We in the Hirshland household are not necessarily resolute people, instead we prefer to think of ourselves as goal oriented. So, at the beginning of each new year we don’t fall prey to the resolution trap and make vague and lofty promises to ourselves and each other like “exercise more” or “eat better” or “drink less alcohol”. We make specific goals, write them down on a piece of paper, and then articulate them to one another. For 2017 I have, in no particular order, three; finish my third book, lose 15 pounds and break 80 again on the golf course. Each will be time consuming, demand a certain amount of determination, dedication and energy and all will feel good when accomplished.
If we approached a new 365 days like other people do my list might look a little different. For example, I would not make any effort to be less opinionated by I just might resolve to be less grouchy about it. So, in an attempt to both stay the course and make an adjustment I offer my first blog post of 2017 by making this impassioned plea… Make Bowl Games Matter Again!
If college football and those charged with its administration continue down the path now charted humans may look back on 2016 as the year bowl games lost all significance. This road to ruin started with the formation of the College Football Playoff (CFP) that came at the end of the 2014 season. Before the CFP we had something called the BCS for 16 years which was preceded by something else called the Bowl Alliance (for 3 years) and before that the sinister named Bowl Coalition (for 3 years). Prior to 1992 we just had the glory days of bowl games. This is not a “get off my lawn”, “longing for the old days” rant like ones that have previously appeared in this forum. It’s simply a measured (my measurement) look at why progress doesn’t always mean improvement. To paraphrase and bastardize a quote from Monty Python, “an insulated group of “experts” in charge of a four-team playoff that professes to determine a national champion is no basis for a system of government!” And it’s certainly less interesting and inclusive than what we had in the past. My preference? Go back to the polls (pick two) and let a broader group of invested parties decide the top team or teams in the country.
The January first (actually it was January 2nd) after my birth featured six bowl games; The Sun Bowl, The Tangerine Bowl, The Cotton Bowl, The Orange Bowl, The Sugar Bowl and “the Granddaddy of them all” The Rose Bowl. By the time I was 10 the Sun and the Tangerine were jettisoned leaving the Big 4 (Cotton, Orange, Sugar and Rose). For as long as I could remember each bowl game had a conference tie-in. For example The Cotton Bowl always featured the Big 12 Champion. The Orange Bowl always had a Big 8 (then Big Ten) tie-in until 1999 when the ACC became a “power conference” and muscled in on the relationship. The Sugar Bowl was the prize for the SEC Champ and the Rose Bowl always invited the winner of the Pac-8, 10, 12 to play its counterpart from the Big 8, turned 10. Bottom line was you almost always knew which teams were playing in which bowl games and why. The New Year’s Day football games meant something to millions of somebodies around the country including coaches, fans and, maybe more importantly, players.
Polling was more important in college football than politics starting in 1936 when the Associated Press introduced its first list of best teams in the country. Fourteen years later (1950 for those who don’t want to do math) the Coaches Poll came along to offer another opinion on which teams were better than others. Most times the two polls agreed, especially when what school was at the top was concerned, but occasionally they didn’t come to a consensus and that gave us a “split national champion” and a reason to argue! Admittedly the AP poll was all over the map; Until 1968 the nation’s sportswriters picked the National Champion at the end of the regular season leading to confusion and consternation in some years including 1964 when Alabama was crowned “National Champion” but then lost to Texas in The Orange Bowl which meant Arkansas (which beat Nebraska in The Cotton Bowl) was the nation’s only unbeaten, untied team that year. In 1968 the AP amended the criteria and decided to wait until after all the bowl games were played to name its National Champ. For 23 years, The Coaches Poll also named its champion prior to the bowl games but changed methodology in 1974. The only other difference between the two was that the Coaches Poll did not consider schools on either NCAA or conference sanctioned probation. Got all that? Basically, it was a system that worked for decades until television, money grabbing greedy conferences and general insanity determined that “we” needed a playoff system to determine a National Champion. Since then (2014) the “bowls”, for the most part, have lost their identity and Alabama has been ubiquitous.
Between 1936 and 2013 (the poll era), Thirty-one teams won at least one college football National Championship. Alabama won the most (10), Notre Dame is second (8) with Oklahoma and USC next (7) but because the system was more democratic, for lack of a better term, schools including Army, Maryland, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, BYU, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Colorado ALL won national titles. Thanks to the machinations of the recent past I’ll happily go out on a limb and say that none of those schools will ever win another one. I’ll go deeper and add former formidable programs including Notre Dame, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and the Sooners to the group that is done hoisting the crystal football and USC and UCLA are close. The system is just too stacked against them. Even if a Pac-12 winner (take Washington this year) gets in to the ridiculously biased playoff they’ll have to play the consensus strongest team in mix and that powerhouse will have had a month to prepare.
For the second straight year Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State were three of the final four teams and after an unmemorable day of non-bowl, national championship semi-final tilts, Clemson and Alabama will meet in a non-bowl title game. Last year Alabama won, chances are good that they’ll win again, and good for them but honestly other than Crimson Tide and Tiger faithful does anybody really want to see Alabama play Clemson again. Do we need Alabama in the championship game every year? Well get used to it because, under this inane system, it’s going to happen. Now that’s nothing against Alabama or Tide fans, it’s a great football program but I am a San Francisco Giants and I admit it would get old if they were “automatically” in the World Series every year. It would get even older if the teams they played in the NLCS and the Fall Classic were the same opponents as well. But that’s what the CFP forces down college football fan’s throats.
So, let’s play a game and pretend that the year is 1980 again but the college football teams competing were transported from 2016. It’s January first and we are about to sit down and watch the New Year’s Day bowl line up. Oklahoma won the Big 12 so they are in the Cotton Bowl, Alabama is the SEC champ which puts them in the Sugar Bowl, Louisville would carry the ACC mantle into the Orange Bowl while Washington and Penn State would represent the Pac-12 and Big Ten respectively in the Rose Bowl.
The next two best teams are Clemson and Ohio State so we’ll pit the Tigers against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl and the Buckeyes versus the Cardinals in the Orange. That leaves the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl waiting on an opponent. Who do you like? Wisconsin? Michigan? Oklahoma State? Florida State? West Virginia? USC? Or how about an unbeaten Western Michigan Broncos team? Wouldn’t that lineup be fantastic? Every one of those bowl games would be worth watching as would several others that featured the handful of teams that didn’t make the cut. If Alabama won our imaginary Sugar Bowl, they would unanimously be the choice for the nation’s number one college football team. But what if they lost? Thanks to the powers that be we’ll never, ever, again know.
I thought this year the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl were the two best football games but other than to only a precious few they were meaningless. Nothing signals faster the pending irrelevance of a sports event than the predilection of the sport’s, team’s, or country’s, best athletes opting to skip it. It happened to the Davis Cup in tennis, it will happen, sooner rather than later, to golf’s Ryder Cup and it happened this year to some of the bowl games. Christian McCaffery and Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s and LSU’s best players, both Heisman Trophy contenders, announced early that they had decided against representing their schools and their fan base in one final celebratory opportunity in fear of an injury or poor performance that might affect each’s NFL draft status. Michigan star Jabrill Peppers also sat his team’s bowl game out with a “hamstring” injury. This, I’m afraid, thanks to the CFP, is the new normal.
For me the bottom line is this… when one bowl game starts to mean something more again it stands to reason that they all will. I would look forward to that and to the occasional argument that would ensue if one team ended up atop the Coaches Poll and another reigned supreme in the AP poll. But like many of my musings this is wishful thinking. So it’s back to tackling those extra 15 pounds.