Clemson Football will play Tennessee in the Orange Bowl at the end of the month. Am I excited? You bet I am. The Tigers might not have qualified for the College Football Playoff, but I love watching the Tigers play. Fan feedback suggests most of you are excited too.
Was I as excited for the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl? Not quite as much as I am for the 2022 Orange Bowl, but I was still excited to see Clemson play a bowl game. I will admit that the opportunity for Clemson to get their 10th win in the season was a bigger factor than the Cheez-It Bowl trophy.
It comes with the territory this time of year: the debate about non-playoff bowl games relevance in today’s college football. Bowl games were once the only postseason options for college football. A bowl game trophy was the only trophy a team could play for in the postseason. The national champion of college football wasn’t determined on the field. They were essentially elected by a vote, and there wasn’t always a consensus.
I understand the nostalgia of the bowl games of yesteryear. I couldn’t wait as a kid in the 1980s for the bowls to kick off around Christmas. They were real bowl games, not corporately named games created solely for the benefit of television stock. Teams had to be legitimately good to get into them. Well, usually they were good. Some stinkers did sneak through but it didn’t ruin anything.
The football postseason evolved through the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Championship Series, and finally the four-team playoff. Soon it will expand to a twelve-team bracket. Some of the bowls have found a home in the playoff, like the Orange. Right now, they rotate between the playoff and the New Year’s Six. When the twelve-team bracket starts, they will rotate between the semifinal and quarterfinal.
The balance of the bowl games will be completely separate from the playoff. The common way many people refer to these postseason games now is to say they are “meaningless”. I understand why people are antagonized by this term.
As I have already acknowledged, this year’s Orange Bowl is not meaningless to me, nor do I think it is meaningless to other Clemson fans and Tennessee fans. My niece and her father are Vols and I can assure you this game is not meaningless to them.
I do understand what people are expressing when they say meaningless. They hold little value in the big picture of college football compared to the College Football Playoff. It is probably more fair to say bowl games aren’t as meaningful as playoff games.
Can I enjoy a non-playoff game that doesn’t involve Clemson or another team I like? Absolutely. I watched the Bahamas Bowl last Friday. The first half wasn’t great but the second half was enjoyable. Even though I enjoyed the Bahamas Bowl, I don’t consider it to be a meaningful game in the big picture.
I very much enjoyed last season’s Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Utah. It was a good game. Good enough that I remember it today, even though I don’t remember many of the other 2021 bowls outside the Cheez-It Bowl. Was last season’s Rose Bowl meaningful? Not really. After New Year’s the focus was on the National Championship. Memorable doesn’t equal meaningful. It was just a good game.
I consider non-playoff bowl games to be on par with the NIT tournament for men’s college basketball.
Can I enjoy watching an NIT game? Absolutely. Do I make sure to watch Clemson if they are in the NIT? Yes. Do I get excited if the Tigers make a run to the last four of the NIT in Madison Square Garden? Of course, I get excited.
Despite that, I never forget that it’s the NIT. I never forget that I would easily give it up for Clemson to have an opportunity in the NCAA tournament, even if they are in the opening games in Dayton.
The bowl games are a very good analog for the NIT, which was once the premier postseason event in men’s college basketball. When the NCAA first started the men’s championship tournament, there were programs that turned down invites to the tournament so they could participate in the NIT. They considered it to be more prestigious. That didn’t last long. The programs, and their fans, realized an opportunity to play for a national title was more meaningful.
If Clemson Football is involved, I am excited, but otherwise bowl games just aren’t as meaningful as the playoff
The bowl games do hold a couple advantages over the NIT. Most of the bowls happen before the playoff begins, so they serve as an appetizer for the playoff. The NIT tends to get lost because it happens simultaneously with the tournament.
The football playoffs take fewer teams than the basketball tournament, so the quality of teams in some bowls is better than the best teams of the NIT, but that advantage will lessen with the expansion of the playoffs.
Today, the NIT doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning to college basketball fans who don’t have a dog in the fight. Is it completely meaningless? No, but it isn’t nearly as meaningful as the NCAA tournament.
Likewise, college bowl games just aren’t as meaningful as the College Football Playoff, and the bowls outside the New Year’s Six will become even less meaningful when the CFP expands to twelve teams. I am not advocating for non-playoff postseason football games to go away, but I won’t pretend they have any more meaning to me in the big picture than the NIT.