'Tis the season to be jolly -- for this weekend's New Mexico Bowl!
OK, not really.
While I still love the bowl game experience, I fully concede that the century-old business has drifted miles from its original intent. The preponderance of lower-tier, made-for-TV games like this weekend's encompass almost no elements of their more revered counterparts. The outrageous ticket demands placed on schools and the move to more games played well past New Year's make the Sugar and Orange Bowls an easier ticket than most regular-season SEC games.
But most of all, there's the fact that after 13 years of an official national championship game in college football, there's a growing segment of the public that remembers no other way -- and thus, understandably, can't comprehend why the sport continues so adamantly to protect games that have no bearing on said championship.
As I've written before, my seminal moment as a college football fan -- the experience that forever ensured my love affair with this sport -- was traveling with my friends (and seemingly the entire Northwestern student body) to Pasadena for the 1996 Rose Bowl. Bowl games are sports' only postseason event actually geared to the spectators. It's difficult, if not impossible, to follow your team on the road during the NCAA tournament, which is why I've covered many early-round games where the stands are half-empty. Similarly, if your team is a low seed in the NFL playoffs, forget it. You're watching on TV with the rest of us. Even the Super Bowl is played mostly before VIP guests in largely antiseptic stadiums.
But if you're Sean, attending a school with no football team, you're never going to have this experience. And I have certainly noticed the generational divide of which he speaks. Old farts like me remember the days when your team's loftiest goal in any year was to get to a bowl game, and the national championship was just a poll that came out after the bowls, but most anyone under the age of 25 only knows the sport in the BCS era -- which means they've been subjected to 13 years of angst. All they want is a better way to determine the national championship, and the bowls are seen primarily as obstacles.
I do believe the overwhelming majority of fans still get excited about their team's bowl games. Just look around this year: Schools like Stanford, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State sold out their ticket allotments nearly as soon as they were available. Wisconsin and Oregon have sold out their roughly 50,000 combined allotment of tickets for the Rose Bowl. But elsewhere, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Clemson are struggling to sell Sugar and Orange Bowl tickets in part because the games are so devalued that the secondary tickets are much cheaper. Holding the games midweek after New Year's doesn't help. Either way, the schools get stuck with the cost of unused tickets -- a ridiculous business practice for which the bowls are rightly criticized.
You can see the writing on the wall. As the growing generation of BCS-conditioned fans becomes more populous, the reverence for bowls will continue to decline. The much-discussed plus-one might help the Sugar and Orange bowls regain relevance, but eventually, any bowl that doesn't play a role in determining the national champ will become a sideshow, with the notable exception of the Rose, the one game that still holds regional significance in the Midwest and West and which fans still flock to annually. As long as 60-year-old men are still charged with administering the postseason, the bowls have nothing to worry about. Once those people start retiring, though, it could be another story.
I found this year's Heisman race incredibly refreshing for the very reason you state: For once, it seems like the electorate truly sought out the best player, rather than just the best player from the best team. There were certainly contributing factors. For one, the No. 1 team (LSU) didn't have an offensive player in the discussion. Tyrann Mathieu made a late bid, but he was never realistically going to win the thing. Secondly, in recent years that final weekend has held inordinate influence on the final outcome, and RG3 benefited tremendously both from playing and winning that last Saturday while previous front-runners Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson did not.
Keep in mind, though, the three-loss thing is not unprecedented. Florida was 9-3 in 2007 when Tim Tebow won. Texas was 8-3 when Ricky Williams won in 1998, Auburn 8-3 when Bo Jackson won in 1985. But these examples also show how unique Griffin's win was. Tebow and Jackson were household names before their seasons ever began, and Tebow produced 51 touchdowns. Williams broke the NCAA rushing record. While diehard college football fans certainly knew Griffin coming into the year, for most voters, their first exposure to him came that opening night against TCU. And yet despite competing against far more recognizable players like Luck and Richardson, despite playing for a long-irrelevant team, despite that team slipping to 4-3 at one point and never seriously contending in the Big 12, voters still recognized him as most outstanding come day's end. I'd like to think it speaks to a more informed electorate, but it may well be that people really just like
It is staggering that three of the most respected offensive gurus in the sport -- Rodriguez, Leach and Chip Kelly -- will be competing in the same conference next fall. Throw in Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, David Shaw and the like and, all told, nine of the league's 11 coaches (Arizona State doesn't have one yet) come from an offensive background. While it might not be the recipe for winning national championships, that's not realistically on the radar for schools like Arizona and Washington State. They're just trying to make their programs relevant again, get fans in the stands and, hopefully, one day, get to the Rose Bowl. Thanks to the influx of new Pac-12 television money they were able to step up and hire guys with the pedigree to do just that. The one school that bucked the trend, albeit seemingly by accident, was UCLA with Jim Mora, a respected defensive coach. Unfortunately, the fact that Mora has never recruited a player in his life and is utterly unqualified for the job may offset his blitz schemes.
But it is surprising to me as you look at the hires so far not just in the Pac-12, but nationally, just how few come from a defensive background, because the SEC has indeed shown that defense is king. Who would have guessed that Alabama's offensive coordinator (Jim McElwain) would get a head coaching job (Colorado State) before its defensive coordinator (Kirby Smart)? With that in mind, it may be that the conference best poised to eventually end the SEC's run is not the Big 12 or Pac-12 but the oft-maligned Big Ten, where Michigan is taking a defense-first approach with Brady Hoke and Ohio State just hired a guy, Urban Meyer, that has an offensive background but knows well how to construct a dominant defense. The team that eventually beats the SEC champ in a BCS bowl is probably not going to do it by winning 45-42.
Unfortunately I changed it just a week later, mostly because it seemed unfathomable even then that the bowl would take the ACC runner-up. It appears I gave the Sugar Bowl far too much credit.
Of course they'll complain. There would be controversy even this year between Stanford (ranked fourth and 11-1) and Oregon (ranked fifth, 10-2 but beat the Cardinal) for that fourth spot. But the same would be true no matter how much you expand it. If there are two teams in line for the fourth spot, there will be four for the eighth spot, eight for the 16th spot, etc. The NCAA basketball tournament has 37 at-large spots, and still, what's the first thing that happens after the bracket gets announced? Dick Vitale lambastes the committee for leaving out some 19-13 ACC team.
As much as fans love to lament that, "Every other sport has a playoff," you're never going to have a clean, controversy-free system like they do in the pros. In the NFL, NBA and MLB there are a finite number of teams and a straightforward metric for getting in: The division champions and the wild-card teams with the best records go. In college football, you have 120 FBS teams playing just 12-13 games apiece, against varying schedule formats. Oftentimes a two- or three-loss team may be more deserving than a one-loss team. No matter the size of the field, determining the participants is always going to be subjective, whether you're using polls or a selection committee. Therefore there is always going to be disagreement over the choices. Personally, I'll just be comfortable when the debate no longer involves the actual national championship matchup.
For Saturdays, you can't beat West Coast time. I love waking up and getting right into the games, and most of all, the night games end at a reasonable hour. The couple Saturdays I didn't cover a game in October and November I saw more football than I would have in the past. Travel is not ideal for anything east of Texas, but in New York, everywhere was at least a two-hour flight. Here I got to cover three Stanford games in my backyard, and the rest of the Pac-12 is a quick jaunt on Southwest. Soon I'll even have the Big East in my state.
But how on earth does anyone in California follow college basketball during the week? Seriously. I get an earlier start than I used to, but I'm still rarely done working by 4 p.m., when the first games tip-off, and if I go out to dinner with my wife at 6:30, most of the night games are over by the time we get back. I saw more college basketball last weekend in New York (including the Xavier-Cincinnati brawl and Indiana-Kentucky classic) than I had the first month of the season just because it was the first weekend without football. All of which is a long answer to the question that yes, there most definitely is East Coast bias. It's not some sinister thing on the part of the media, but as I've come to learn, everything in this country (sports, news, television, etc.) revolves around East Coast time, and while we in the Pacific time zone have no choice but to adjust accordingly, East Coasters are forgiven for sleeping through those 10:15 ET games. As a big fan of sleep myself, I can't say I blame them.
Speaking of sleeping through games ...
I'm curious myself, because based on my inbox and Twitter, you would think no one outside of the South is going to watch LSU-Alabama II. And yet, I find that very hard to believe, considering the three highest-rated network TV games this year all featured LSU (vs. Alabama on Nov. 5, vs. Arkansas on Nov. 25 and vs. Georgia on Dec. 3). People may say they're tired of the SEC, may think the first game was boring (I disagree), but at the end of the day, we like to see greatness, and no can deny these teams aren't exceptional at what they do. Whether you're tuning in to watch all the future Pro Bowlers running around out there, or because you love watching the Honey Badger, or you just want to pat yourself on the back when it's 9-6 again or, you know, because it's the national freaking championship game, my guess is the game will draw an exceptionally high TV rating.
He's just stating the obvious: If you take away the formal, regulated system we have now for selecting which teams play in the five major bowls, and go back to individual, free-market arrangements, the Rose Bowl will still want to do business with the Big Ten and Pac-12; the Sugar Bowl the SEC; the Fiesta Bowl the Big 12. In fact it's amazing this movement didn't come about sooner. All the conferences ever wanted out of this thing was to stage a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in a bowl. By accentuating it with automatic bids and guaranteed at-large berths, they set themselves up for all the backlash and antitrust scrutiny that ensued. By eliminating AQ berths and stripping all that other stuff away, they wash their hands of it. The bowls themselves take the blame for controversial decisions.
Yet despite the obvious consequence this would create -- that the smaller conferences, no longer guaranteed access to the big-money bowls, will see their appearances evaporate, as evidenced by Boise State's exclusion this year -- many of them still favor eliminating the AQ/non-AQ distinction. It's simply too stigmatizing. Delany hinted at this possibility a year ago, right after TCU earned its bid to the Rose Bowl due to one of many concessions the major conferences made in the last contract.
"The notion that over time, by putting political pressure on, [the non-BCS leagues] are just going to get greater access, more financial reward and more access to the Rose Bowl ... I think you're really testing," he said in response to a comment by WAC commissioner Karl Benson. "I think people who have contributed a lot have, what I call, 'BCS defense fatigue.' ... I'm not sure how much more give there is in the system."
Here we are a year later, and that's exactly what's happening. The big boys are done giving. On the contrary, they're realigning and consolidating and putting faith that the bowls will take care of them, with or without automatic provisions.
That does seem like the next logical move. It would give the conference members in five different time zones. After that, it's on to Greenwich Mean Time. Has Hogwarts gone FBS yet?
The Mailbag will take next week off but come back strong the week after Christmas. So, happy holidays everybody. And enjoy the Famous Potato Bowl.