ESPN's Fowler Foresees Plus-One College Football Playoff System


It's college bowl season and Chris Fowler is busy. The ESPN veteran called the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl with Kirk Herbsteit and Tom Rinaldi on Dec. 22 and worked with Jesse Palmer and Rinaldi, "three tri-state area guys," on the second New Era Pinstripe Bowl from the new Yankee Stadium in The Bronx on Dec. 30.

Fowler next heads to the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and National Championship Game as part of the acclaimed GameDay team. And shortly after the national championship game between LSU and Alabama in New Orleans on Jan. 9, he'll be packing his bags for Down Under and ESPN's expansive coverage of tennis' first Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

In a broad-ranging interview, Fowler discussed among other things, bowls, Bowl Championship Series and otherwise, potential playoff systems for college football, the dominance of the Southeastern Conference and Nielsen ratings.

Chris Fowler

When it comes to the former Fowler has formed mixed emotions.
"I've always felt there were too many bowls. They run the gamut from a de facto championship game to some that are purely exhibitions," he said. "I believe a team should have a winning record in order to play. But we have 6-6 teams, like Iowa State [in the Pinstripe Bowl versus Rutgers], filling slots."
That's only one part of Fowler's college football's postseason perspective. Another extends to the teams and fans of the participating clubs.
"When you're around the teams and players, there's an excitement," he said. "For the Iowa States or the UConns, it's a great experience for the players and the coaches."
Fowler also recognizes the importance of the season to his employer: ESPN's various networks are airing 33 of the 35 contests this go-round (Fox with the Cotton, CBS with the Sun are the exceptions) and owns/operates seven of them.
"ESPN has made a big business out of it," he said. "The ratings go up or down over the years. But generally speaking, when you put games on at night or in the late afternoon, they do a good number; the customer speaks."
Asked whether he prefers the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl or the Beef ‘O'Brady's Bowl (formerly the St. Petersburg Bowl), Fowler casts his vote for the game played in Shreveport, La. that is now titled by AdvoCare V100.
"Back in the day, there weren't all these sponsorships, which we've become desensitized to. The Beef ‘O'Brady's Bowl kind of rolls off the tongue," he quipped, mentioning the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl and the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl, which was previously sponsored by Sea World, as some of the more interesting titles.

Looking to potential playoff set-ups for top-level college football, Fowler believes a four-team, plus-one system is "the next logical step. With two national semifinals, it would mean that the winner of Oklahoma State-Stanford [in the Fiesta Bowl] just doesn't get a nice consolation prize."
He actually prefers a larger tourney field, but feels the plus-one is what "the powers that be would be most willing to embrace. An eight-team system would be more inclusive and would get an undefeated Boise State in. It could produce a football version of Cinderella."
Doubling the field to 16, though, would be too much in his view. "It would mean an additional four games for the teams reaching the championship," said Fowler, who advocates for a 12-game regular season with nine conference games, and the absence of conference championship contests, which he feels are "redundant."
Under Fowler's plan, if the Rose Bowl didn't want to be in the mix, it could retain its traditional conference ties to the Big 10 and Pac-12. He talked about a potential game in Dallas and/or keeping the existing BCS Bowls, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta, in a rotation. Under that scenario, those bowls would host a national semifinal, which would have "a lot of additional value" every two years and "still have a BCS-type game in the other."
As for this year's bunch, the Fowler forecast -- which he pointed out will calculate measurements against cable rating comparatives for the first time -- calls for all of the BCS games doing "a good number." Michigan, which is meeting Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, "brings a lot of eyeballs," while "Stanford-Oklahoma State should be very exciting and Clemson-West Virginia could be high-scoring [in the Orange Bowl]."
Emphasizing that he doesn't make Nielsen prognostications for a living, Fowler thinks the Rose and Fiesta could be a lot closer to the championship game -- a rematch between Alabama and LSU, which rolled the Tide in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5 -- in terms of ratings. The 9-6 win for the Bayou Bengals drew over 20 million viewers for CBS, the most for a college football game on the network since 1989.

"I'm curious to see. The sport is a juggernaut, but the teams have already played," said Fowler. "I love the SEC: it has earned its place atop the sport in recent years. But in my trips around the country and on social media, there is definitely some fatigue. Some people are tired of the conference."


Fowler, noting that there were opportunities missed by the quarterbacks and receivers on both teams, not to mention the Alabama kickers, expects the Jan. 9 battle in the Superdome in New Orleans, to feature improved offense this time around.
Still, he mentioned that last year," there was the possibility of a high-scoring championship between Auburn and Oregon, which is a good ratings team. You had the season-long polarizing effect of Cam Newton, and the hype of his Heisman Trophy. The teams were from two different parts of the country. There seemed like there were a lot of factors that came together for that game, which was decided in the final minute. I'd be surprised if LSU-Alabama outperforms Auburn-Oregon."