Sideline reporters are essential to any college football or basketball broadcast. They provide injury updates when players go down, interview coaches at half-time and post-game and, most importantly, search for the stories that keep viewers engaged throughout. As we enter the second half of the college football season, we caught up with CBS Sports Network sideline reporter John Schriffen to discuss the storylines he thinks are the biggest, the best story he has seen this year and more.
This is the second part of our interview with John, the first, on starting his career, his favorite college atmospheres and more can be found here. He’ll be on the sidelines this weekend when San Diego State takes on San Jose State in Mountain West action at 10:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. (Editor’s note: This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).
CBS Local Sports: As we touched on before, part of your job is finding those intriguing storylines and anecdotes for games. When you look at college football as a whole this season, what storylines have stood out to you the most?
John Schriffen: The storyline that I think I’ve noticed the most from a sidelines perspective is the teams that have the most depth are the teams that are the most consistent. Look at the Clemson-Syracuse game. You have a quarterback that goes down, and Clemson’s backup quarterback comes in and still wins the game. At Alabama, you had the same thing this weekend. Tua (Tagovailoa) goes down, but ‘Bama is so stacked that they’re able to keep rolling. Even San Diego State. They’re still without their starting quarterback and starting running back, and yet they’re 5-1 on the season.
Injuries are going to happen to every team across the board, but the best teams and the teams that are the most consistent are the teams that are prepared to have a guy step right in and play right away. In college football, that is rare, because a lot of times you have a guy that is your starter and you’re depending on him and when he goes down, teams struggle. But, the good teams are the ones that keep going when the injury bug happens.
CBS Local Sports: On the injury front, the NCAA made some rule changes to try and make the game safer, notably allowing players to fair catch kicks and have the ball brought out to the 25. What do you think of the rule, and what difference do you think it’s made this season?
John Schriffen: From the player safety aspect of it, you can tell right away that people are not bringing the ball out of the end zone as much anymore. If it’s maybe a yard or two deep and it’s late in the game and they need a big play, maybe you’ll see it. But, for the most part, if it’s near the end zone, I’ve seen most teams just not even field it and just let the ball go out of the back of the end zone.
Most guys aren’t even coming close, because they don’t want to risk it. Running it from your own end zone out to the 25-yard-line is very hard to do in college football. So, if you can get it at the 25, most teams are going to take that. Basically, what’s happening is, you’re eliminating most of the collisions that we have been seeing happening over the past few years. Once you eliminate those collisions, you’re limiting the chances of head injuries, which is what most people are trying to take out of the game.
You have taken away some of the excitement of the kickoff, but I think if you improve the player safety, it has been a good thing. Players are safer, and you’re not seeing as many run outs coming out of the end zone.
CBS Local Sports: What’s the most interesting story that you’ve come across while preparing for a game this year?
John Schriffen: The most interesting story I found was in the Virginia Tech-Old Dominion game. The game is at Old Dominion, and ODU and Virginia Tech are only about three and a half to four hours away from each other. But, realistically, in the college football landscape, they are worlds apart. Virginia Tech is in a Power 5 conference, they dominate the state of Virginia, and they get the best recruits. In that area of Norfolk, Virginia where Old Dominion is, they get some of the best players to go to Virginia Tech.
So, Virginia Tech is playing at Old Dominion for the first time ever in the history of the program. Old Dominion has not won a game all season, and everyone thinks this game is supposed to be a blowout. The night before the game, we talk to the Old Dominion head coach and he basically lays out the four steps for the anatomy of an upset. We’re looking at each other saying, alright sure, you have to tell your guys something. But, he really believed his team had a chance to pull off a win against Virginia Tech that nobody though was possible.
We get into the game, he has the starting quarterback out there, and they don’t produce much on the first possession. So, on the next drive he puts in the backup quarterback, and he leads the team down the field to a touchdown. He never came out of the game after that, matching scores the entire way with the Hokies.
Old Dominion’s stadium only holds about 20,000 people so it’s an intimate atmosphere and you could feel the nerves building from the Virginia Tech sideline every time ODU would score and they wouldn’t go away. Eventually, ODU pulls off the upset, and to see it come full circle, with the coaches’ plan for the anatomy of an upset was incredible.
CBS Local Sports: So, you’re headed out to San Diego State this weekend as they play a rebuilding San Jose State team, which looks like a relatively easy win for the Aztecs. For a game like this, how do you find the storylines that keep people invested in the game?
John Schriffen: This is going to be a tough one because most of the people that are tuning into this game may not be familiar with San Jose State. So, I think what you have to do is tell the story of San Jose State and how they are rebuilding. It’s interesting, because San Jose State’s head coach (Brent Brennan) has said that he wants to build his program off of what Rocky Long has done at San Diego State, because they’re both essentially commuter schools competing against Power 5 schools for recruits because California is such a recruiting hotbed.
He wants his program to be like San Diego State, which is such an interesting storyline in this game. The question is, how do you get there?
You also have to focus on individual players in games like this. A guy like Ty Cottrell, who’s a receiver for San Jose State. He’s from Oceanside, California, and he wants to eventually give back to his community and be a firefighter in San Diego County. You have to give viewers a taste of who they are. It’s not just a team that hasn’t won a game this season. It’s a bunch of guys that love the game and have interesting stories about them that you can relate to viewers to make them care about the game.
CBS Local Sports: The Aztecs are part of a three-team mash-up at the top of the West division in the MWC, with Fresno State and Hawai’i. Who do you think comes out of that group as the division winner?
John Schriffen: It’s going to be fun down the stretch, which is why I love covering Mountain West football. I’ve seen Hawai’i, having covered their very first game of the year against Colorado State, and Nick Rolovich has really turned that program around with the run-and-shoot offense. Hawai’i has been the sleeper team of the entire division, because I don’t think people expected much out of them this year.
Fresno State has the toughest road, because if you look at their schedule down the stretch, they play Hawai’i, at Boise State and then San Diego State. They have to go through three of the toughest teams in the Mountain West.
Then, if you look at San Diego State, head coach Rocky Long will tell you: ‘We’re so young, I don’t even know what to expect out of this team week to week. So, yes even though we have a history of winning and beating ranked teams, next week we could lay an egg.’ To try and say which team is going to come out on top, nobody knows. That’s what I think is so fun about the Mountain West this year.