GLENDALE, ARIZONA – The matchup is set for a tantalizing College Football Playoff national championship game.
On one side, defending champ Clemson, with its 29-game winning streak. On the other, unbeaten and No. 1 LSU, with its record-setting offense and Heisman Trophy winner.
But first, we interrupt this playoff for a 15-day break that is far from ideal.
LSU and Clemson will play the final game of the 2019 college football season on Jan. 13 in New Orleans after winning semifinals Saturday night.
Heisman winner Joe Burrow and his Tigers routed No. 4 Oklahoma 63-28 at the Peach Bowl. Clemson’s No. 3 Tigers beat No. 2 Ohio State 29-23 in a Fiesta Bowl thriller.
“The challenge is keeping the conversation in the forefront against two weeks of NFL,” said Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions.
Fans seemed to be into the semifinals. ESPN announced Sunday that Clemson-Ohio State drew an average of 21.2 million viewers, up 9 percent from last year’s late semifinal game and the most for a non-New Year’s Day semi in the six-year history of the playoff. Even with LSU taking all the suspense out of the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader before halftime, the two games combined to bring in an average of 19.285 million viewers, up 6 percent from last year.
Once complete streaming numbers are available, these semifinals should surpass the largest audience for playoff games not played on Jan. 1, ESPN said.
ESPN will try to keep the college football conversation going with lower-level bowl games scheduled for Jan. 2, 3, 4 and 6.
The LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, matching Louisiana-Lafayette and Miami (Ohio) will essentially be a three-hour promo for LSU-Clemson.
“We launch with a championship game spot on Monday and have really two weeks to run it and really sell the matchup,” Dawson said. “We think that could be an advantage for us.”
ESPN also will have the final three episodes of “Inside the College Football Playoff” available on its subscription online streaming service, ESPN+. The behind-the-scenes-with-the-teams series will now follow Clemson’s and LSU’s championship game preparation.
The CFP schedule did not end up here by design. It was a correction.
When the College Football Playoff was crafted by the Football Bowl Subdivision conference commissioners in 2012 and ’13, they decided the semifinals would be played on Dec. 31 two out of every three years. The semifinals would rotate through six bowl games and when they were played at the Rose and Sugar bowls, as they will next season, the games would be on Jan. 1.
That’s the perfect spot: a national holiday when most people are off from work, being couch potatoes after ringing in the New Year.
But the conferences that partner with the Rose (Pac-12 and Big Ten) and Sugar (Southeastern and Big 12) bowls chose to lock their showcase games into those Jan. 1 time slots for the 12-year duration of the playoff. Even when they weren’t hosting semifinals.
That led to the ill-fated idea to reinvent New Year’s Eve as a night to watch college football. It did not work and after one season the plan was scrapped. Future schedules in which the semifinals were planned to be played on Dec. 31 were moved to the closest Saturday, unless New Year’s Eve was a Saturday.
This year’s schedule became particularly problematic because while the semifinals could be moved up to Dec. 28, the championship game could not be moved from Jan. 13.
CFP officials have said the Superdome in New Orleans was not able to accommodate the switch, which would have provided a more normal eight-day lead-up.
So instead, the teams have more than two weeks between games, and two rounds of NFL playoffs will be played in the meantime.
Fiesta Bowl coaches Dabo Swinney of Clemson and Ryan Day of Ohio State said before their game they would prefer consistency in playoff scheduling and the semifinals to be played Jan. 1 always.
“I know that the schedule, the NFL or whatever, I don’t know what all dictates all that stuff, but this year’s been a little different because of the way it was laid out and the national championship,” Swinney said Friday. “There’s a bye week this year. That’s another difference that the teams are going to have to manage in preparation for that because it is a little unique.”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said he was not concerned about fans losing interest due to the longer-than-usual layoff.
“I don’t think so because the championship game is so big and I learned a long time ago not to worry about things you can’t control,” he said. “I think the coaches are going to appreciate it. More time to get ready. More time to rest up.”
For LSU, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been nursing a hamstring injury. He played sparingly in the blowout of Oklahoma and looked OK.
For Clemson, quarterback Trevor Lawrence took some shots carrying the ball a career-high 16 times in the intense, hard-hitting game against Ohio State. The Tigers’ top two receivers, Tee Higgins (evaluated for a concussion) and Justyn Ross (arm), were both banged up.
“We’re going to celebrate this one, and then give these guys a couple of days off,” Swinney said Saturday night. “Then we’re going to get focused on trying to find a way to win one more. It’s going to be a heck of a task, but we’re thankful that we got the opportunity.”