In Defense of Bowl Games, and Sitting Them Out
December 26, 2016 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
Bowl games have always held a great importance as swan songs for a season and some of the greatest, most-anticipated games in a college football calendar. That will never change.
However, in the course of modern college football history, starting in the mid-to-late 1990s, the significance of what it meant to be a bowl team changed irrevocably. In 1995, when all cable was still basic, there were 18 bowl games to close out that season. Ten years later, 28 bowls were the final games of the season ruled by Vince Young's Texas and Reggie Bush's Southern Cal.
Then, last year, there were a whopping 40 bowls (not including the playoff title game), a number that motivated the NCAA to put a moratorium in place on new bowl games.
Where it used to be that bowls were a reward for winning your smaller conference or being about top-40 team or better, now you can generally achieve bowl eligibility in any league by getting to 6-6.
But I'm actually not here to condemn bowl games. In fact, with no irony or snark at all, I really like being able to watch a upper-tier MAC or Conference USA team I haven't seen before play on a random weekday afternoon or evening in December.
And apparently, enough of you do, as well, or else ESPN wouldn't keep televising games from teams and conferences that would look extremely out of place on a regular-season primetime Saturday (or even Thursday) broadcast.
Sure, 6-6 or even 5-7 teams making bowls spawns well-deserved punchlines, but they're ones that we as fans have more or less just shrugged off over the past 20 years or so. We also didn't really care as the NCAA added a 12th game to the schedule earlier in this millennium, making it easier to achieve bowl eligibility with the most mediocre of records. For many, more college football, within reason, is what we want, so we consume it. For others, we don't have to watch the extra games, so we don't.
I also appreciate the general hierarchy of the bowl season since the playoff era began a couple years ago. It begins on the third Saturday of December, usually with a pretty good matchup between Western teams in the Las Vegas Bowl, and then Group of 5 conferences are usually featured in the time between then and Christmas.
The week between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve belongs mostly to Power 5-conference teams in the 6- to 9-win range, before we hit the main attractions of the New Year's Six and the playoffs.
Even though I'll watch many of these games, there are a couple of immutable points that are ingrained in the bowl season now: 1) it's not really an accomplishment of a great season to make one like it once was and 2) with only a handful of exceptions, these games are simply not going to be as important as the biggest rivalry games or the most pivotal games in a conference championship race.
Maybe some feel differently and still view all of bowl season as the pinnacle of the season, but I simply can't, knowing that two-thirds of the entire division participates in it, including a couple teams who lost more games than they won. In fact, in five years, I'll probably have a greater memory of, say, this year's wild Tennessee/Georgia game between two ultimately disappointing teams than any non-New Year's Six or playoff bowl.
Knowing just how much the significance of a non-New Year's Six and non-playoff/BCS title bowl has dropped in the past 20 years, it was mind-boggling to see Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette come under such fire for electing to sit out their teams' respective bowl games to make preparations for the NFL Draft in the spring, ending their stellar college careers.
Furthermore, it was disingenuous for analysts like ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit and Danny Kanell to be peddling this criticism.
There's not one entity more responsible for the devaluation of the common bowl game than ESPN. Out of the 41 FBS postseason games, 37 are shown on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. The company even owns 12 bowls wholly.
And like I intimated earlier, I'm not even really condemning ESPN for showing so much of a product that people want to watch. But then you can't exactly be stunned when the prestige of the typical bowl wanes, leading a star player to want to sit out the game.
One aspect related to Fournette and McCaffrey that not a lot of people are talking about is just how much they could lose specifically as running backs in their circumstances.
In the NFL, running back is not thought of as a premium position for a lot of teams like it once was, so fewer of them go in the first round than before. Fournette appears to be a fairly sure bet to go high in the first round, but who knows what a new injury might do to that, especially after he's missed time with an ankle injury earlier this season. He'd likely stand to lose a lot of guaranteed money on a rookie contract by dropping deep into the first.
For McCaffrey, his top-round status is more tenuous, and he's shown in mock drafts going in the late first. For him, a slip could mean falling out of the first and its signing bonus millions.
What's more is that we're talking about two players who were just about on TV every week for the last two autumns. We all know what Fournette and McCaffrey are capable of in the college game, and a glorified exhibition for TV cash and lining the coffers of the people who give Herbstreit and Kanell a platform to begin with is not going to really tell us any more about either player.
Bowls are still an extremely fun way to close out a college football season. But let's not try to make them out to be anything they're not.
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