For better and worse, bowl games are as much a part of college football as marching bands, weird traditions, and unmitigated chaos.
Even those who opposed the old bowl systems such as the BCS (like yours truly) still loved bowl season and the avalanche of games ever December and January. No true college football fan has ever complained about more college football.
Where the disconnect has been, though, is the unseemly level of self-importance the bowl games — particularly the major ones — have always had. They are, and have ALWAYS been, nothing more than exhibition games. Despite the tradition, despite any tie-ins to national championships, they are still just games put on by groups independent of the NCAA and college football as an entity.
The Rose Bowl was the worst offender, always having an inflated ego and vastly overrating their actual importance to college football — see their reluctance to join the Bowl Coalition/Alliance, and outright refusal to budge from their New Year’s Day time slot, forcing the College Football Playoff semifinals to be played on New Year’s Eve to the delight of absolutely no one. The bill finally came due when the Big 10 kneecapped their “beloved” game by poaching USC and UCLA from their Rose Bowl rival conference, the Pac-12.
The major bowls have maintained some semblance of relevance in the CFP era, rotating as hosts for the semifinal games. The Sugar, Rose, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton, and Peach bowls will continue to host CFP games when the tournament expands to 12 teams, hosting both quarterfinal and semifinal matchups. But, they no longer hold their traditional matchups, which takes away most of what made them special. The CFP has tried to prop them up as big deals with their “New Year’s Six” schedule, but the bowls who aren’t hosting the semifinals aren’t must-see events outside of the participating schools’ fanbases. Sure, once the CFP expands the bowls will once again host important games, but they’ll be CFP games first and bowl games second.
Traditionalists bitch and moan about how the CFP’s expansion is killing their precious regular season and stripping the sport of what made it so great in the first place (they’re not completely wrong, but they also fail to address the biggest problems like conference realignment and lack of NCAA reform), but they offer no solutions and merely cry about “how it used to be.”
Here’s a potential solution: what if the NY6 bowls moved to the beginning of the season?
The biggest appeal of the old bowl systems were the matchups pitting top teams from the top conferences against each other in matchups rarely seen. They were a reward for conference champions, a chance to prove themselves against other champions from different parts of the country.
So, what if we went back to those days, but just put the games at the start of the season instead of the end? We’ve seen a litany of season-opening, neutral-site games pop up over the past decade and change, often in cities that host bowl games at the end of the season — like the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta (home of the Peach Bowl) and the Cowboys Kickoff Classic in Dallas Arlington (home of the Cotton Bowl). These games certainly have had some fun moments, but they’re also scheduled years in advance, and there’s been quite a few blowouts in those games.
We’ve also seen the rise of “Week 0” — the season opening weekend that rarely features any big matchups, let alone ranked teams. Instead of these lame duck games, why not classic bowl games that feature conference champs from the previous season?
The CFP would be better suited to host games on campus until the championship game, anyway. The atmospheres would be immensely better, and it would cut down on travel costs for both schools and fans. If they wanted, the NY6 bowls could still rotate as hosts for the CFP title game — but I have a feeling the CFP would rather cities still bid to host the game, as that both generates more money and opens up the possibility for more than just the same six cities to host. For example: Tampa, Santa Clara, and Indianapolis have all hosted title games, with Inglewood and Houston slated to host this year’s and next year’s games respectively.
If the NY6 bowls moved to Week 0, we could begin the season with a bang. We’d get top tier matchups as “curtain raisers” over lifeless games. It would still be a great reward for schools for their previous season’s success, as well as a great chance to keep that momentum going — something that’d be especially crucial for surprise conference champions, who could use their upcoming appearance in a season-opening bowl game to potentially persuade a top recruit to sign with them and showcase their abilities on a national stage, as opposed to signing with a traditional powerhouse and potentially riding the bench to start their collegiate career.
The bowls could also go back to their conference affiliations, reviving traditions that have slowly gone by the wayside with the advent of the CFP. As it stands, these are the NY6 conference champion tie-ins: the Rose, of course, gets the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs, the Sugar pits the SEC champs against the Big 12 champs, and the Orange hosts the ACC champs.
Let’s tweak those tie-ins just a little by moving the Big 12 champ to the Cotton Bowl, which sits in the heart of Big 12 country. That puts all five major conference champs in four different games. The Peach and Fiesta could continue without affiliations and hand pick their matchups from the pool of premiere teams that had really good seasons the year before, or they could extend an invite to the champion of one of the Group of Five conferences. Say the Fiesta Bowl aligns with the Mountain West Conference to promote the conference in their region — one that routinely beats Power 5 teams. Or perhaps one of them could invite the G5 champ who qualified for the CFP in the previous season.
Say we did this to kick off the 2022 season. We’d have Michigan vs. Utah in the Rose Bowl, Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Pitt in the Orange Bowl, and Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. The Peach or Fiesta could take Cincinnati, who were the first mid-major program to make the CFP. The bowls then could have their pick of marquee programs to matchup with their conference tie-ins, like defending national champ Georgia. Or they could reward smaller schools that had outstanding years last season, like UTSA, Louisiana, or Houston.
Let’s play bowl matchmaker for a minute. We have our five Power conference champs, already. We’ll take American Athletic Conference champ Cincinnati as well, giving us six of 12 spots. Now, let’s find our other six teams. National Champion Georgia would be a good place to start. Ohio State, who only lost to Oregon and Big 10 Champ Michigan, is both a good selection based on merit and ratings appeal. Then there’s Notre Dame, of course. While their importance and merit is often overstated, their only regular season loss last season was to CFP participant Cincinnati, and they are a ratings driver (because we all love to watch ND embarrass themselves). Ole Miss was a top 10 team heading into bowl season, having only lost on the road to Alabama and Auburn. They play an exciting brand of ball, and Lane Kiffin is always good television. Let’s give our remaining two spots to Oklahoma State — who finished about a foot short of the Big 12 title and a possible CFP bid — and Louisiana, who only lost their season opener at Texas en route to a Sun Belt title. That’s every team from last season’s NY6 lineup, save for Michigan State. I replaced the Spartans with the Ragin’ Cajuns because I think it’d create better ratings (everyone loves a cinderella) and because I thought their resume was a bit better.
Now we’ll place them into our season-beginning bowls:
Rose Bowl: Utah vs. Michigan
Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State
Cotton Bowl: Baylor vs. Louisiana
Orange Bowl: Pitt vs. Notre Dame
Peach Bowl: Georgia vs. Cincinnati
Fiesta Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma State
Doesn’t that Week 0 slate look a hell of a lot better than the lineup we got this year, headlined by Northwestern/Nebraska?
One argument against this idea would be that matchups would only be determined about eight months in advance, but frankly that’s a foolish concern. The college football scheduling model is drastically outdated. Teams line up games years in advance, sometimes even a decade or more. While that can generate some anticipation, it also leaves the door open for a program to fall on hard times, turning a premiere matchup into a snoozer. Besides, postseason games have always been decided with a month’s notice, sometimes less. The powers that be would make it work.
Those future games also bring up another potential pitfall: a team beginning their season with back-to-back games against top competition. While this is great for fans and viewers, ADs and coaches are always reluctant to make their team’s schedule too tough. However, with the expansion of the CFP, strength of schedule is bound to become even more important to teams vying for seeding or an at-large berth. Even in the four-team format, we’ve seen that a loss to a good team is a lot better than an upset loss to a mid-major in the eyes of the selection committee. Plus, ADs and university presidents wouldn’t mind the revenue from two premiere games at all.
It’s not a perfect solution, but then again no such thing exists. The bowl games we’ve moved would almost certainly reject the idea of being a season-opening game, but I truly believe it’s the best way for them to maintain relevance in the CFP era. They would go back to being their own thing, with the ability to curate their own matchups, and wouldn’t just be host sites for CFP games. The ratings for the first tier contests would be phenomenal. All of that adds up to the bowls being a big deal again, ones that fans would spend all offseason anticipating.
In the ever-changing landscape of college football, you have to be proactive to stay relevant. This plan would certainly be an aggressive move by the bowls to maintain a prominent place in the world of college ball — and best of all, it’d be great for the sport and the fans.