Thursday, September 8, 2011

ESPN's Top Talent Enhances College Football

All those executives at ESPN have it mostly right in regard to college football -- especially with their on-air talent assignments.

Fans watching games produced by the all-sports network on any of its outlets (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU ...) invariably get their game coverage some of the best in the business when it comes to play-by-play, color commentary and studio work.

This weekend again shows the depth of the network's talent and the oh-so-slim margin between the top broadcast teams. That's because while the No. 1 team gets a typical primetime assignment, the No. 2 team gets the week's only matchup of two Top 25 teams.

Play-by-Play/Color Commentary

First, the pecking order. ESPN's top three teams are ...
1. Brent Musburger/Kirk Herbstreit
2. Brad Nessler/Todd Blackledge
3. Sean McDonough/Matt Millen

My personal top three would be almost identical, except for a possible flip-flop of the first two.

Still, it would be easy to argue that what ESPN considers its No. 1 TV team deservedly hold that spot -- if only by the slimmest of margins as the result of some self-inflicted challenges.

It's clear Musburger/Herbstreit (who have Notre Dame-Michigan this week) deserve their perch because of Musburger's experience and talent, and because Herbstreit is one of the best in the business as a color commentator.

Their work almost invariably meets the level of the game their covering, and the team's only weak points come (albeit with regularity) because of Musburger's insistence on hype and pontification. After just one game this year, he has already anointed a Heisman Trophy favorite and proclaimed one team as national championship favorite. Sometimes that's just too much, and if he could simply describe the action, provide some context and work back-and-forth with Herbie they would be even better.

That knocking-on-the-door No. 2 comes in the form of Nessler/Blackledge. They're informative and steady, with Blackledge especially able to get his finger on the pulse of a game and related adjustments. Best of all, they know the show is not about them -- even with the Todd's Taste of the Town segments when Blackledge visits diners and restaurants near the home team's campus each week.

They get No. 3 Alabama at No. 23 Penn State this week and they're worthy of the assignment as well.

The tandem faces a big challenge later this season, though, because Nessler also picks up Thursday night play-by-play duties on the NFL Network. That could cut into prep time for Saturday games and Nessler has always seemed more like a college than a pro guy.

The top three concludes with often overlooked but professional Sean McDonough and Matt Millen, but their hold on that spot is not firm. It's not the play-by-play guy's problem, either. McDonough capably calls anything and he has a good approach to college football -- balanced, informative and rarely missing a call.

Some criticize Millen because of his flopped tenure as general manager of the Detroit Lions, but that's unfair. He's decent, but he honestly has not reached the level he was at when working NFL games for Fox Sports before he became an executive. Plus, he splits work on college and the NFL as well, and that sometimes seems to impact the depth of his perspective on certain games. His work lacks (when it does) more because of that than because he was not a good GM in pro football.

Studio Shows

Here's another area where ESPN has it right, as two standouts lead much of what the network does in regard to college football -- or at least in regard to what it does well.

Hosts Chris Fowler and Rece Davis provide a wonderful one-two punch as traffic cops in studio. They guide viewers through programs, encourage banter among participants and enable the shows to deftly touch on topics that range from entertaining to emotional.

Nobody has filled such as role as well as Fowler -- and that's in any sport on any network -- but Davis is not far behind.

Problem Pieces
Of course, with all the talent it has, and all the hours of programming it must produce, ESPN makes missteps. On that topic three names come to mind.

First, Lou Holtz/Mark May -- and they only come to mind as a problem piece when together, separately they're not bad and May can be really, really good. Together, though, their shtick has become stale at times. It's even silly, and not good silly.

While "College GameDay" with Fowler, Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard and emerging David Pollack capably combines entertainment and information, the middle ground and nuances sometimes gets lost with Holtz and May. That's a shame, too, because they both have potentially great information to share, but the shtick gets in the way.

Still, ESPN's biggest problem regarding college football remains Craig James, to whom they have been overly fair and loyal.

Let's see, he's gotten the company dragged into at least two lawsuits, they recently decided they needed him more than they needed longtime reporter Bruce Feldman (who wisely left for CBS Sports) and what James brings in terms of information and insight to broadcasting opportunities could be similarly provided by any number of former experts or players. He's not otherworldly in terms of TV talent, but they keep having his back.

At some point they need to watch from the front and listen.

He's OK, but he has limited himself. For example, how can he capably be able to talk about anything related to the Big 12 Conference? And did anyone at ESPN watch "Pony Excess," the SMU "30 for 30" film when he was included and seemed anything but regretful or remorseful about his part (of course the film was all about others who were paid so maybe he was the only one who was not) in what happened?

Maybe many of us who are watching are missing some obvious positives with James, but it just seems like he's accumulated so much baggage that at some point that would outweigh the fact that he's just not spectacular.


  1. Millen no longer is an NFL analyst for ESPN. And before he started doing ESPN games, Nessler was the radio voice of the Atlanta Falcons

  2. Sometimes that's just too much, and if he could simply describe the action, provide some context and work back-and-forth with Herbie they would be even better.