On Friday at his Pasadena hotel, Gus Johnson went to the pool and swam laps. The present was bliss, but he couldn’t help but think about his future as Fox’s lead college football play-by-play man.
“It was so refreshing,” Johnson said Friday night on the eve of Saturday’s epic crosstown rivalry clash between USC and UCLA. “My life is about to change. When these cats come into the Big Ten, I’m gonna be swimming in September!”
And, apparently, even in November.
The weekend before, Johnson and color analyst Joel Klatt found themselves in frigid Columbus, Ohio, for a “Big Noon Kickoff” snooze fest between Ohio State and Indiana. Too often this year, it has been made abundantly clear why Fox and the Big Ten enticed the Trojans and Bruins into a Midwestern migration that would change college sports forever.
Chip Kelly was on the verge of finally making UCLA a nationally relevant team. With the Bruins disheartening loss to USC, he might never get another chance.
Fox might enjoy the ultimate TV ratings weapon in next weekend’s Ohio State-Michigan game, but, week to week, it has been simply too dependent on the Buckeyes and Wolverines. For a four-week stretch earlier this season, Johnson, Klatt and the “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show crew featuring Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Urban Meyer and Brady Quinn were turned into the Michigan beat, following the Wolverines in their games against Maryland, Iowa, Indiana and Penn State. Only the Penn State game would normally receive such hype.
No wonder Johnson was loving life this weekend in Southern California.
“I have to give a lot of credit to our Fox executives for being able to put these deals together and give us that variety by bringing two major brands in,” Johnson said. “Michigan and Ohio State, they’re the major brands [now], with Penn State just a notch underneath. And now we get USC and UCLA. As the No. 1 [broadcast] team every week, I think we’re going to have can’t-miss moments.
“The Big Ten, to get this done, it’s groundbreaking. And I know Oklahoma and Texas went to the SEC, but you can kind of understand that. USC and UCLA coming to the Big Ten? Come on.”
On Saturday, for the first time this season, Fox chose to move Johnson and Klatt out of the “Big Noon Kickoff” between Texas Christian and Baylor and into the prime-time affair at the Rose Bowl.
Klatt lives in the Los Angeles area. Beyond the personal convenience, he knows this is going to be big, not just for Fox but for the sport he loves.
“I don’t want to disparage the noon slot, because I can tell you right now, I am incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to build,” Klatt said. “Put very simply, we have created a third premium TV window for college football that didn’t exist prior. And I can’t wait to continue to build a legacy for ‘Big Noon.’
“Having said that, we are approaching with clear eyes that sometimes our marquee match is going to be involving USC and UCLA and we’ll need to shift out of that slot and come here to the West Coast and call the game that’s a little bit later in the day. I think the contracts will reflect that.”
Saturday night’s heart-pounding show under the lights in Pasadena — USC outlasted UCLA 48-45 to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Conference championship game and bolster its College Football Playoff hopes — was an emphatic validation of Fox’s and the Big Ten’s daring heist of the L.A. schools from the Pac-12.
Lincoln Riley said USC’s lofty aim this season was to win a national title, and the Trojans’ hopes remain on track after a 48-45 victory over UCLA.
Sure, they would have pursued it even if USC and UCLA hadn’t both tasted the top 10 this season, but now that coach Lincoln Riley has remade the Trojans in one season and Chip Kelly has brought the Bruins back to respectability in his fifth season as their coach, the move feels even more meant to be.
“Perfect timing,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Klatt did not talk much about the Big Ten’s future during Saturday night’s broadcast. All week, it seemed as if everyone, particularly in Westwood, was tiptoeing around looking toward these rivals’ future together, erasing their debts and battling new conference brethren from Lincoln, Neb., to Piscataway, N.J. With the University of California regents continuing to evaluate the merits of UCLA’s move, the quiet made sense.
But there should be a lot to be excited about from the schools’ perspectives.
“When you look at the exposure and the kickoff times they will now experience versus what they’ve been exposed to over the last few years, it’s obviously advantageous for them,” Klatt said.
On Saturday night, Klatt, sensing that the nation had not seen nearly enough of USC star quarterback Caleb Williams, spent much of the second half stumping for him as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. (Williams should be the Heisman front-runner after putting up 503 total yards and three touchdowns in USC’s biggest game to date.)
The nation is about to see a lot more of the exciting brand of football that Riley and Kelly have brought to L.A. — but perhaps with a smidge more defense?
Think about it: Any time USC in particular is playing on the road in the Big Ten, it will be a more compelling “Big Noon Kickoff” offering than, say, the Buckeyes and Hoosiers. Plus, as part of the Big Ten’s historic new media rights deal, NBC and CBS will also get to enjoy the fresh West Coast flavor every Saturday.
“These schools are in a different realm, a different dimension,” Johnson said. “USC and UCLA, playing in the Midwest, in the winter … and then you have the Midwestern teams coming to play at USC and UCLA in the winter, in the sun, in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains or in South-Central L.A. Man, this is going to be must-see TV.”
As Johnson and Klatt closed out Saturday night’s broadcast, they rightfully looked ahead to the No. 2-No. 3 showdown between Ohio State and Michigan.
USC-UCLA will never match the hype of “The Game” as Big Ten members, but Saturday night’s captivating performance was the first step toward bringing the rivalry routinely back into the national consciousness, where it belongs.
Keep Tennessee fans in your thoughts today. The Volunteers suffered one of the most debilitating losses that I can remember, given the stakes, falling 63-38 at South Carolina on Saturday.
No. 5 Tennessee entered the weekend seeming like a lock to finish 11-1 and slide neatly into the playoff by season’s end. Instead, the Volunteers made South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler look like the Heisman Trophy candidate he was supposed to be under Riley at Oklahoma.
Tennessee’s collapse certainly cleared up the playoff picture for USC. Beat Notre Dame and likely Oregon the next two weeks and the Trojans will be deservedly playoff-bound.
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