When Florida takes on South Carolina at home on November 12, it could be more than just the Gators’ home finale for 2016 and Will Muschamp’s return to Gainesville: If Florida defeats Arkansas this coming Saturday, the Gators might be playing to win the SEC East title.
So CBS and the SEC might want to put that game on in the afternoon primetime window. That might be one reason the league announced Monday it would use its “six-day option” and hold off on scheduling times for five of the seven games featuring SEC teams on that day.
Two games are set: Mississippi State at Alabama will begin the day at noon Eastern on ESPN, and Vanderbilt at Missouri — a barn-burner, that — will kick at 3:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
The other five games — South Carolina at Florida, LSU at Arkansas, Auburn at Georgia, Kentucky at Tennessee, and Mississippi at Texas A&M — will fill two noon slots on CBS and the SEC Network, the 3:30 p.m. slot on CBS, and two night slots at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN and 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
The SEC’s release helpfully explains the pecking order for those slots:
The order of selection for these games is as follows: CBS has first selection for the 3:30 ET window; ESPN has second selection for the 7:00 pm ET window; CBS has third selection for the Noon ET window, SEC Network has fourth and fifth selections for the Noon ET and 7:30 ET windows.
On paper, I think Florida-South Carolina might just be the most appealing of those five remaining games, which is why I said as much on Twitter. Tennessee-Kentucky has similar SEC East implications, but neither the Wildcats nor Volunteers could be leading the division. Georgia-Auburn and Arkansas-LSU are rivalries, but look lopsided this year. A&M-Mississippi has the potential for points, but the Rebels will be no better than 4-5 — and could conceivably be 3-6 with a loss to Georgia Southern.
But there’s a wrinkle here that I did not initially consider: Florida has already appeared in 3:30 p.m. CBS games three times this year, and will appear in a fourth — though not the showcase CBS game of the day — on Saturday against Arkansas. The SEC’s deals with CBS and ESPN — owner and operator of the SEC Network — reportedly stipulate that CBS can air no more than five games featuring any specific team in a given regular season, at least as of the league’s post-realignment contract extension with CBS, inked in 2013.
CBS has aired six games featuring one team in a season before, doing so with Florida in 2009 and Alabama in 2015, and reportedly got a waiver to air the Iron Bowl between the Crimson Tide and Auburn last year. While there’s scarce reporting on how that waiver can be obtained, the SEC indicated last year that there was a “mutual agreement” that led to it being granted in 2015.
“The parameters of the agreement are flexible, as each season brings its own unique circumstances,” said Chuck Dunlap, SEC Director of Communications. “This was a mutual agreement among all parties.”
The easy assumption to take from “mutual agreement among all parties” is that some fee or penalty was paid by someone to make that happen. It’s also possible that such an agreement doesn’t involve money changing hands, but rights, as CBS and ESPN could agree to allocate one game to one network now in exchange for a future consideration.
For CBS, that might well have been worth it for the 2015 Iron Bowl, the week’s second most-watched college football telecast behind the much-hyped Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. Would it be worth it for Florida-South Carolina? Probably not.
But that’s basically the the choice that CBS is faced with next week.
Florida’s tally of four CBS appearances heading into next week would seem to mean that only one of Florida’s last three games could appear on CBS without some sort of waiver and/or fee. If CBS were choosing between those three games alone, without any other context, the Gators’ impromptu trip to LSU — as controversial and heated as any SEC game has been in recent memory — seems to be the obvious pick, in front of a game that could clinch the SEC East and the Florida-Florida State rivalry that CBS has eschewed in favor of SEC West rivalries for the last six seasons.
And the context strongly suggests CBS should hold out for Florida-LSU. The differences between Florida-South Carolina and Arkansas-LSU, in both quality and ratings potential, might be negligible; the differences between Florida-LSU and the rest of a cupcake-dotted November 19 SEC schedule are immense. There’s no guarantee that Florida can clinch the SEC East next week, either, while there’s no question that the Gators and Tigers will be fired up to finally play their hurricane-delayed grudge match.
And Florida-LSU could still decide the SEC East if the Gators split their next two games, adding yet more intrigue to an already compelling contest.
CBS could still choose to pony up to air the Gators’ reunion with Muschamp and that game against LSU, I suppose, but that decision would have to be viewed as CBS doing so not for Florida-LSU — which it can air at 3:30 p.m. on November 19 without doing anything but forgoing Florida-South Carolina on November 12 — but for Gators-Gamecocks. And that one doesn’t make sense to me.
So I would expect CBS to take a different game for November 12, and leave ESPN with the option to air Florida-South Carolina at night. Given how ESPN can milk a narrative like “CAN WILL MUSCHAMP PLAY SPOILER ON HIS FORMER TEAM’S SENIOR NIGHT?” with SEC Network and other programming during the week, I would have a hard time believing that the Worldwide Leader would pass that game up.
But if ESPN does pass it up, for some reason — like, I dunno, Florida losing at Arkansas, perhaps — then it could still air at noon, in that fourth selection slot. That is unlikely — the five-game limit would remain in place, thanks to that slot belonging to CBS — but possible.
What Florida fans desperately hoping to avoid a dreaded noon kickoff should root for this week is the Gators taking care of business in Fayetteville on Saturday, and forcing CBS and ESPN to consider them too compelling to pass up on Sunday.