Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Rebirth of the College Football Bowl System

In the past, bowl games existed to get people to travel. There were not many of them.

In the present, bowl games exist to get people to stay on their couch. There are many of them.

If the BCS taught us anything – and no, it did not make college football better – it is that the people running the sport have little to no idea what makes the sport great.

sugar bowl 2014
For nearly a century, American sports fans circled January 1 as arguably the best day of the year. It is a quaint, idyllic version of our sports culture but it is also true. In a long ago time of broadcast television domination and the lack of Wi-Fi meant that New Year’s Day became a sacred, shared tradition with the best college football teams playing the other best teams during the holiday season.

Before the BCS started, those in power wanted to hold on that. More specifically, those that ran the bowls knew that to put butts in the seats, you needed to make it easy for them. They couldn’t travel far. They couldn’t take too many days off. They were accommodating.

Then television got involved. It didn’t do anyone at ESPN or ABC or CBS any favors to basically have a ratings death-match every New Year’s Day. Just read this story on ABC and NBC and Notre Dame from December 1992.

So the BCS, for the past 16 years, did two things extremely well. It gave college football a true college football championship game. And it destroyed the bowl system.

Of course, the reality is that the bowl system is extremely healthy – probably even too healthy. By the time we reach the 2014-15 bowl schedule, there will be a robust 39 games played, with #40 being the first true national title game. In an economy where nothing seems to be growing, college football is adding four new bowl games.

But that is not what the general public sees. For years, they witnessed Orange Bowl games on Wednesday nights post-New Year’s played in front of empty seats. They read about declining ratings. They fell asleep at halftime – if they were even tuned in at all – to see LSU and Alabama decide a title in a rematch.

As we entered the 2013 season, many described it as a lame-duck year – the preamble to the fun that starts next year. When the six major bowl games will be played on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. When there will be four teams in a playoff, not two. When the bowl tie-ins change and teams won’t be forced to travel 3,000 miles while their fans are lambasted for not forking over $1500 to follow them.

It turned out that the final year of the BCS was more than a preamble – it was a reminder.

For too long, college football fans had been deprived of great bowl games. You have to go back nearly a decade – to the 2005 season – to find a year when all of the BCS games had a one-score deficit in the fourth quarter.  

There had been great games and great performances, but for the better part of 10 years – not coincidentally, when the dreaded double-hosting model was created – the college football season always seemed to conclude with a whimper.

This year, the stars aligned. Maybe more aptly, the calendar fell into place. Instead of a title game played 10+ days after New Year’s Day, and giving the participating teams close to 50 days off, the title was decided on Jan. 6 – less than a month from Auburn’s and Florida State’s last game.

With New Year’s Day on a Wednesday, it gave us a great progression – the Sugar on Thursday, the Cotton and Orange Bowl on Friday, the NFL over the weekend and the title game on Monday. It was a full week of pure football bliss that may never be recreated again. And thankfully, ESPN won’t be trying again.

I have been skeptical about the four-team college playoff and remain so. I know next year, with the semifinal games played in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, will be just about the best thing that has happened to the sport in 20+ years. Yet I know the decision to give the Sugar Bowl annual exclusivity on New Year’s Night is potential disaster, when the semifinals are played on New Year’s Eve and the following day’s games feel like an afterthought*.

*One playoff game on New Year’s Eve, one playoff game on New Year’s Night. How hard is that??

So yes, a playoff game that kicks off at 4:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve seems counter-productive. But people will watch that night. I know because I saw it.

While at a bar this year to ring in 2014, the place was glued to the television. For the first time I could remember, college football dominated New Year’s Eve – and that wasn’t supposed to happen until next year. Of course, it was Johnny Football that had the place in a trance. After going down by three touchdowns, Johnny Football did Johnny Football things and the bowl season was kicked into overdrive.

Over the course of five BCS games, an entertaining Cotton Bowl and a fun New Year’s Day – even Nebraska felt like throwing 99-yard touchdown passes – the bowl system captivated a football-loving nation.

Thanks in large part to Northern Illinois’ loss in the MAC title game, the BCS got great matchups with stars, brands and storylines. Even the maligned Fiesta Bowl, hampered by slow ticket sales and a national bemusement with UCF, delivered in spades.

The moments now flash through the brain as a montage of greatness. The back and forth struggle in the Rose Bowl. The absurdly bad defense in the Fiesta Bowl. The stunning bravado of Oklahoma. The moxie of Braxton Miller. The screeching voice of Gus Johnson. The frantic final five minutes of BCS history in Pasadena.

The BCS is finally dead, and for that we should celebrate.

But we should tip our hat to the BCS. No, not for the mess it created. And no, not for the college football playoff that finally begins after some 40 years of waiting.

No, we should tip our hat to the BCS for this last week of football.

It reminded us why bowl games exist. Because they're awesome.

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