Fresh off the program's highest AP poll finish since its 1939 national championship, Texas A&M will enter the 2021 campaign with a tremendous amount of hype and expectation -- and an announcement on Wednesday gave us a subtle clue as to exactly how hyped these Aggies will be.
CBS unveiled its 2021 college football schedule, which begins with Air Force at Navy on Sept. 11 (the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) and concludes with the Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve, with a whole heckuva lot of SEC in between. CBS claimed three specific games with Wednesday's announcement: Alabama at Florida on Sept. 18; Georgia vs. Florida on Oct. 30; Missouri at Arkansas on Black Friday; and the SEC Championship on Dec. 4.
But included in the schedule was an 8 p.m. ET kickoff on Oct. 9.
Before we can expound upon what that means, we first have to explain how CBS's SEC contract works.
Since 1996, CBS has had the first pick of SEC games each week since 1996, with ESPN owning the rest of the league's rights. Until the SEC Network launched, CBS had exclusive rights to any SEC games in the 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT window, meaning no other SEC games could air at that time. The SEC on CBS is typically the highest-rated college football package on TV -- which not only means the games draw huge ratings in the SEC footprint, but that the SEC pulls a large amount of viewers outside the South away from teams in their home markets. (It's also been the most under-leveraged property in sports TV, which is why ABC will take over the Game of the Week package in 2024.)
CBS's contract gives the network two double-headers each season -- one at noon ET/3:30 p.m. ET and the other at 3:30 p.m. ET/8 p.m. ET -- to be utilized whenever the network chooses.
Most years, that choice is easy: it's the Alabama-LSU game.
In fact, CBS chose that game so often that viewers could be forgiven if an 8 p.m. ET Alabama-LSU game was written into the contract, much like how Florida-Georgia always airs on CBS. Starting with the 2011 Game of the Century, Bama-LSU aired at 8 p.m. ET annually through 2018. Only Notre Dame at Georgia, the Irish's first game in an SEC stadium in 15 years, kicked Tide-Tigers out of prime time. (CBS aired Alabama-Georgia in prime time in 2020.)
The CBS prime time game is annually among the most-watched regular season games each year. Bama-UGA drew 9.61 million viewers in 2020; Notre Dame-Georgia got 9.29 million in 2019, and Alabama-LSU got 11.54 million in 2018.
And so with CBS claiming Oct. 9 as its afternoon/prime time double-header, we check the SEC schedule that week and find... not Alabama-LSU. The Tigers don't visit Tuscaloosa until Nov. 6, in fact. The marquee game on the Oct. 9 SEC docket, as it appears in late May, is Alabama at Texas A&M.
This, needless to say, would be a massive, massive opportunity for Texas A&M. The Aggies have never appeared in the CBS prime time window since joining the SEC nine seasons ago, and to date have won on CBS just five times (one of those being in the noon ET/11 am. CT window). The Aggies open 2021 with Kent State, Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas and Mississippi State. Not to disrespect any of those opponents, but it would be a massive letdown if Jimbo Fisher's team isn't 5-0 and ranked in the AP top-5 when the Tide rolls into College Station.
And if all that isn't enough, consider that the Red River Shootout is also Oct. 9. Can you imagine if Bama-A&M lures College GameDayaway from Dallas that morning, Texas loses, again, to Oklahoma that afternoon and then A&M knocks off Bama that night?With a win over Alabama, Texas A&M would be a double-digit favorite in every game until the regular season finale at LSU, and barring a Tiger resurgence the Aggies would still likely be slight favorites. Brazos County might just produce enough clean, yee-haw energy on the night of Oct. 9 power the entire state of Texas for a full month.
Texas A&M games on CBS, post-SEC merger
Kick Time (ET)
at No. 1 Alabama
vs. No. 1 Alabama
vs. No. 24 Auburn
at No. 18 LSU
W, 35-28 (OT)
at No. 7 Alabama
at No. 3 Auburn
vs. No. 10 Alabama
vs. No. 9 Tennessee
W, 45-38 (2OT)
at No. 1 Alabama
at No. 1 Alabama
vs. No. 8 Auburn
vs. No. 1 Alabama
at No. 4 Georgia
at No. 2 Alabama
Now, is it possible that Alabama and/or A&M fall flat on their faces and CBS airs Georgia-Auburn, South Carolina-Tennessee or even Vanderbilt-Florida in prime time? Of course it is. We're still two and a half months from kickoff. No one knows anything yet.
Just because CBS executives have backed Texas A&M doesn't mean LSU (which will see its game with Alabama begin under daylight for the third straight year) or Florida (whose Sept. 18 home game with Alabama stands as a rematch of the 2020 SEC title game, the only time the Crimson Tide broke a sweat on their way to the national title) should declare their 2021 campaigns a failure already.
The most-watched SEC on CBS game ever was a 3:30 p.m. ET kick -- LSU's 46-41 defeat of Alabama in 2019, which happens to be the only time LSU has beaten Alabama since that 2011 game. It's just a time slot, after all.
But CBS had to pick one game to put their resources behind, one non-Alabama team to back, and for the first time ever they picked Texas A&M.