College football's national championship game will have a new voice.
On Wednesday, ESPN announced what had long been anticipated within sports television circles: Brent Musburger will no longer call the national title game.
Instead, Musburger and Jesse Palmer will serve as the lead broadcast team for the upcoming SEC Network when it launches in August. The new team will debut on Aug. 28 with Texas A&M's season opener at South Carolina. The current contract of Musburger, who turns 75 in May, was up as of early this year. His new deal is for multiple years and includes calling a college bowl game on ESPN, as well as Big 12 basketball.
"I'm delighted to be staying with ESPN, thrilled to be able to call the best football conference in the nation every week and am really looking forward to working with Jesse, who I covered while he was at Florida," Musburger said in a statement.
Palmer reached a new agreement with ESPN that also includes staying as an analyst on ESPN's Thursday night college football package. Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News reported that the SEC Network so far has cable and satellite deals to be in approximately 20 million homes
What's next? As I reported in January after speaking with more than a half-dozen television executives and on-air college football staffers on the topic, College GameDay host Chris Fowler is the leading candidate to call ABC's Saturday Night Football game, as well as next year's national championship game with Kirk Herbstreit. He and Herbstreit would also call one of the semifinal games. Fowler's contract expires after the World Cup in July -- a key leverage point for Fowler -- and he made it clear what he wanted in an interview with SI last year.
"I don't think it is anything secret internally what I want the next [role] for me to be at ESPN," Fowler said. "I don't think that is a mystery given the landscape. It's why GameDay is a unique standalone thing for me. It doesn't act or feel like a studio show. But the live events are the most inspiring, unexplored thing for me. I really have a passion to document live events as they happen. Hosting is wonderful and remains really satisfying, but the joy for me is calling big matches"
It's worth noting that some in ESPN management do not want Fowler to host GameDay and call a college football game on the same day. Herbstreit performs the double duty as an analyst, but Fowler's responsibility on GameDay is much more demanding than Herbstreit's.
Also, there is the business element. GameDay is a profitable and marketing behemoth -- one of the most successful things ESPN has ever done -- and there are some who believe changing the talent set-up poses significant risks.
Rece Davis, who currently calls ESPN's Thursday night games, is also a candidate for the lead announcing job on ABC's Saturday Night Football, as well as one of the national semifinal games. His contract is coming up, too, so he has leverage with the network as an A-plus level performer and a loyal company guy. If Fowler leaves GameDay for the ABC announcing role, Davis seems a lock to fill his position.
Longtime ESPN college football analyst Todd Blackledge is the leading candidate to be an analyst for the non-Herbstreit playoff semifinal.