If it didn’t quite live up to the pre-game hype, Saturday night’s showdown between the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs served as a reminder that the SEC still moves the ratings needle.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Alabama’s 41-24 victory over Georgia averaged 9.61 million viewers and a 5.3 household rating on CBS, making it the most-watched, top-rated college football game of the 2020 season. Deliveries for the primetime broadcast were up considerably versus the previous high-water mark (5.77 million/3.1), which CBS notched only a week ago with its coverage of Tennessee-Georgia in the 3:30 p.m. ET window.
What should have been a collision between an unstoppable force (the Tide’s offense racked up 153 points in its three prior games) and an immovable object (Georgia entered Bryant-Denny Stadium with the nation’s top-rated defense) degenerated into a bombing raid, as Bama QB Mac Jones connected on 24 of 32 passes, four of which resulted in touchdowns. In passing for 417 yards, the redshirt junior on Saturday accumulated the third-most air mileage against any Bulldogs team in the last 128 years.
Much of Alabama’s offensive assault was reserved for the second half. After falling behind 24-20 and trading punts at the top of the third quarter, the Tide went on a tear, scoring touchdowns in three straight possessions. Two of those TDs came on the heels of interceptions.
Prowling the Alabama sideline was head coach Nick Saban, who’d been cleared to return following his third straight negative test for the coronavirus. Saban, who’ll celebrate his 69th birthday on Halloween, began self-isolating at home last Wednesday immediately after a COVID test came up positive. The coach, who remained asymptomatic throughout last week’s ordeal, brought his record against former assistants to a perfect 22-0.
Georgia’s best-case scenario would be to force a rematch with Alabama—a turn of events that CBS would be happy to see play out as well. When these two teams last met in the SEC Championship Game, CBS averaged 17.5 million viewers and a 10.1 rating, securing bragging rights to the most-watched regular-season college football game of 2018. In keeping with those outsized deliveries, CBS generated a nice pile of cash; according to Standard Media Index estimates, advertising spend in the title game added up to $21.2 million, making it the season’s most lucrative non-bowl game.
In a normal year, the fact that a marquee SEC matchup drew a big TV crowd on an October evening wouldn’t rise to the level of news, given the utter predictability of that outcome. Last season, the conference accounted for three of the top five college football broadcasts, a roster that includes the Nov. 9 LSU-‘Bama tilt (16.7 million viewers), the SEC title game (LSU-Georgia, 13.7 million) and a nail-biter of an Iron Bowl shootout (11.5 million). All three games aired on CBS.
Of course, “normal” is a qualifier that doesn’t get thrown around much in 2020, unless it’s to remark upon its absence. Preemptions and displacements have so cluttered the fall sports TV schedule that fans sometimes haven’t known where to direct their attention; just last Sunday (Oct. 11), ABC aired Game 6 of the NBA Finals in the same window as Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on TBS and NBC’s Vikings-Seahawks broadcast.
Such overcrowding has led to a form of ratings cannibalization, and the across-the-board viewership declines have been exacerbated by a steep downturn in network TV usage. Per Nielsen, broadcast PUT levels (industry argot for “people using TV”) are down a staggering 36% on college football Saturdays, with 8.98 million viewers tuning in on game day compared to 13.9 million during the analogous period in 2019.
If the Georgia-Alabama deliveries suggest that college football viewership is rebounding after an unpromising pre-SEC stretch, the return of Big Ten games to the media mix should help keep the ball rolling. Fox gets its Big Ten schedule started with a noon Nebraska-Ohio State game, while ABC’s Saturday Night Football will enjoy a reprieve from the ACC with Michigan-Minnesota on Oct. 24 and Ohio State-Penn State on Halloween night.
Since the delayed SEC season kicked off on Sept. 26, its member schools have appeared in four of this fall’s top five college broadcasts.