NFL: NFL Draft

When the NFL released its 2024 schedule on Wednesday, it sent a shot straight into the heart of college football. Dec. 21 marked the first round of the new 12-team College Football Playoff with three important contests scheduled on a day that the NFL has historically held games. In response to the encroachment, the NFL counter-scheduled two massive matchups opposite the CFP slate. 

The Texans face the Chiefs at 1 p.m. ET in a battle of Patrick Mahomes and C.J. Stroud, two of the top young quarterbacks in the sport. At 4:30, Baltimore and Pittsburgh play in a renewal of one of the NFL's great rivalries. Unlike the CFP games, both matchups are guaranteed to air on broadcast television, not basic cable. 

When the NFL wants to clear you out, there's not much that can be done. Last year, the league decided it wanted to take over Christmas and push the NBA out. The ratings for those games towered over the traditional day of basketball. The NFL holds a Marvel-level monopoly over sports culture for better or worse. For fans of anything else, it's for far worse. 

Regardless, college football will not move -- and should not. 

Scheduling was one of the biggest complications for the expanded College Football Playoff as the organization tried to sandwich the regular season, recruiting, the NFL and classroom dates into a clean product. Despite reportedly consulting with the NFL, the CFP ultimately decided that battling on Saturday is preferable to trying to shoehorn multiple games during a regular work week in December. 

"We looked at all those options before," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said in April. "Could we play Thursday night? Could we play more than one game Friday? No great options. Where we settled out is the option that ESPN was happy with." 

The College Football Playoff schedule that was released for the next two seasons features a Friday night first-round game, along with a tripleheader in each traditional window: 12 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 7 p.m. With the shorter length of NFL games, the endings of could run right up against college football endings. So now, college football will prepare for perhaps the biggest wrinkle in the history of the sport while going up against the Empire. And big picture, it's the right decision. 

It's nearly impossible to contextualize the power the NFL wields in sports and broadcast television. In 2023, 93 of the 100 most-watched television programs of the year were NFL broadcasts. The Super Bowl LVIII simulcast on CBS was the most-watched program in the history of television. The top 56 most-watched television programs of 2023 were NFL games. 

For context, Ohio State-Michigan ranked 57th. The CFP title game had a strong showing with 25 million viewers, but that beat only one NFL playoff game. The NFL has continually expanded its presence as far as it legally can to try and reach an Amazon-like monopoly on sports. If the NFL wants to cut college football down at its knees, there's not much college football can do. But ultimately, that's even more reason to ignore the NFL and try to build something separate. 

In 2023, the NFL played its first-ever Black Friday game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, a day traditionally reserved for college football. Due to the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, NFL teams are essentially not allowed to play games past 6 p.m. on Fridays to try and protect college and high school football. Naturally, the league scheduled a game to end by then but swallowed up every other second it could. In a just world, Congress would reevaluate the overwhelming power of the NFL and issue a new SBA that more properly takes into account its newfound power, but we're well past the point of Congress acting on antitrust matters. 

ABC essentially punted the Black Friday midday time slot, swapping NC State-UNC for UTSA-Tulane. However, Arkansas-Missouri remained in a similar time slot on CBS, and actually delivered better ratings going up against the NFL -- jumping from 3.3 to 4.1 million viewers -- largely boosted by a far better Missouri team in 2023. Conversely, Jets-Dolphins was the second-lowest rated Amazon broadcast of the season with only 9.6 million viewers, a relative pittance compared to the nearly 12 million average viewership for Amazon games. 

Granted, the CFP Saturday will be best-on-best, with several of the NFL's most important brands going against postseason competition. When the Ravens and Steelers played in Week 9 of the 2023 season, they drew 18.6 million viewers. But still, college football should stand its ground. Millions of people watch college football for college football. The priority should be simply to create the best product possible for fans and hope that the quality draws the rest of the sporting world. Based on early projections, the sport should be fine. 

A projected first-round based on Dennis Dodd's post-spring rankings would feature Alabama against Notre Dame in Tuscaloosa and Texas vs. Penn State in Austin. Those matchups would get the juices flowing. Ole Miss would also host Missouri, with upstart Boise State hoping to vanquish Oregon in Eugene. Those are great games that can survive on their own merit. 

ESPN can also be smart when scheduling games. There's no reason to put Alabama-Notre Dame up against Patrick Mahomes. An intra-conference battle between Ole Miss and Missouri is easier to sacrifice. Only two of the four games will be impacted. 

Of course, there's one other aspect that shouldn't be overlooked in the battle between the NFL and college football: Multiview. YouTube TV launched the product last season, which allows viewers to easily watch multiple games at a time. And in a multiplatform world, viewers can easily watch both the college and pro games on different devices. 

Certainly, the CFP would prefer that viewers across the country be locked in on its game, but a conflict isn't on the same level as a death sentence. And as the CBS vs. Amazon Prime matchup proved last year, plenty of viewers will gravitate towards the better product. 

That's what matters most: Creating the best product possible. And with the first-ever on-campus College Football Playoff games and several exciting matchups, the CFP should still feel plenty optimistic about what Dec. 21 will be for the sport.