Monday, August 27, 2012

Preseason Top 10: College Football TV Talent

With less than a week before college football season kicks off, it's time to take a look at the best TV talent in the game.

Dozens of broadcast teams cover college football across multiple networks each fall and the work of hundreds, even thousands, of production personnel make the TV broadcasts of games quality productions.

Still, the play-by-play talents and color commentators inevitably set the tone. Most regular viewers have some favorites. Those same viewers probably have some on-air talents they think are biased or uninformed.

Honestly, there's never been a better time to tune in and watch games on TV, thanks in part to the professionals covering games. They combine to form a pretty deep pool of talent.

Even though those commentators do not drive ratings (millions will watch big games no matter who describes the action), people certainly have opinions about the best.

Here's one viewer's picks as the Top 10 at what they do. The list features five play-by-play men and five color commentators. A shorter list of sideline reporters follows as well. Because of ESPN/ABC's tonnage of game coverage, the rankings have an feel similar to the team poll and the influence of the one conference. Like the SEC in the team poll, ESPN/ABC dominates this list.

Sean McDonough
1. Sean McDonough, ESPN/ABC: Consistent and versatile (he also handles Major League Baseball and college basketball), McDonough describes the on-field action and keeps viewers informed without fail. Best of all, it's never about him when he's in the booth. It's about the game. He's been with ESPN since 2000, and previously worked for the network from 1989 to 1995. This season he gets a new partner (Chris Spielman instead of Matt Millen), but adapting to someone else should not be a problem because he works with so many different partners in various sport over the course of a year. He's just good. Simply solid.
2. Mike Patrick, ESPN/ABC: Maybe a second consecutive surprise pick for some in this category, but Patrick just sounds like college football to me. He brings good energy and excitement to his assignments, too. In different roles with different partners through the years he's been consistent ... and that's all viewers can ask.
3. Brent Musburger, ESPN/ABC: Considered the gold standard by many, and he's very good. One of the best, without question. He's third here simply because it does seem to be more about him than it should be at times. It should always be more about the participants than anything else. You always know it's a big game when he's working it, though.
4. Brad Nessler, ESPN/ABC: He was ABC's top guy until Musburger returned, but Nessler certainly deserves the ESPN prime-time assignments on Saturday nights. At times, he like Musburger, can break into "OK partner" banter with his boothmate, but he generally delivers without making viewers want to turn down the sound. That's always a good thing.
5. Verne Lundquist, CBS: With regular SEC assignments, he has high-profile opportunities and rises to the occasion. Again, another voice that sounds like college football, with perhaps a little more laid-back approach. He never preaches at viewers, either -- another plus.
Just outside the Five: Joe Tessitore (ESPN/ABC), deservedly gets ESPN Saturday prime-time assignments with Matt Millen this fall; Beth Mowins (ESPN/ABC), solid and well prepared, working Saturday afternoons on ESPN2 with Joey Galloway; Gus Johnson (Fox), the No. 1 play-by-play man as Fox Sports moves even more heavily into college football this fall, a solid (albeit excitable) pro.

Kirk Herbstreit
1. Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN/ABC: He's insightful, picks his spots and clearly prepares well. Among a strong group, he's at the top of his game and the top of the pack. Not having him pick the game he works each week during "College GameDay" remains just a little frustrating -- but that's minor. (After all, it should be the game he knows best each week.)
2. Mike Mayock, NBC: Informative, engaging and knowledgable. Stuck only doing Notre Dame games, but one of the best in the business. Plus, because of his duties with the NFL Network, he knows college football overall. Too bad he does not have more opportunities to show that knowledge. He's just barely behind Herbstreit here.
3. Todd Blackledge, ESPN/ABC: Smart, well-prepared and proven. Makes insightful points quickly and works smoothly with Nessler. He's the second of three quarterbacks among the top four in this group.
4. Gary Danielson, CBS: Another QB, who can incite some segments of the SEC fan base. Not everyone across country hears every critique or insight as a criticism though, and with that perspective he's good -- because that's the kind of information he provides.
5. Ed Cunningham, ESPN/ABC: The former Washington and NFL lineman has abundant experience on TV, radio and filmmaking. That's a varied resume that allows him to share expertise and tell a story well -- another combination viewers appreciate.

As a testament to the unimportance of this role, ESPN/ABC announced it's complete lineup of on-air talent for college football season (play-by-play/color commentator/sideline reporter) -- a group of 19 teams -- with TBA for sideline reporter on the No. 1 team. Still, some people think sideline reporters matter. Truthfully, only a couple do. Here they are ...
1. Tom Rinaldi, ESPN/ABC: Actually, he's not even listed in the ESPN/ABC lineup for this role. He might be the No. 1 TBA, though that's unlikely. He'll probably chase the nation's biggest story from week to week and reporter on features during the season. Actually, it would not be surprising to see him draw some Penn State assignments early in the season as a second reporter. Or, instead of the scheduled reporter.
2. Holly Rowe, ESPN/ABC or Shelley Smith, ESPN/ABC: Probably the two best who consistently draw assignments. Both are proven, pick their spots well and seem to know they're sometimes in a no-win situation when asking coaches questions. Still, they do their best without coming off as inane.

Sideline Similarities
After the small group above, pick a name, any name and sideline reporters are mostly interchangeable.

It seems the most unforgiving job in TV sports -- with its brief halftime questions of coaches and an occasional injury update -- comes down to being competent, being able to smile and being female. For example, aside from the unassigned Rinaldi all the sideline reporters listed among the ESPN/ABC corps this season are female, except for Quint Kessenich.

Unfortunately for viewers, no network and no single reporter, male or female, has found a way to guarantee weekly quality or reinvent the position in a manner that consistently serves viewers. But, maybe this will be the year that changes.

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