Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 4, 2022

So Many Bowls Until the Ones That Matter

This year’s college bowl schedule is set, and the debate about MLB’s expansion of its postseason to twelve teams, forty percent of major league franchises, suddenly seems positively quaint.  Eighty-four of the 131 schools that compete in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision have received invitations to participate in postseason play.  That number is manifestly not a reflection of how many collegiate programs had seasons worthy of extending, but simply the sum needed to fill both sidelines of the 43 bowl games that now clog the calendar from mid-December to January 9th.  On that evening the College Football Playoff National Championship, the 43rd and final FBS bowl game, will pit the two winners of the Playoff semifinal contests, which this year are the Fiesta and Peach Bowls on New Year’s Eve.

The college football season won’t even end with the crowning of a national champion that Monday, for an additional half-dozen all-star games are scheduled all the way to late February.  The FBS bowl game count also doesn’t include the Celebration Bowl, played the weekend after next, which is the sole bowl game for teams from the Football Championship Subdivision, the next step down on the NCAA’s football program ladder. 

Complaining about the plethora of contests falls firmly into the “get off my lawn” category of griping from those deemed too old to appreciate modern times, for the idea that bowl games were rewards for excellence achieved over a hard-fought regular season schedule while also often serving as traditional matchups between representative of specific conferences long since succumbed, like so much else in sports and life, to the power of money.  The TV cameras may show lots of empty seats during the Hometown Lenders Bahamas Bowl, which kicks off the schedule on December 16th, but the fact that the cameras will be there means far more financially than does paid attendance. 

Still, it is at least worth noting just how rapidly the number of bowl games has increased.  Fifty years ago, or back in the days when younger fans may believe helmets were optional, the entire collegiate postseason schedule consisted of just 11 bowls, all but two of which were played in a four-day stretch culminating on New Year’s Day.  All 11 also had simple two-word names, like Rose Bowl or Sun Bowl.  By thirty years ago the number had only, and gradually, grown to 18, but rapid expansion was at hand, with another ten games added in the ensuing decade.  That number in turn grew to 32 in 2006 and has incremented by two or three every several years since.  All those games of course required sponsors, who understandably wanted recognition.  This year, the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Presented by Stifel and the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl share pride of place for the longest names.  It will be worth tuning in on December 17th and 28th just to see how the grounds crews at SoFi Stadium and Petco Park fit those monikers into the end zones.

While the number of bowl games has mushroomed over the years, the focus for most fans has always been on just a handful.  Half a century ago attention was on the Sugar and Rose Bowls, where the national title, at that time unofficially awarded by the final polls, was at stake.  Second-ranked Oklahoma staked its claim by shutting out #5 Penn State, 14-0 in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve.  But the Sooners’ effort was for naught, as #1 USC throttled Big-10 co-champion and third-ranked Ohio State 42-17 in Pasadena the following afternoon to finish off an undefeated season.

With the College Football Playoff in place, fans have known all season that this year’s semifinals were assigned to the Fiesta and Peach Bowls on New Year’s Eve.  What wasn’t clear until Sunday afternoon’s announcement by the CFP Selection Committee was the identity of the four teams that will play for the national title, thanks to some final weekend chaos.  Southern Cal had climbed into the top four in the committee’s penultimate rankings, poised to give the Pac-12 just the conference’s third participant in the nine years of the playoffs.  But twelfth-ranked Utah, which had already handed the Trojans a one-point regular season loss, roared back from an early 17-3 deficit in the conference championship game after USC quarterback and likely Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams was injured late in the first quarter.  It was all Utah after that, with the 47-24 thrashing opening the door to either Ohio State or Alabama, fourth and fifth in the committee’s rankings.

The door appeared to open even wider on Saturday, when TCU, #3 in the committee’s previous rankings, had to stage a furious fourth quarter rally to force overtime against Kansas State, only to come up short in the extra period, losing the Big-12 championship game 31-28.  The losses by half of the four teams on the playoff list at the start of the weekend set off furious lobbying by both Ohio State and especially by Alabama coach Nick Saban, who perhaps understandably views a spot for the Crimson Tide in the CFP as a given. 

But in what must be counted as at least a mild surprise, the CFP Selection Committee disagreed.  Sunday’s final ranking as expected had undefeated and defending champion Georgia #1, and undefeated Big-10 champ Michigan #2.  The committee then kept TCU at #3 while moving Ohio State into the final spot previously occupied by USC.  Bulldogs versus Buckeyes and Wolverines versus Horned Frogs will be the New Year’s Eve matchups college football fans can look forward to, with the winners squaring off for the national title nine days later.  It’s just too bad there isn’t some way to cut out all the intervening clutter.

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