Let’s state this up front: We’d never dare mock the sanctity of the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl, the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl, the Jimmy Kimmel Live L.A. Bowl presented by Stifel, the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, the Cheez-It Bowl … certainly not the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
All these bowls are … historical artifacts, despite the names. They were born as a group in an age when college teams used to ride the rails to the big game, so maybe more time needed to be baked in. There was more on the line but fewer zeros on all the checks. Athletic directors didn’t get bonuses for bowl bids.
Now? The most memorable bowl moment of 2021-22 was a coach from South Carolina getting mayonnaise poured over him after winning the above-mentioned bowl game. I didn’t catch a second of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, had never heard of Duke’s Real Mayonnaise, so mission accomplished, congrats.
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The grossness of all that isn’t the issue. The biggest playing issue stemming from bowl games these days is the talk about those not playing. If that alone doesn’t tell you bowls are an anachronism, what could?
More and more NFL prospects every year are opting out of bowl games. You saw some Penn State stars do it, and not just potential first-rounders. All across the landscape, many of the best players are realizing they could use their time in more productive ways.
My official position: good for them. They fully recognize the flaws in the current system. For starters, if you want players finishing a season, maybe make head coaches take part in bowl games instead of heading off to recruit at the new, more lucrative job they just took.
But the same timing flaw hits the coaches. Bowl season is recruiting season. They have to go. Of course, the players, like those coaches, would prefer to finish things out. You think it’s easy to leave your teammates or your players behind?
Again, bowls are set up using an ancient calendar. You can’t have the Rose Bowl on Dec. 17. What would that mean for the Tournament of Roses Parade? The big bowls are played right around New Year’s Day, we all know that. And the Rose Bowl, as a one-off, still is special, no argument.
Players just see the whole deal. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, the legit best in his business precisely because he works so hard and clearly loves football so much, sounded plain silly when he recently said, “I think this era of player just doesn’t love football.” He sounded plain sillier when he wondered whether expanding the playoffs would change anything.
There’s zero coincidence that eight Georgia draft-eligible football players opted out of last season’s Peach Bowl. How many Bulldogs opted out of this season’s FBS playoffs? Zero, of course. Alabama vs. Georgia on Monday night is as real as it gets in college football. The players are playing. We’ll be watching.
When Herbstreit clarified, saying he didn’t mean everyone didn’t love football – just the opt outs, apparently – he dug a bit deeper.
The players opting out did it not just to avoid injury, but maybe precisely because they were ready to get to work, couldn’t wait any longer. Like it or not, preparing for the NFL draft is now a full-time job. Most prospects don’t attend class anymore. It’s time to do some serious and hard work prepping for the Scouting Combine. Maybe established players can’t move up too much based on their specs, but they sure can lose draft ranking and money if their measurables don’t measure up.
The players aren’t fooled by the faux importance of the bowl system. Do you hear any FCS players, one level down, opting out of the playoffs? You do not. There are draft hopefuls at that level, but they play, because there are real stakes. Also, importantly, the playoffs get started right away, not 35 days later, like it was for Penn State.
You want fewer FBS opt outs? That will happen when the playoffs inevitably get expanded. When does that happen? When the current TV contracts run out.
ESPN owns most of these bowls. Somebody is watching or a smoothie shop chain wouldn’t be paying for sponsorship. The first time I ever heard of Nokia was through a bowl sponsorship. I still think it’s the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl even though the chip company stopped its sponsorship deal in 2013. (What, by the way, is a Tailgreeter? According to ESPN, it is “a digital marketplace that aims to make tailgating more accessible to fans all over the world.”)
By the way, these kids today, all levels … most work harder. More video downloaded to their iPads, more “voluntary” lifting, more everything. They might have to go to practice in the morning, squeezing in class in the off hours.
In a perfect world, the bowl game would be the big game. Sometimes it is. If your team hasn’t been to a bowl in awhile, it’s a big deal. If you’re a mid-level school having a great season and get to face an established power, it’s a big deal. (Maybe the best bowl ever, Boise State-Oklahoma.)
The Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, Penn State vs. Arkansas – that was programming, the fourth-place team in the Big Ten East losing to a tied-for-third outfit from the SEC West. That game was competing against the Villanova-Seton Hall basketball game on another network. No coincidence, college basketball players do not opt out of March Madness. The stakes are real. The calendar fits. Draft prep comes after.
And nobody to date has gotten Duke’s Mayo poured on their head for winning a Sweet 16 game.