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Why the “Week 0” College Football Game Is Here to Stay

Florida-Miami was a sloppy, turnover-heavy affair, but it was also ratings gold for ESPN

AP Images/Ringer illustration

This weekend is Week 1 of the college football season, but the season really started last Saturday with a game between eighth-ranked Florida and in-state rival Miami. It was beautiful for all the reasons college football is beautiful, by which I mean everybody involved acted like they were drunk even though most of the people involved were not of legal drinking age, but what are you, a cop?

Florida seemed significantly better than Miami, but also committed four hilariously bad turnovers. The Gators committed two unforced fumbles, a botched mesh on a zone read and a bobbled pitch. Later, quarterback Feleipe Franks loudly hollered “I DO THIS, STOP PLAYING WITH ME” before revealing the “this” he does is throw needless interceptions while protecting a one-score lead with under five minutes in the game.

That allowed Miami to debut its new four-pound turnover chain:

Miami also has touchdown rings this year, meaning they’re going to keep adding accessories for on-field achievements until the punter is allowed to get a leg tattoo on the field every time he sticks a kick inside the 5-yard line.

Florida escaped with a 24-20 win, which was somehow followed by an even more ridiculous game in which the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors benched starting quarterback Cole McDonald—he has an arm, E-I-E-I-O—after he threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns. You see, he also threw four interceptions. But a full week before the commonly accepted start of the season, we got perhaps the silliest ending of the year: Down seven with under five seconds left, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate scrambled from the 31-yard line, knowing full well that if he were tackled, his team would lose. Because Tate is one of the best athletes in the sport, he almost made it. But defensive lineman Manly Williams (yes, that’s his name) sprinted as fast as his manly legs could take him and caught Tate on the 1-yard line, sealing a 45-38 win.

Week 1 of the college football season is a true smorgasbord, thanks to the expanse of Labor Day weekend and the lack of NFL games to compete against. There are games Thursday night and Friday night, a reasonably full Saturday slate, and typically one featured game on Sunday (this year, it’s an Air Raid shoot-out between Houston and Oklahoma) and another on Labor Day (a this-looked-good-on-paper-five-years-ago trip from Notre Dame to Louisville).

But that is not enough, as the NCAA has begun to issue waivers to allow games even before Labor Day weekend. Since 2016, there have been 12 “Week 0” games featuring an FBS team. The creep began in 2014, when ESPN began airing its FCS Kickoff games featuring teams from college football’s second tier. Next came a logistical bump. Teams have long been allowed to add a 13th game to their schedule if they play a game against Hawaii, to offset the high travel costs of sending 100 guys and their equipment to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but starting in 2016, the NCAA allowed teams playing Hawaii to start their season a week early and take a second bye. Hawaii, which is permanently allowed to play 13 games, has taken advantage of this in three of the past four years, becoming an annual fixture of Week 0. And in 2016 and 2017, a pair of games were played in Australia. You can thank Week 0 for all these pictures of Stanford players and coaches with koalas.

But this year brought Florida-Miami, a game played in Week 0 because … why? Neither team is heading overseas in need of extra travel time. They aren’t FCS teams in need of extra exposure. The game was moved to Week 0 at the behest of ESPN, which requested a waiver to play the game early as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of college football. It’s unclear how this made sense—the first college football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in November, so it’s unclear how a Florida-Miami game in Orlando in August had anything to do with that. (My favorite theory: Banner Society’s Alex Kirshner suggests ESPN had a vested interest in moving the game, complete with its Disney World edition of College GameDay, to clear out hotel rooms because a new Star Wars ride is opening Labor Day weekend, and Disney owns ESPN. Literally a galaxy brain take.)

Regardless, I bet ESPN will keep pushing games to Week 0. Because of this:

That’s right: No ESPN regular-season game since 2016 had better ratings than this contrived nonconference game. And ESPN airs a lot of important games! The reason? There was nothing else on Saturday. Even during the biggest games of the actual college football season, there’s something else on to convince fans of certain teams and conferences to turn away. Not in Week 0. All eyes were on Miami-Florida.

More than any other sport, college football’s entire structure is based on giving networks something to air when nothing else is on. Bowl season, college football’s postseason, is literally just a bunch of random games between random teams played in random cities such that ESPN can broadcast them one at a time for three weeks. Sure enough, some of those postseason matchups get higher ratings than Miami-Florida did, even though they bear no impact on the course of the season at large. Once upon a time ESPN began airing random Mid-American Conference games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The games were so highly rated in comparison to average MAC games that the conference has switched entire weeks of its season to Tuesday and Wednesday nights, driving down attendance (you wanna spend four hours standing outside in Buffalo at night in November? On a school night?) but driving up each school’s revenue.

And so Week 0 will live on. Eventually, every network that broadcasts football will want a slice of the Week 0 pie, and soon Week 0 will just be a regular week with a miniature slate of games. And then ESPN will realize it needs to bump one important game into Week Minus-1. Eventually, the networks will achieve their ultimate goal of airing at least one college football game all 365 days of the year. I’ll probably watch most of them.