There won't be a more impactful game on Saturday than the matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.: It's a game that has drawn attention from President Donald Trump and has implications not only for the SEC West and Heisman races, but also College Football Playoff contention.
Saturday's "SEC on CBS" game of the week — also a rare regular-season "Game of the Century" — seems like it would be reserved for primetime. Yet the game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET, the first time this matchup isn't a prime-time broadcast since 2010. Why is that?
That's thanks to several factors, but it ultimately boils down to the fact CBS used its one night slot this season to broadcast another game: The Sept. 21 matchup between No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 3 Georgia in Athens, Ga.
CBS has a TV deal with the Southeastern Conference that allows it first choice of games to broadcast each week. For that luxury, CBS pays the SEC $55 million per year, a deal which runs through 2023-24. However, that comes with a few caveats:
CBS can't choose a team to highlight more than five times in a given season.
CBS only has one game a year in which it can broadcast its chosen game in primetime.
Those caveats mean CBS must look ahead prior to the season to gauge which game it thinks will be best suited for a primetime kickoff.
We've known for a while that the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup between LSU and Alabama wouldn't be a primetime matchup. When CBS announced its "SEC on CBS" schedule in May, the only night game listed wasn't on Nov. 9, but on on Sept. 21: the matchup between the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish. CBS likely thought it could count on Alabama-LSU to draw its usual Southern audience, regardless of the stakes, and so chose Georgia-Notre Dame — preseason top-10 teams that rarely play each other and made the Playoff in 2017 and '18, respectively — as its primetime game.
In retrospect, that game pales in comparison to Alabama-LSU in terms of postseason significance. Yet still it averaged a 5.4 Nielsen rating and 9.29 million viewers, making it the highest-rated college football game to date in 2019 and CBS' highest-rated September game since 2013 (in comparison, Georgia-Notre Dame averaged a 2.4 Nielsen rating and 4.08 million viewers when NBC broadcast it in 2017).
Another factor that likely affected CBS' decision to take Alabama-LSU out of the primetime slot: The Crimson Tide's eight-game win streak over the Tigers. Alabama has won every game in this series since its 9-6 loss to LSU in 2011. That streak likely led decision-makers at CBS to hedge their bets on Georgia-Notre Dame. For comparison, here is how that game has compared to the last seven regular-season meetings between LSU and Alabama, all CBS primetime games (metrics per Sports Media Watch):
Avg. # of households (millions)
2019 Georgia-Notre Dame
*2011 metrics per Sports Business Daily
Coincidentally, the 2011 meeting between LSU and Alabama was another "Game of the Century" held in Bryant-Denny Stadium. That game was a massive ratings success for CBS, as it was the highest-rated non-bowl game for the station since Notre Dame averaged 22.5 million households in 1989.
It's also worth noting CBS had already used its primetime slot earlier in 2011, but entered into an agreement with ESPN — which holds rights to SEC night games — for "future scheduling considerations." That allowed CBS another primetime slot that season, which it ultimately used for Alabama-LSU. It appears the two stations were unable or unwilling to pull off a similar arrangement in 2019.
CBS took a calculated risk in picking Georgia-Notre Dame instead of Alabama-LSU ahead of the 2019 season for its primetime game. Alabama's eight-game win streak, coupled with the usual high ratings for this game, likely led CBS to believe it would do well enough outside of primetime to warrant putting Georgia-Notre Dame in its night slot. Had CBS known Saturday's matchup would be another No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup, it might have reconsidered.
That's why Georgia-Missouri — not Alabama-LSU — will be the SEC primetime game this week.