Does any organized sport have a weirder postseason than college football? I’m not talking about the “Football Championship Subdivision” (or whatever the former Division 1-AA is being called this year), where the season ends and the best teams immediately begin playing a month-long tournament. I’m talking about the NCAA’s major and mid-major conferences, which only allow four schools to compete in a skimpy little playoff that takes place weeks after the end of the regular season. The rest of the teams scatter into bowl games that amount to glorified exhibitions, with no real stakes beyond regional pride.
Each year, sportswriters across the country crank out columns griping about how much they hate “bowl season.” For the better part of two weeks, every day the ESPN family of networks features anywhere from one to a half dozen of these largely meaningless games, often featuring teams with records hovering around .500. It’s silly, some say—a waste of cable-casting time and talent.
I can’t say I disagree with the gist of those arguments. But I still look forward to bowl season every year, and I get a little melancholy when it ends. This is partly because I love college football, which is my second-favorite league sport after Major League Baseball. I vastly prefer the college games to the NFL, and would almost always rather watch two 6-6 universities play than any two pro teams. I also think that the case against the bowl boom has become a kind of unexamined conventional wisdom within sports journalism and even sports fandom and that there are plenty of reasons—beyond tradition and inertia—for the NCAA to keep bowling.
Here are the main complaints levied against bowl season with my rebuttals.
Because there are a lot of bowl games to fill, and because the host cities and ESPN alike want to keep as many large universities involved as possible, the standards for “a good year” have become laughably low, allowing teams that go 6-6 to participate—and even teams that go 5-7, provided that they have a high academic rating. For the 2016-17 bowls, only 75 percent of the teams had a winning record during the regular season, which is admittedly kind of crazy. The first game of this year’s bowl cycle, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, pitted the 8-4 New Mexico Lobos against the 6-6 University Of Texas At San Antonio Roadrunners, which outside of a Looney Tunes cartoon would hardly constitute a clash of the titans.
But there’s an old sportscaster cliché that we have to “throw the records out” when teams meet in a key matchup, and when it comes to the bowls, that’s especially true. Every year, the so-called power conferences see some of their most respected colleges get unexpectedly trounced by smaller schools. And often bowl season provides an overdue showcase for players and teams who rarely get a look outside their own communities. Similar to the way that the Olympics can make household names out of talented amateurs every four years, so, too, can the bowls draw attention to an institution like Western Michigan, which has become a favorite of NCAA football fans over the past few postseasons because of its quirky slogans (“ROW THE BOAT!”) and can-do spirit of Coach P.J. Fleck.
One of this year’s most entertaining games was the Dollar General Bowl, a close, interception-heavy matchup between the now 10-3 Troy Trojans and 8-6 Ohio Bobcats. They are hardly perennial powerhouses, but both of these teams had good years and deserved to be seen. Plus, a big part of the fun of bowl season comes from watching games with a laptop handy, to look up everything from the history of some small college town to the story of teams’ names and mascots. Watching the Zaxby’s Heart Of Dallas Bowl last week led me to research the fascinating and contentious origins of the North Texas Mean Green. That alone was worth the time I spent on the game.
It used to be that bowls were held almost exclusively in sunny climes and in luxury resort towns—and almost entirely on and immediately around New Year’s Day—to entice fans of the participating schools to fill the stands as part of a post-Christmas vacation. These days, it’s more common to see half-empty stadiums in chilly Boise or Shreveport around Christmastime, because the games aren’t really geared toward paying customers any more. It doesn’t matter much to ESPN whether or not fans interrupt their family gatherings to walk through the turnstiles, so long as the people sitting in their cozy living rooms tune in between all the wrapping and unwrapping. These contests are primarily airtime fillers, during an otherwise fallow part of the annual TV calendar.
To which I say, so what? It’s nice to have something innocuous and undemanding to put on in the background when the relatives come for a visit—something that can be ignored when the conversation is lively but also leaned on when there’s a lull. And with no new episodes of sitcoms or dramas filling up the DVR, it’s also nice to have a daily go-to answer for, “What’s on tonight?” It doesn’t really matter who’s playing. What’s on is football, in games that always have the potential to feature spectacular finishes or must-see plays.
Against Memphis in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl, for example, Western Kentucky dialed up one nifty bit of “trickeration” after another, including a fake take-a-knee at the end of the first half that turned into a 53-yard gain. And the St. Petersburg Bowl ended on a blocked field goal, securing Mississippi State’s 17-16 win over Miami (Ohio). Not bad TV for a lazy December 26 afternoon.
As someone who once wrote an entire A.V. Club Inventory about defunct bowl games, I am absolutely nostalgic for the days when we watched the Bluebonnet Bowl and the Cherry Bowl instead of the AutoNation CureBowl and the Dollar General Bowl. The appending of sponsor names to the front of a bowl has gotten so bad that some games don’t even bother with keeping the more traditional part of the name (as in the Camping World Independence Bowl) and instead just use the sponsor’s exclusively (as in the TaxSlayer Bowl).
On the other hand, hasn’t this been going on for so long now that the idiotic names are part of the fun? There’s a certain amount of sheepish joy in answering the question, “What are you watching?” with, “The Belk Bowl.” (Also, it’s a kick to say “Belk Bowl,” especially if you say it in a funny voice. I recommend Droopy.) The main reason to complain about the likes of the Quick Lane Bowl is that the ridiculousness of the name sounds like a self-evident indictment of bowl proliferation. If you think there are too many of these games, it sounds pretty persuasive to say, “Do we need a Marmot Boca Raton Bowl?”
But while I’d agree that we’ve probably reached Peak Bowl, I actually don’t think we’ve overshot the mark. Maybe it’s because I can’t get enough college football, but I’d like to see more of it on ESPN and its related networks in December—perhaps not more games between teams with .500 records, but definitely more of those lower-division tournaments that currently get consigned to streaming-only ESPN3. (In fact, to my mind the best argument against bowl season is that it’s not a proper playoff; I would definitely ditch the Outback Bowl for a more March Madness-like postseason.)
Much of the appeal of NCAA football is tied to saturation. Unlike the NFL, which sometimes won’t show its best weekly games to a general audience due to regionality, there’s hardly ever a major college contest that’s not on broadcast TV or basic cable. Comparing the surplus of quality football on Saturdays to the stingy allotment on Sundays has become an embarrassment to the NFL, frankly. So why shouldn’t the NCAA take a victory lap in December? Heck, I’d like to see the NCAA affiliates stop moving college bowl games out of the way of the NFL—as they did this year, when Sunday, January 1, went bowl-less due to the pros.
The truth is that right now, for a number of reasons, the college game is superior to the pro game. The hits are harder, the strategies are more diverse, the pageantry and tradition is grander, and even the broadcast teams tend to be stronger. (We will miss you, Verne Lundquist.)
Granted, there was some hubbub this season over star players like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Louisiana State University’s Leonard Fournette choosing to sit out their teams’ bowls to preserve their bodies for the upcoming NFL draft—but in a way that speaks to how rugged and action-packed a game can be when the overwhelming majority of the players aren’t going to go pro. The violence of football is concerning at all levels, and there are important conversations to be had about how much leeway (and money) athletics programs get at major universities. But as a piece of televised entertainment, NCAA ball is still fairly winning; and the bowls capture a lot of that by showing these kids as kids, enjoying their downtime in Florida or California before appearing in what may be their last-ever organized game.
So for me it’s not a matter of, “Might as well watch a bowl game” when late December rolls around. Maybe I’m the only person in America who says, “All right, time for the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl!” But I do say it, and with gusto.