In the way back when years of college football, well really until 2014 when the playoff began, the “BCS Bowls” (now largely referred to as the New Year’s Six) reigned supreme as the triumph of the sport. With computers choosing two teams to play in the natty, there was real honor in winning your conference and heading off to your Rose Bowl or Cotton Bowl reward.
Then the playoff moved into town, which I think was for the better of the sport. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that in doing so the NY6 bowls became less valuable. Opt-outs have now crept into the picture of these major bowls, with team’s just missing the playoff clearly less motivated to play even in these jewels of the sport. To be clear, I have no issues with players opting out of these bowls or any bowl to secure their future’s. But it would be unheard of for a major bowl bound team to be worried about their roster composition even just a few years ago.
This trickle-down effect hits the lesser bowls even harder, with some teams just barely showing up at all for their bowls. For some schools, the bowl is still a payoff. A fun reward for a hard-fought season. A chance to see a new city, do some fun activities as a team, and get some swag. Others use it as a boost for recruiting, looking to win in front of a hotbeds local players or just get a big win on ESPN when you’re the only game on.
As fans, these games have become almost controversial as for how they should be viewed. Some, I believe the wrongheaded ones, argue to cut the bowls back. Some go the other way, wanting more free football but ignore the actual value of earning the invitation.
Trying to find meaning in these game’s is so difficult because it is all about the individual program’s and not about the actual prestige of the games they play in this bowl season. Some schools feel disappointed, for example Ole Miss, for fading out of the relevant contests. Other schools, for example Texas Tech, see regular bowl eligibility as the next step in their program’s progression and cherish the moment.
The title of this article is kind of deliberately misleading, as I claim to want to show you how to sort through all the storylines to determine what bowls actually should mean. The truth is, there is not one answer. Bowls are meaningless, and meaningful. There are both too few bowls, and too many. Bowls are about the pure joy of the game, and a risk to unpaid labor for no reward. Bowls are huge for program momentum, and no indication of future success.
Bowls are what you make of them. So, the simplest answer may be the best. Just enjoy the game and don’t ask the bigger question looking for deeper meaning. Bowl season doesn’t have to mean any more than one last chance to watch your team, even if the actual outcome doesn’t matter.