No one has ever figured out exactly what bowl games are supposed to be, other than a time to hang around a crowded hotel lobby wondering where all of your room keys went, or a place to wear a big button on a badly tailored blazer that says WE'RE NO. 1 IN THE RURAL VOTE, or an occasion to explore all of the mysteriously unknown liquor brands in alumni hospitality suites, or a chance to yell across the field at thousands of underprivileged people who were forced by circumstances to settle for a lesser college education than was enjoyed by yourself and all the other good folks from God's country.
From a football viewpoint, it has never actually been decided whether bowl games constitute the emotional end to the regular season, or if they mark the beginning of the next, or, in fact, if they do not simply sit there as a sort of one-game season all their own. The men who coach the teams that get into postseason play—and there are nowadays about 22 such major teams that do—have definite opinions about this so-called reward. As Texas' Darrell Royal has expressed it, "Bowl games are no fun unless you win."
Originally bowls were just a holiday extravaganza for laughs, promotion and profit, a long trip West or South for train-loads of partygoers and a couple of good teams from different sectors; a postseason intersectional matchup, accent on the post, seeing as how in some cases there could be a delay of 40 days or more (and usually at least a month) between the conclusion of the regular season and New Year's Day.
Objectively speaking, they still are singular extravaganzas, proving nothing for the most part, except that college football is so much fun that it can be televised even in the midst of the pro playoffs and the basketball season. In the past 10 years, however, we have all been spoiled. What has happened is that the big bowl games have staggered into the stimulating position of frequently affecting that great old barroom and coffee-shop debate about who's No. 1. Thus a whole generation of college fans have come to expect one particular bowl game, or the combined results of, say, four of them, to settle the national championship. In the comfort of his own home, then, the American football fan has been able to lean back on New Year's night after all the bowl results are in, and observe, while chewing on a cold drumstick, "Hell, I knowed Alabama was the best all along."
To quickly review what spoiled us and find out where we are in our attitude toward bowls, we have to start with 1963. The Rose Bowl matched No. 1 USC against No. 2 Wisconsin that season and suddenly, for the first time in years, a bowl had something to settle. A year later the Cotton Bowl had No. 1 Texas against No. 2 Navy. In 1969 the Rose had the only game when top-ranked Ohio State met No. 2 USC and O. J. Simpson. And of course in the 1972 Orange Bowl the undefeated champion, Nebraska, went up against the undefeated challenger, Alabama, in what was supposed to be a biggie but turned out to be just another festival for Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover.
These were the years that made the bowls the nearest thing we have to an NCAA championship playoff. Even in years when there has been no direct confrontation between the top two teams, however, the national championship has sometimes been settled in the bowls. Take 1971. Texas was No. 1, but when it lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, Ohio State took over—for about three hours. When the Buckeyes lost to Stanford and Jim Plunkett in the Rose Bowl, the title moved to Nebraska, which nailed it down by beating LSU in the Orange. The point is that the public has come to accept as national champion that team which is ranked No. 1 after the bowls, and when Coach John McKay of USC says that, as he sees it, the game with Ohio State in the Rose Bowl has no bearing on who's No. 1 or No. 101, he is not kidding anyone. Should Ohio State upset USC, the Trojans would probably be voted out of the top spot even though their record. 11-1. would be as good as any in the country.
However, such an event is unlikely. If both teams play their best—and bowl teams rarely do—USC should win by at least three touchdowns. There's that much difference in the Pacific Eight and the Big Ten now. The Buckeyes are out-quicked everywhere by the Trojans, on both sides of the line.
More than one pro scout holds the opinion that USC may have up to 24 players, counting sophomores and everybody, who will make it easily in the NFL, and one of those sophomores, Linebacker Richard Wood, who is big, fast, rangy and a head-hunter, might well be one of the two or three best players in the U.S.—already.
The Trojans beat 11 teams almost laughing, and their schedule was far from an easy one. They run, throw, deceive and hit with an amazing combination of size and speed. If the Buckeyes fall into any early mistakes, a fumble or so, the result could be humiliating. Ohio State must play well with no letup to make it close, and this might happen only if all the other Trojans play as ordinarily as they did against Notre Dame when Tony Davis (or A.D., "anything but Anthony," he says)alone record-booked the Irish with six touchdowns.
Aside from all the fine people in Ohio, those who will be rooting the hardest for the Buckeyes will be the fine people in Oklahoma, provided the Sooners do what is generally expected of them the day before against Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. If USC somehow loses, the chances are that Oklahoma rather than Ohio State will become No. 1 in the post-bowl voting. If, of course, the Sooners beat Penn State.
That may not be as easy as Greg Pruitt probably thinks. Joe Paterno's teams have a habit of confounding their bowl opponents, and Penn State always shows up with more quality football players than people outside the East give it credit for. Three comparatively recent Penn State bowl opponents thought they could whip up on the Eastern sissies, and they all lost. One of them was not very good to begin with, Texas last season, but Kansas in 1969 and Missouri in 1970 were national powers, and Paterno stung the Big Eight both times.
Penn State, on the other hand, mustn't get the notion that it knows the solution to the Wishbone just on the basis of last year's Cotton Bowl. That was the worst of Darrell Royal's record nine conference champions, and the most crippled. Oklahoma's Wishbone is quite different.
Oklahoma has speed Penn State has not coped with, and one of the best defenses in the country. Oklahoma also makes mistakes, handling the ball at times as if it were a cactus. Penn State will need these mistakes, but the odds are that the Sooner defense will give the offense the ball enough to win, and if Greg Pruitt and Joe Washington and Joe Wylie and all those guys don't fumble, and if Dave Robertson hits the pass, Joe Paterno, with something less than his best team, could finally get his bowl spanking.
A day later, and before the Rose Bowl on New Year's, there will be a Wishbone clinic in Dallas, where Alabama and Texas go at it. Alabama must be given a slight chance at No. 1, but only if USC and Oklahoma both lose and the Tide wins big and impressively. Most people have a right to expect Alabama to win with some ease, despite the freaky loss to Auburn. Terry Davis has become one of the few Wishbone quarterbacks to rank up there with Oklahoma's Jack Mildren, and James Street and Eddie Phillips of Texas, the only other ones who knew how to run it.
Alabama most likely is better than it was last year. So is Texas. But while the Longhorns will confront Alabama with one of the best defenses the Tide has seen, and certainly with one that knows all about the Wishbone, Texas' offense is severely limited to Alan Lowry and Roosevelt Leaks, a quarterback and fullback. Strangely enough, Bear Bryant has never beaten Darrell Royal in three previous games, although each time he appeared to have the better team. So it seems now. Unless Royal concocts an effective passing game and a few other surprises, the football most often should turn up in the Texas end zone, having been carried or thrown to someone there by Terry Davis.
The last game of the four big bowls, the Orange, already has its own personality, being the one at night and the one with the world's gaudiest and least comprehensible halftime show. Comets soar through the Miami night, queens light up and a fiesta explodes, or something like that. Anyhow, this time it has a lot of pure old football scheduled, which can stand alone any day. It has the Notre Dame glamour against a Heisman Trophy winner and two of the most physical teams outside of the NFL in the Irish and Nebraska.
Nebraska still thinks of itself as a national champion although it lost two and tied one because of fumbles and a young quarterback who cannot run or hit the pass he must hit. But the Corn-huskers should not be deceived by Notre Dame, or think that just because this is Bob Devaney's last game, Johnny Rodgers is going to perform all of his wonders. Notre Dame is a massive and violent team on the scrimmage line; it has rugged runners and a line young passer in Tom Clements. Ara Parseghian will come up with a skillful game plan, and Notre Dame will be there like a crusade.
The world need not be shocked if Nebraska wins comfortably, just as it should not be surprised if the other important bowl games go according to paper. History insists, however, that one or two upsets occur, usually because of emotion and some hidden physical superiority. Notre Dame has both these things along with being, well, Notre Dame. In short, Nebraska had better be ready.
The only other bowl games involving teams of national interest are the Gator, which has Colorado and Auburn, and the Astro-Bluebonnet, which has LSU and Tennessee, a couple of teams that sound like they play each other every other Saturday but who rarely meet. Like the Orange Bowl, these games offer nothing more than sheer fun this time. If Colorado plays as well as it can, and not as deplorably as it sometimes does, Auburn will be vastly out-muscled. At the other one, if LSU's Bert Jones rediscovers his receivers often enough, the Tigers are plenty physical enough elsewhere to win.
In a sense, there is something nice and different about these bowls coming up for the holidays. After the past 10 years there is a certain relief in the absence of another Game of the Decade, Volume II, Chapter III.
Overall, they will all be what John McKay argues the Rose Bowl will be: exciting and colorful as ever in their own nature but as meaningless as in the old days in terms of who's No. 1. Oh, really? Well, better make sure the Trojans win, John, or here comes the heat.