ESPN's No. 1 College Football booth team performed a lot like an NFL No. 1 booth team in its maiden voyage on Monday Night Football.
Analyst Kirk Herbstreit and play-by-play man Chris Fowler were sublime covering the Pittsburgh Steelers victory over the New York Giants on Monday, providing insightful, insider commentary with minimum mistakes.
That's what college football fans have come to expect from the duo that usually calls ABC's prime-time college game of the week on Saturday night. But it's worthy of note because of all the issues ESPN has had filling it's booth the last few years and the speculation that surrounded Herbstreit and Fowler potentially making that jump in 2020.
After moving on from Booger McFarland and Joe Tessitore as the Monday Night Football team this offseason, reports emerged that ESPN was considering Herbstreit and Fowler for the prestigious Monday night gig. Ultimately, after striking out in attempts to lure Tony Romo, Peyton Manning and even Al Michaels to lead its booth, ESPN went with Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick as the new NFL No. 1s.
Luckily for all of us wondering how Herbstreit and Fowler would do in the NFL, ESPN had a traditional Monday Night Football doubleheader for Week 1 and gave its top college team the call for the early game.
Herbstreit made the transition seamlessly. His knowledge of the players' strengths and weaknesses was apparent in his quick-reaction commentary and his energy reflected a lifetime analyzing games in packed college football stadiums. He also played to his strengths, slipping in interesting backstories from the players' college years during several points of the game.
Fowler didn't stand out quite as much, but sometimes as a play-by-play man, that's good. He did call Juju Smith-Schuster, Schuster-Smith and had a few other minor slip-ups, but nothing detrimental. He was likewise prepared to call teams he's not as familiar with and his energy matched his teammate's.
It still doesn't seem likely that ESPN would ever move its top college football booth to the NFL. The network just spent $2.25 billion for the broadcast rights to the SEC starting in 2024 and it is heavily invested in the Big Ten, ACC and college football in general. Why ruin a good thing? The answer is ESPN might not have a better option anytime soon and the biggest ad money goes to the NFL.
Romo rebuffed ESPN in free agency this offseason. Manning has reportedly turned down the chance to be ESPN's lead NFL analyst several times. Drew Brees has already signed with NBC for his post-career TV future and Greg Olsen is going with FOX. Philip Rivers has been floated as a potential future lead analyst, but he's unproven and is not nearly as big a name as everyone else mentioned outside of Olsen, who at least has some proven success in the booth from when he's been injured.
That's why it took ESPN so long to decide who would lead its NFL booth. The network wanted to make a splash, struck out and then went with an in-house team of quality professionals who have the qualifications for the role but lack the type of panache someone like Romo creates. Meanwhile, Herbstreit carries a national audience centralized in America's heartland with his Big Ten connections and Fowler has built enough chemistry with him that it just makes sense to keep them together.
That's all conjecture, of course. The reality is ESPN has its No. 1 NFL booth and its No. 1 college football booth filled for 2020 and they feature different people. At the same time, ESPN/ABC are reportedly interested in acquiring more NFL rights in the future, which could open the door to Herbstreit and Fowler. If that does happen, we have proof this college duo is ready to turn pro.