The primetime network TV slate this week is full of heavyweight matchups. ABC has the elite quarterback duel of Tanner Mordecai of Wisconsin facing off against Cameron Ward of Washington State. CBS has Mountain West power San Diego State facing off against a UCLA squad fresh off a 9-win season. NBC has...a Charlotte team that went 3-9 last year traveling to the defending Duke's Mayo Bowl champions Maryland.
While several college football fans will write off Charlotte versus Maryland, this is Charlotte's biggest game ever. Allow me to explain.
The second incarnation of the Charlotte 49ers program is in its 11th season after returning from a 65-year hiatus in 2013. The 49ers moved up to FBS in 2015, but the limelight evaded the 49ers for most of the program's history.
Over the years, CBS Sports Network showcased Charlotte in weeknight time slots, but these games, including their thrilling upset of Duke in 2021, were afterthoughts to most of the country due to CBS Sports Network's low carriage numbers.
As of this week, these two games are Charlotte's most-watched games of all time according to SportsMediaWatch.com:
- 2019 Bahamas Bowl versus Buffalo: 0.55 rating, 739,000 viewers
- September 12, 2020: Charlotte @ App State: 0.24 rating, 408,000 viewers
There are only three games that rival the importance of Charlotte's NBC closeup. In 2019, the 49ers traveled to Clemson to take on the #1-ranked Tigers. However, the ACC Network broadcasted this game, and the 49ers entered as a 41.5 point underdogs. As a result, most of the country ignored this game.
Later that year, Charlotte faced Marshall with bowl eligibility at stake on November 23, but again, the country overlooked this game. To make matters worse, the 49ers' Bahamas Bowl-clinching victory was on one of college football's most prestigious broadcasters, Facebook Live.
It may be bizarre to say an early September paycheck game has more importance than a school's first bowl appearance. However, the argument has ground. While a monumental milestone for the program, the 2019 Bahamas Bowl really did not capture the nation's attention despite being the only bowl on television when it aired. The 2:00 PM kickoff on a Friday afternoon doomed the bowl's exposure from the start.
This Saturday, Charlotte can capture the country's attention if they keep the game close against Maryland. The closest comparison to this weekend's 49ers-Terrapins game is the 2019 Buffalo-Penn State game, which Fox aired on its 8:00 PM ET slot. The game drew strong viewership, with a 1.3 rating and 2.17 million viewers, despite going head-to-head with the LSU-Texas game.
In all, the other two network TV primetime games on ABC and Fox feature a total of one ranked team, #19 Wisconsin. Neither game really has national appeal despite both featuring solid programs.
Washington State defeated Wisconsin last year, so an "upset" has little shock value. San Diego State has a long track record of defeating PAC-12 schools, so the same applies.
However, Charlotte is 1-9 against the Power Five, including two losses by over 30 points last year. The Duke team they beat in 2021 for their lone Power Five win went 3-9 that year and winless in the ACC. Charlotte upsetting Maryland would easily be one of the best moments of the college football season.
Instead of scoffing at the fact a team that went 3-9 last season and has only one winning season in 10 years gets an appearance on primetime on network TV.
College football fans must enjoy the moment and cherish an underdog basking in the limelight. As college football nears an era of super leagues, moments like this will become rarer, so enjoy the 49ers' NBC closeup.