By David Mullen
Has college football lost its relevance on the major sports scene?
Amidst on-campus scandals, off-field arrests, universities and the NCAA cashing in on unpaid players, a decline in youth football, dominance by the same handful of teams in the same region, teams not playing at a .500 winning percentage yet still making one of the 40 postseason bowl games, players leaving college early and the exorbitant salaries coaches receive at the expense of academia, a case can be made that all of those factors and more are contributing to a decline in the interest of college football.
According to Sports Business Daily, of the six major networks that feature college football, four posted significant declines in viewership for the 2017 regular season. Fox and FS1, relatively new to televising Saturday college football games, were up 23 percent and four percent respectively on a small base of viewers. CBS was down 10 percent, ABC was down 18 percent, NBC lost three percent of viewership from the previous season and ESPN (where college football is a network staple) was down six percent.
In a report released by the NCAA, attendance at games played by major college football teams dropped three percent in 2017, from 43,612 in 2016 to 42,203 last season. It was college football’s largest per-game attendance drop in 34 years, second-largest decrease ever and fourth consecutive year attendance is down. Since 2008, when a record 46,971 watched live college football games on average, attendance has declined 10.1 percent.
One reason attendance is down is that fans have simply lost interest, knowing they can’t compete on a national level with the same handful of teams. A look at the Associated Press preseason Top 5 rankings show the usual suspects at the top of the poll. The number one team was Alabama, followed by Clemson, Georgia, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Only two teams with local interest — TCU (16) and the University of Texas (23) — cracked the AP Top 25. And Texas’ ranking may be a stretch.
Alabama benefits by having a schedule that includes Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and The Citadel all at home. The bowl committee usually frowns upon weak schedules, but the Crimson Tide remains a Teflon team. They are defending National Champions, and come into the season stronger than ever. Their offense features a running back duo of Najee Harris and Damien Harris, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has the potential to be one of the most exciting players in the country.
Clemson is the glamour pick in the preseason, for good reason. Their defensive line is the best in the country, plus they have an even easier schedule than Alabama. They host Furman and Georgia Southern in their first three weeks.
If there are two surprise teams competing for the National Championship this year, it will probably be the Wisconsin Badgers and the Georgia Bulldogs. Wisconsin boasts a huge, NFL-ready offensive line. Georgia can outrush almost any team in country.
Out West, Washington, Stanford, Arizona, Southern California and Oregon are all top contenders. The problem is, they will beat themselves up and a Pac 12 champion could have two losses. Plus, West Coast televised night games just don’t get watched by influential voters on the East Coast.
Locally, SMU, with first-year head coach Sonny Dykes at the helm, should provide fans with a high-powered offense featuring junior quarterback Ben Hicks and junior running back Xavier Jones. But will that be enough to get fans into Ford Stadium and off of the Boulevard? TCU is solid as always, and with Oklahoma will compete for the Big 12 crown. Quarterback Shawn Robinson is young but talented, and Gary Patterson is one of the best coaches in the U.S. He always gets the most out of his group of relatively unknown players. TCU plays at SMU on Friday, Sept. 7.
So expect Alabama and Clemson to battle for the National Championship on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., with the Crimson Tide winning out again. The question is “will anybody really care?”