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ABC, ESPN Get College Gridiron Gratification

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The 2008 NCAA college football campaign was a ratings bonanza for the ESPN family, as year-over-year gains at ABC more than made up for a slight dip at the cable network.

Over the course of its 33-game schedule, ABC delivered an average 6.27 million total viewers, per Nielsen ratings data, up 7.1 percent versus the 2007 season. ABC dominated the field with its slate of 13 Saturday Night Football broadcasts, averaging 8 million viewers, making the weekly matchup the most-watched college football window on television.

Thanks to a stronger schedule, ABC’s Saturday night showcase outdrew its 2007 lineup by 24.2 percent. The network served up the fifth-largest college football audience in TV history on Nov. 1, as 12.2 million fans tuned in to watch No. 7 Texas Tech unseat top-ranked Texas 39-33, on a last-second 28-yard touchdown pass from Red Raiders’ quarterback Graham Harrell to wideout Michael Crabtree.

ESPN and ESPN2 also enjoyed a strong showing, as the flagship sports net averaged 2.56 million viewers for 69 college football telecasts, down 3 percent versus the prior year, while sibling ESPN2 was up slightly (0.5 percent) with 1.35 million viewers in 63 games.

The game that drew ESPN’s biggest audience this season was the Sept. 6 Miami-Florida grudge match, which scared up 6.95 million viewers. (That the game was a blowout, with the No. 5 Gators easily dispatching the Hurricanes 26-3, is testament to the staying power of the teams’ bitter rivalry, which dates back to 1938.)

Elsewhere on the dial, CBS averaged 5.1 million viewers over 18 telecasts, down 4.7 percent versus last season. The broadcaster boasted the year’s most-watched college football game, serving up 15.1 million viewers Dec. 6 with its coverage of the SEC Championship Game. The Gators knocked No. 1 Alabama out of contention for the BCS National Championship Game by a 31-20 margin, in what was also the highest-rated non-bowl game since 2006.

And while Notre Dame endured another miserable season, going 6-6 and falling to the likes of lowly Syracuse (and at home, no less), the Fighting Irish continued to be something of a lucky charm for NBC, which carried six games and averaged 3.2 million viewers, an increase of 21.3 percent versus its seven-game load a year ago.