang over the season as a dominant storyline. (And props to ESPN for breaking and dominating this story.) But one of the beauties of college football is that new stories surge out of nowhere every year. At this time last year, Manziel was an anonymous redshirt freshman with a cool nickname. Now, almost everyone is sick of him. Funny sport, this college football.
Rickman: Yes and no. The most dominant on-air story this year in college football will be the NCAA in general, and the Johnny Football stuff will be a big part of it. But reform, pay-for-play, the Ed O'Bannon case, Mark Emmert, player safety and the forthcoming College Football Playoff will all grab headlines well past the national championship game.
Deitsch: Yes. ESPN drives the college football conversation in this country and they've clearly made this story a priority across multiple platforms. He's driving eyeballs, page views and social media mentions, so I'd expect Fox Sports to make an attempt to get a slice of the Manziel pie as a network desperate for college football relevance. Another easy prediction? The next scandal in college football, because there's always one around the corner.