Most college football “analysts” regurgitate the same over-used, over-simplified platitudes fans have been hearing for decades. Novelty and nuance are rare commodities in the booth.
But Kirk Herbstreit, as a member of both ESPN’s College GameDay crew and that network’s premier broadcast team, is one of the very few color men who inject real insight into his commentary. You may not always like what “Herbie” has to say about your team. But it’s hard not to appreciate his considered, restrained style.
Here, Herbstreit gives you his take on the first College Football Playoff, from the upcoming games (he’ll be calling both the Rose Bowl and the National Title game for ESPN) to the committee’s controversial decision to bump TCU and Baylor in favor of Ohio State. He also mentions his concerns about the future of the sport—though probably not for reasons you’d guess.
PLAYBOY: How would you grade the performance of the playoff committee here in its first year?
HERBSTREIT: I found the whole process to be very entertaining and interesting. I thought releasing their rankings five or six times throughout the year—even though it created a bit of a storm as far as opinions varying across the country—I thought it had a lot of people engaged and talking about the sport. I also think the most important thing it taught everybody is that this is not the old AP or Coaches polls where you could be ranked second or third and be assured to stay in that same spot or move up if you won. I think we learned that a team’s body of work—everything from scheduling to winning conferences championships—comes into play. So I think the committee did an outstanding job.
PLAYBOY: Were you surprised to see OSU end up in that final group ahead of Texas Christian University and Baylor?
HERBSTREIT: No, not necessarily surprised. Some of us at ESPN were engaged with the committee during a seminar back in August, and we learned about their process and got to ask questions like, “How do you define the best? Eyeball test? Resume?” That was important, because guys like me have to be able to convey to fans what the committee’s decision-making process will look like. And over and over again, I heard that non-conference scheduling and winning a conference championship were going to be important.
So I kept saying, be careful of who comes out of the Big Ten. Because listening to that committee, while Virginia Tech was a tough loss for them, what Ohio State did the rest of the year—from the Michigan State win to the Wisconsin win in the Big Ten title game—I wasn’t surprised to see things work out the way they did. A lot of us felt like Ohio State would have the edge. I think their overall strength of schedule was a lot stronger than some other teams’, and the fact they were a true champ and not a co-champ was big.
As we move forward into 2015 and beyond, if I’m commissioner or an athletic director in the Big 12, I’m going to be a big advocate of a lone conference champion because I want to avoid saying we have co-champs. Also, I really think the Big 12 needs to do a better job of scheduling non-conference games. Because the committee is always going to take that into account when it comes down to those final four.
PLAYBOY: Do you think name recognition and popularity played into the committee’s decision?
HERBSTREIT: It’s a fair question for the committee, but not for me. I don’t take into account whether a team has a big name. I know that’s low-hanging fruit for Internet tough guys who think everyone has an agenda, but I don’t go there. I watch a lot of football, and I don’t care about names. So I think if it had been Michigan State or Iowa with Ohio State’s resume, I personally think it would have played out the same way. I think the co-champion and the non-conference scheduling is what hurt TCU and Baylor.
I also want to say that, in terms of this playoff and the committee, the one part of this that’s not great is that when we raise one team up, we have to almost put down another team. And that to me is the toughest part about this. I can make a very strong case for any of those three teams—Ohio State, TCU, or Baylor. They’ve all had great seasons.
PLAYBOY: Looking forward to those playoff games, how do you think Oregon and Florida State will match up?
HERBSTREIT: Obviously the big story is last year’s Heisman winner versus this year’s. Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota. You’ve also got an Oregon team that’s always trying to show they can play on the big stage with the big teams. I think there’s still a lack of respect nationally—not in the Pacific Northwest or Pac 12, but nationally. They’ve been in some big games on big stages where they lost. And I think people think they struggle with a physical matchup, so I know they’re trying to push past that.
And then you’ve got Florida State. This team has been quite a story this year—always right on the edge of defeat and then Jameis and the defense find a way to win. I know a lot of people see them losing big, but I’ve got a weird feeling that they’re going to play their best game against Oregon. For the first time this season, I think they come in as an underdog. They’ve always been the favorites, and I think they’ve struggled with motivation as defending champs. I think they’ve lacked passion and focus early in games against inferior teams, but I think this will be a game where they can embrace that underdog role, and they’ll be chippy. I’ll be surprised if they don’t come out strong.
PLAYBOY: How about Alabama and Ohio State?
HERBSTREIT: I think the headline in this game is [Ohio State Coach Urban] Meyer versus [Alabama Coach Nick] Saban. These two are going at it again after their old battles in the SEC. I think that’s the most intriguing thing about it.
Getting closer to the teams, I think the knee-jerk reaction is to think of big bad Alabama pounding the football. But that’s not really who they are this year. They like to spread teams out, and they have the best wide receiver in the country in Amari Cooper. [Quarterback] Blake Simms runs, he plays alive. But they can still be physical.
Ohio State’s strength is their defensive line, led be Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett. Those guys will have to play out of their minds. When Bama has struggled this, against LSU or Arkansas, it’s because those team’s D lines handled the run game. So that’ll be big for Ohio State’s chances. On the other side, you’ve got Cardale Jones playing QB for the Buckeyes. I think their wide receivers will be the best group Bama has faced all year. But will Cardale Jones’s offensive line give him time to operate? I think that’s the big question, because Bama has had issues defending the deep ball. But whether Cardale Jones has time to hit receivers deep? That will be big.
PLAYBOY: What would you say is the biggest story of the season, apart from the new playoff?
HERBSTREIT: The big story for me continues to be the way this game is trending toward offense—to a disturbing level, in my opinion. There are weeks where I feel like college football has become arena football. So I wouldn’t mind seeing a 10-second rule implemented to give defenses more time. Right now, they just can’t get their personnel out there in time, or get their plays called. The offense has a huge advantage, and defensive coordinators are basically a non-factor. As a guy who’s just a fan of the game, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I’m not sure 85 and 90 snaps a game and this crazy tempo—I don’t know if that’s where we want to continue to go with the sport.
PLAYBOY: What was your first encounter with Playboy?
HERBSTREIT: Oh man. I was probably 13 or 14 years old. I think a friend of mine’s dad had a collection my buddy found. I think that’s probably a pretty common story for guys from my generation—finding a friend’s dad’s stash. Obviously I was blown away by what I saw. (Laughs)
PLAYBOY: What movie scared you most as a kid?
HERBSTREIT: Halloween. I’m not a scary movie guy, to this day. But Halloween really scared me.
PLAYBOY: What’s your pop-culture blind spot?
HERBSTREIT: You know what? Music. I love music, but I can name very few popular artists. If I know a song, I don’t know anything about it. My friends are embarrassed for me, but I just don’t get caught up in who the performer is. Even back in college guys would make fun of me for that. I just have never paid attention to who’s singing or who the band is.
PLAYBOY: Let’s pretend you’re on death row: What’s your last meal?
HERBSTREIT: A Thanksgiving-style meal. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing. That kind of thing.
PLAYBOY: What’s the first song you knew all the words to?
HERBSTREIT: Probably one of the Michael Jackson songs. I was a big fan. I would probably say “Thriller.”
PLAYBOY: What was your first car?
HERBSTREIT: Toyota Celica. 1978. My sophomore year of high school I burst my appendix and almost died. That was 1985. I was hospitalized, and it wasn’t looking good. Afterward I lost a ton of weight, and my mom got me this car, a stick shift. I had no idea how to drive one, so I had to learn. I loved that car.
PLAYBOY: What’s the biggest lie you ever told?
HERBSTREIT: My mom had a match collection, and when I was seven or eight I thought it was interesting to get the matches out and light them in my garage with my buddies. My mom collected them from all over the country, and she had them in this big glass jug. She must have recognized the jug was getting lower because she asked my brother and sister and I, and I lied and said no. (Laughing.) She caught me red handed, and she whipped my butt.