Clemson Football plays Tennessee in the Orange Bowl later this month. am i excited Of course I am. The Tigers may not have qualified for the college football playoffs, but I love watching the Tigers play. Fan feedback suggests most of you are excited too.
Was I just as excited for the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl? Not quite as much as I did for the 2022 Orange Bowl, but I was still excited to see Clemson play a bowl game. I’ll admit that the opportunity for Clemson to get her 10th win of the season was a bigger factor than the Cheez-It Bowl trophy.
It’s part of this time of year: the debate over the relevance of bowl games outside of the playoffs in college football today. 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. College football’s national champion was not determined on the field. They were essentially elected by vote, and there was not always consensus.
I understand the nostalgia for bowl games of yesteryear. As a kid in the 1980s, I couldn’t wait for the bowls to start at Christmas. They were real bowl games, not company-named games designed solely for the benefit of television stocks. Teams had to be pretty good to get into them. Well, usually they were good. Some stinkers snuck through but it didn’t ruin anything.
The football postseason progressed through the Bowl Coalition, the Bowl Championship Series, and finally the four-team playoffs. Soon it will expand to a group of twelve teams. Some of the bowls have found homes in the playoffs, like the orange. They are currently rotating between the playoffs and the New Year’s Six. When the group starts with twelve teams, they alternate between the semi-finals and quarter-finals.
The balance of bowl games is completely separate from the playoffs. The usual way a lot of people are now referring to these postseason games is to say they’re “meaningless.” I understand why people object to this term.
As I’ve already admitted, this year’s Orange Bowl isn’t meaningless to me, nor do I think it’s meaningless to other Clemson fans and Tennessee fans. My niece and her father are Vols and I can assure you that this game is not meaningless to them.
I understand what people mean when they say meaningless. They have little value in the bigger picture of college football compared to the college football playoffs. It’s probably fairer to say that 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 saw the Bahamas Bowl last Friday. The first half wasn’t great, but the second half was fun. While I enjoyed the Bahamas Bowl, overall I don’t think it was a meaningful game.
I thoroughly enjoyed last season’s Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Utah. It was a good game. Good enough that I remember it today, even if I don’t remember many of the other 2021 bowls outside of the Cheez-It Bowl. Did last season’s Rose Bowl make sense? Not really. After New Year’s Eve, the focus was on the state championship. Memorable is not synonymous. It was just a good game.
I consider non-playoff bowl games to be equivalent to the NIT tournament for men’s collegiate basketball.
Can I watch a NIT game? Absolutely. Do I make sure to watch Clemson when they’re in the NIT? Yes. Will I be excited as the Tigers run to the last four of the NIT at Madison Square Garden? Of course I’m upset.
Still, I never forget that it’s the NIT. I never forget that if Clemson had a chance in the NCAA tournament, even if they are in the opening games at Dayton, I would give it up easily.
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 declined invitations to the tournament so they could attend the NIT. They considered it more prestigious. That didn’t last long. The programs and their fans realized that an opportunity to play for a national title made more sense.
When Clemson Football is involved, I’m excited, but otherwise, bowl games just aren’t as meaningful as the playoffs
The bowl games have some advantages over the NIT. Most bowls take place before the start of the playoffs and therefore serve as a starter for the playoffs. The NIT tends to get lost because it takes place at the same time as the tournament.
The football playoffs host fewer teams than the basketball tournament, so the quality of teams in some bowls is better than the NIT’s top teams, but this advantage will diminish as the playoffs expand.
Today, the NIT doesn’t mean much to college basketball fans who don’t have a dog in the fight. Is it totally meaningless? No, but it’s not nearly as significant as the NCAA tournament.
Likewise, college bowl games simply aren’t as significant as the college football playoffs, and bowls outside of the New Year’s Six become even less significant once the CFP expands to twelve teams. I’m not advocating that postseason football games outside of the playoffs go away, but I won’t pretend that they mean more to me than the NIT on the whole.