Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Orange Bowl's Sad, Sorry Descent Into Irrelevance

If you love the history and tradition of college football, Wednesday’s Orange Bowl was a tough sight to stomach.

2012 orange bowl
The game matched the champions of the Big East and the ACC – the combined rankings put it behind the Cotton, Capital One and Outback bowls and the interest level put it far behind the Champs Sports and Alamo bowls. The game was played before at least 8,000 empty seats in Sun Life Stadium. The thorough beating West Virginia delivered to Clemson – West Virginia was up to 63 points halfway through the third quarter before shutting it down – resulted in what will likely be the lowest-rated major bowl game, BCS or otherwise, in history.

It was the end to a stunning fall for what was once college football’s most important game.

Much like the SEC has dominated the sport for almost a decade, college football was dominated by two entities in the 1980s and early 1990s – the old Big 8 (Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado) and major independents (Miami, Notre Dame and Florida State). The conclusion to the college season every year for 15 years took place in Miami and the results were legendary.

Starting with Clemson’s victory to seal a national title in the 1982 game and ending with Nebraska claiming its first under Tom Osborne in the 1995 edition, the Orange Bowl was THE game. The Rose Bowl maintained its place as the Granddaddy of Them All. The Cotton and Sugar bowls appealed largely to regional audiences with its SEC and old Southwest Conference tie-ins. The Fiesta Bowl filled in the gaps for years when two independents needed to duke it out for a title – think Miami vs. Penn State or Notre Dame vs. West Virginia.

But year after year, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that the national championship would be decided in the Orange Bowl. Beyond just crowing a champion, the Orange Bowl provided college football fans with iconic memories and moments that still reverberate through the college football landscape.

It began when Miami defeated Nebraska 31-30 to win the 1984 national championship in a game still hailed by many who watched it as the greatest game ever played. If nothing else, Tom Osborne’s decision to go for 2 in the waning seconds – eschewing a tie that almost certainly would’ve wrapped a national title – earned him universal praise and is certainly regarded as the gutsiest coaching decision ever made.

As the years went by, the memories kept coming. There was the epic Oklahoma/Miami showdown, overshadowed by a suspended Brian Bosworth watching helplessly from the sideline. There was Notre Dame trying to lay claim to a national title by whipping Colorado, only to be denied when Miami won the Sugar Bowl. The following year, Notre Dame and Colorado staged another classic, defined when Rocket Ismail’s late punt return touchdown was negated by a very controversial (to say the least) holding call.

The Orange Bowl’s Big 8 tie-in concluded with two of the most memorable bowl games in history. In the 1994 edition, heavy favorite Florida State won Bobby Bowden’s first title with a thrilling 18-16 win over Nebraska. The following year, Tom Osborne and Nebraska finally exorcised its Miami demons by running over the Hurricanes in a stirring 24-17 victory that served as the launching point for Nebraska’s late-90s dynasty.

The 1995 season, and the new Bowl Alliance, ended the Big 8 tie-in. The first post-Big 8 Orange Bowl featured top ten teams in Florida State and Notre Dame. Despite the name brands and close contest, the game was eclipsed by the following night’s Fiesta Bowl and empty seats were clearly visible. The descent had begun.

The next year, the game moved to the Dolphins home stadium from the venerable Orange Bowl and the empty seats grew in number. A disappointed Nebraska fanbase – the team had lost its national title hopes in the first Big 12 title game – declined to show up and the New Year’s Eve Orange Bowl become notable for what it wasn’t – important. Except for years when the title game rotated to the Miami, the Orange Bowl was almost always the least attractive major bowl.

After the Big East defections of Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami, the Orange Bowl made a disastrous decision that has effectively sunk the game – they made a pact to take the ACC champion in years when they didn’t make the BCS title game. Banking on Miami and Florida State to rule the conference, neither team has played in the game since the deal was announced in 2006. Instead, it has been a parade of mediocre at best teams like Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. To make matters worse, the ACC team has usually been no more than a sparring partner for a vastly superior opponent.

In 2007, Wake Forest was no match for Louisville. In 2008, Virginia Tech couldn’t beat Kansas. In 2010, Georgia Tech barely gave Iowa a fight. In 2011, Virginia Tech was blown out by Stanford. In 2012, Clemson was embarrassed by West Virginia.

As we look forward to the next iteration of the BCS, there are many questions and concerns surrounding the BCS and the bowl games. Clearly, in a tough economy, fans are being thriftier when it comes to bowl trips. Adding to that pressure to travel are games asininely scheduled to take place well after New Year’s, when school is back in session and adults are back to work.

The chatter about what the next BCS system looks like has already started with rumors floating from a four-team playoff within the bowls, the removal of AQ status and a plus-one game after the traditional bowls.

Whatever the next iteration is, the Orange Bowl needs help. It cannot keep the ACC tie-in. It cannot keep playing on Jan. 4th. It cannot continue to be irrelevant. It needs name brands. It needs Notre Dame. It needs SEC and Big Ten schools. It needs teams in the top 10. It needs help.

Last night’s Orange Bowl brought to mind another sad descent – the Cotton Bowl. In the final Cotton Bowl with the Southwest Conference tie-in, USC led by Keyshawn Johnson put an unholy beatdown on Texas Tech. The Cotton Bowl faded into obscurity, rebounding only recently thanks to strong SEC and Big 12 tie-ins, a great TV partner in Fox and the deep pockets of Jerry Jones to provide the game with a state-of-the-art home.

On Friday night, the non-BCS Cotton Bowl will match two top 10 teams in front of more than 80,000 fans watched by a large network television audience. The Orange Bowl will look, and sigh.

“That used to be me.”

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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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