It’s fitting that the college football coach who turned late-night kickoffs into a national conversation topic was former Boise State coach Chris Petersen.
After all, it was the Broncos’ program that was the first to feel the effects of ESPN’s quest to fill Saturdays with football from 10 a.m. to midnight and beyond in the West.
Petersen, in his fourth year at Washington, apologized to his fan base last week for the Huskies’ abundance of kickoffs in “late prime” – ESPN’s 10 p.m.- 2 a.m. Eastern time slot.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit countered with criticism of Petersen on “College GameDay,” insisting that Petersen should be thankful for the exposure ESPN provides.
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The game announcers for last week’s Washington-Cal game reported that Petersen declined to speak to them in advance of the broadcast. They called him “cantankerous” and “irascible.”
They could have just said he was right.
Yes, Pac-12 and Mountain West programs receive money and exposure from these late-night kickoffs. The Pac-12 has a 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox that runs through 2024 and requires the conference to play late-night games – and those late games are drawing better TV ratings than the conference’s daytime games, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott told The Seattle Times.
The Mountain West’s TV deal, which pays Boise State $2.9 million per year, runs through the 2019 season.
But those benefits come at quite a price.
Fans are fed up, and attendance is suffering. The late kickoffs are considered a key reason that Boise State’s season-ticket sales have plummeted to 2004 levels. Average game attendance in the Pac-12 has dropped 8.3 percent since 2013. Mountain West attendance is down 5.3 percent in that time. Washington can’t sell out games with a Top 10 team.
Coaches and players often don’t get out of the stadium until the wee hours after these late games. The effects of the late nights can linger with them for a day or two.
And some of the people who vote in polls, vote for the Heisman Trophy and influence the college football conversation go to bed long before those late-night games end.
This week, the Pac-12 and Mountain West will combine for six games that kick off after 8 p.m. Mountain/7 p.m. Pacific (three each, not counting the game in Hawaii). The rest of the country will combine for seven kickoffs after 7 p.m. in the local time zone – none later than 7:30. Four of them are in the warmth of Florida. That illustrates how heavy of a burden falls on the two Western conferences to fill the night slots.
Boise State was one of the first to embrace the idea of playing at unusual times for ESPN, and that approach certainly benefited the Broncos during their rapid ascent last decade. But that was when they were playing on every day of the week, usually around 6 p.m. There were inconveniences to that model, too, but everyone could be home by 10:30 p.m.
Playing regularly at 8:30 p.m. – often in cold weather – is just too late for many of the older and younger members of Bronco Nation. It’s too late for many of them to even finish watching the games at home.
This year, the Broncos got a break with an afternoon game against Troy and two 6 p.m. weeknight games in September, but now the schedule has taken another late-night turn.
The Broncos played at 8:26 p.m. last week at BYU, they’ll play at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night at San Diego State and they’ll host Wyoming at 8:15 p.m. next week. The Utah State and Colorado State road games kick off after 8 p.m., and the Nevada and Air Force home games could be stuffed into the late-night time slot, too.
Add in the Washington State game, and it’s possible that Boise State will play eight games that kicked off after 8 p.m. Mountain time this season – including the potential for seven in a row.
Playing a couple games at odd times for exposure is one thing. Playing most of the schedule that way needs to stop.
“It’s not working,” Boise State Athletic Director Curt Apsey said in September 2016.
It still isn’t.
And the winner is ...
Boise State enters Saturday’s game at San Diego State as an underdog in a conference game for the first time in four years. (The Broncos were 10-point underdogs earlier this season in a nonconference game at Washington State).
In fact, this will be just the fourth time in the past 16 seasons that the Broncos have been expected to lose a conference game by the folks in Las Vegas. They’ve lost the previous three, all on the road.
San Diego State is favored by 6 points, down from 7.5 earlier in the week. That’s the largest projected loss for the Broncos in a conference game since the 2005 visit to Fresno State, which was an 8-point spread.
Boise State lost 41-40 to a Derek Carr-led Fresno team in 2013 (3.5-point underdog), 39-27 to a Colt Brennan-led Hawaii in 2007 (3-point underdog) and 27-7 to Fresno in that 2005 game.
The last time Boise State won a conference game as an underdog was in 2001 at Hawaii (28-21 as a 3.5-point underdog).
What does all this mean? Las Vegas, and bettors, err on the side of Boise State in conference play because of the Broncos’ reputation. So for a team to be favored by a touchdown, that team has to be exceptional – San Diego State is ranked No. 19 – and Boise State has to be having a down year.
That’s exactly the situation this week – and yet, I don’t think Boise State gets dominated by the Aztecs. The Broncos showed progress last week at BYU with a game plan much like the one the Aztecs rode to Mountain West titles the past two years: dedication to the run game, smart passing, stingy defense and outstanding special teams.
If the Broncos can repeat that performance, they’ll be in the game with San Diego State in the fourth quarter. The Aztecs are the better team, so I’ll pick them, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Broncos found a way to win with a key turnover or special teams play.
San Diego State 20, Boise State 17
College football spotlight
National game of the week – No. 10 Auburn (-7) at LSU, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS: Has LSU righted itself? Is Auburn a threat to Alabama? Auburn 27, LSU 10
Pac-12 game of the week – Utah at No. 13 USC (-12.5), 6 p.m. Saturday, ABC: The Trojans haven’t lived up to the hype all season. Expect the Utes to challenge them, too. USC 27, Utah 24
Mountain West game of the week – Wyoming at Utah State (-3), 2:30 p.m. Saturday: The Cowboys travel to Boise State next week. The Aggies lost to Colorado State last week. Both need a win. Utah State 20, Wyoming 17
On TV: Packers at Vikings (11 a.m. Sunday, Fox), Patriots at Jets (11 a.m., CBS), Steelers at Chiefs (2:25 p.m., CBS), Giants at Broncos (6:30 p.m., NBC), Colts at Titans (6:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN).
Broncos in the NFL: Cornerback Donte Deayon could make his NFL debut Sunday night for the Giants, who promoted him to the active roster this week because of a rash of injuries and the unexpected departure of a defensive back. Deayon had been on the Giants’ practice squad since the start of the 2016 season. His former Boise State secondary running mate, Darian Thompson, is a starting safety for the Giants.