Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Can We Make The College Football Bowl Season Fun Again?

In 2007, UConn played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte. To a majority of sports writers, this was a meaningless bowl. And it was. Yet, it was also spectacular and one of my fondest sports memories. That doesn’t seem to compute, does it?

As a UConn season ticket holder, the 2007 season was a glorious, magical season. The team won three straight home games during the season – impressive back-to-back-to-back victories over Louisville, USF and Rutgers. It led to UConn’s first Top 25 ranking. It led to UConn playing West Virginia on Thanksgiving weekend in a de facto Big East championship game – we’ll ignore the Pat White-induced trauma that occurred afterwards. UConn’s 9-3 season was rewarded with a trip to Charlotte.

My dad and I made the long road trip down and the experience encapsulated everything that is right with the bowl season. Taking place on Saturday, Dec. 28th, we only had to take one day off – a Friday between Christmas and New Year’s that everyone takes off anyone. We both visited a city neither of us had been to before. We enjoyed downtown Charlotte, took in the sights, enjoyed the local restaurants and bars and learn fun facts – like that cigarettes are insanely cheap in North Carolina (okay, so that was just me).

The morning of the bowl, the front page of the Charlotte Observer alerted everyone to the fact that their fair city had been overrun with UConn fans. Yes, that was the top story in Charlotte. The game day crowd about 53,000 – short of capacity in the Panthers’ NFL stadium – but more than enough to produce a raucous atmosphere of dueling UConn and Wake Forest fans. UConn lost the game but the experience was wonderful. I can say without hint of sarcasm that I had a wonderful time at the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

But in the wake of the destructive force of nature known as the BCS, the bowl games have become easy targets. As if in some faraway past, all bowl games meant something. Here’s a hint – they were always meaningless.

However, meaningless has taken on a derogative term used by hack sportswriters to take down a system they don’t like because it doesn’t fit into the American sports stereotype of a playoff. Look at soccer – MLS is the only soccer league in the world to have extensive playoffs. Does that make it better than the English Premier League? Uh, of course not.

The Rose Bowl, thanks to the dominance of independents like Notre Dame, Miami and Florida State, was rendered completely and totally “meaningless” for the entire decade of the 1980s when it came to crowning a national champion. Was this year’s Rose Bowl somehow more “meaningless”?

The problem that faces college football in the very near future is the crumbling of a postseason system that has supported it for 100 years. Fans want a playoff and bowl games, but anyone with a firm grasp on reality knows that isn’t going to happen.

While everyone focuses on the top teams – a handful at most in any given year – that is in the national title hunt, there are 115 other college football teams each year playing for less greater stakes. In 2007, UConn playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Just like Louisiana-Lafayette and its fans flocked to the Superdome for this year’s “pointless” New Orleans Bowl. Or how Michigan State’s players celebrated like they had won the Super Bowl after dispatching Georgia in a thoroughly void of meaning Outback Bowl in a half-empty Raymond James Stadium.

College football will never crown a true national champion. There are too many teams playing too few games. Alabama played one team of merit out of conference – a Penn State team that was last seen being drilled by Houston and Wisconsin. Oklahoma State played one team of merit out of conference – and it was Tulsa, not an Arizona team that fired its coach.

Would a playoff solve this problem? It could. But not a four-team playoff and likely not an 8-team playoff. The FCS (I-AA) has expanded its tournament to 20 – will the BCS conference commissioners sign off on a 20-team playoff? In our dreams, maybe. In our reality, never.

The solution, of course, has been there since the beginning. College football fans for 80 years, prior to the BCS, cherished the bowl system. They enjoyed spending the New Year’s holiday in warm locales. But it has morphed into a complete mess – games played on Jan. 4th, minor bowls played on Jan. 8th and a national title game played more than a week after New Year’s Day. How did we get here? Why did we get here?

No matter what people say – we would miss the bowls if they were gone. We would miss watching a glut of college football games over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. We would miss New Year’s Day…oh wait.

We already miss New Year’s Day. When all the games were played on New Year’s Day, fans complained less. It seemed like a simple tradeoff – we only crown a “mythical” national champion but in return you get the absolute #1 sports day of the year.

I want bowl games to matter again. I want to end the “meaningless” talk that surrounds games that actually mean something to the players. (Silly me, thinking about the players)

The solution that has been there since the beginning? Just play one more game. Move the big bowl games back to New Year’s Day. Let the best teams play the best teams from other conferences – what a novel concept! – and then pick the best two.

The BCS and college football power brokers have been doing their damndest over the past 15 years to suck the life out of the sport. Let’s breathe new life into it. Let’s bring New Year’s Day back. Let’s choose those 2 teams in the title game with a better read on who actually belongs.

Let’s have some fun again.

/steps off soapbox

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