This may seem like a premature burial or the irascible rantings of a nihilistic Gen-Xer, but let's face it -- Bowl Season for college football fans isn't what it used to be and it's been dying a slow death for some time.
Go ahead and throw your "Get off my lawn" barbs or call me a relic still stuck in a different place and time, unable to accept progress. But, the question is, have we made that much progress?
Those in their 40s and older, maybe even late 30s, still pine for the days of non-stop bowl action from the early hours of New Year's Eve Day until the rooster crowed midnight on New Year's Night. It was a glorious, gluttonous 48 hours of football indulgence -- and all of it capped with a yearly mystery...
Who will be number one when the smoke clears and all the votes are in?
As unbelievable as it may sound to some generations, we had to wait for all the sportswriters in the AP poll and all the coaches in the UPI poll to cast their votes for a national champion to be named, and on more than one occasion those two entities didn't agree on who was the best team in the nation. Thus the "split national championship" you'll see referred to when dusting off the tomes of college football history.
So yes, some progress. There's no denying that an organized playoff system to decide the national champion is a far superior option than the dueling polls we once had, or that having an actual National Championship Game isn't a big draw for the sport. But what did we lose, and is the entire Bowl Season as we know it now in jeopardy?
College Football Bowl Season wasn't perfect, but it was our favorite imperfection
In its glory days, Bowl Season was the best time of year for college football fans, despite the unorthodox nature of how it was laid out and its lack of any real structure for choosing a champion. It was an ugly sumbitch, but it was OUR ugly sumbitch.
The idea of Bowl Season wasn't to be perfect. Far from it. It was to be special, unique, and even mystical in the eyes of the casual fan.
Bowl Season has always been something that sets college football apart from other sports. It was chaotic and unruly at times, and that's what made it great. Hell, just being invited to a bowl game was special. You had to have a season of note; now all it takes is a record of .500 or better.
When bowls had specific ties to conferences -- before the dawn of the conference championship games -- there was a feeling of anticipation for what was to come.
If you played in the SEC, you knew as those final weeks of the season rolled in that you could be fighting for a chance to represent the conference in the Sugar Bowl. For the Pac-12 (or 10 as it was back then) and Big Ten, it was a yearly matchup in the "Grandaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl Game" (and you best have read that in a Keith Jackson voice).
There was an order to things and a certain predictability that fans loved. The mid-tier bowls had fun names sans sponsors, and could still attract some of the better teams in the nation. Sure, playing in the Poinsettia Bowl or the Citrus Bowl may not have been as impressive-sounding as some of the elite bowl games, but it sure beats saying "Hey, we're in the Pop Tarts Bowl this year".
There may never be a "perfect" college postseason. There will be warts, flaws, and complaints from fans, players, coaches, and the media no matter how you slice up the pie. Just look at college basketball, with 68 tournament teams, yet some still feel left out or cheated by not being invited.
Bowl Season began its downfall long before the Transfer Portal and NIL money arrived
There's a lot of chatter flying around right now about how the Transfer Portal and the lure of NIL dollars have ruined Bowl Season (as well as other aspects of the sport), but the truth is that trouble began long before those were even part of the game.
The downfall of Bowl Season traditions began with the explosive growth of the sport and the dollars following it from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. Before that, Bowl Season consisted of anywhere from 16 to 19 competitive matchups and a couple of all-star games.
Beginning in the 1998-99 season -- the beginning of the BCS era -- the total number of competitive bowls swelled to 22 games for the first time. The following years the totals rose to 23, 25, and then 28 during the 2002-03 season.
After that, the NCAA, conferences, and television stations saw the dollar signs, and bowl sponsorships were sold to anyone and everyone who wanted to slap their name on a banner and a trophy. By 2006 the total number of bowls had eclipsed 30 for the first time, and then over 40 by 2015.
The bloated Bowl Season had turned into a joke with far too many uncompetitive games featuring teams with no real television marketing value. Schools that didn't even have winning seasons were being rewarded for their middling results, and games like the GoDaddy Bowl and Foster Farms Bowl became more of a punchline than a highlight.
The overindulgence of the powers that be in their quest for more advertising dollars was the beginning of the end, and the lack of any real meaning to so many games is what eventually led to players simply opting out of playing at all.
We all see how that's turned out.
Welcome expanded playoff, goodbye Bowl Season
With the four-team College Football Playoff format, the Bowl Season was left -- as far as sheer numbers -- pretty much intact. The playoff semifinal games rotated amongst the New Year's Six Bowls, and every other bowl was simply ancillary to that elite group.
While some bowl games may have struggled to maintain an audience due to player opt-outs and unfavorable matchups, the onus was still on the keepers of those games to make it more appealing for both viewers and participants. Some bowls were able to market their way to reasonable success, while others were (and are) left floundering.
With the new 12-team playoff format, that entire landscape is about to shift even further. There will be games played at higher-ranking teams' home stadiums in the first round that aren't even tied to bowls, and the rest will be split up among the New Year's Six and other bowl games deemed worthy of hosting a playoff.
The chances of playing for a national title may have increased three-fold, but the reason to even have some of those mid-to-lower tier bowls will probably be eliminated altogether.
We will likely see the end of bowl games without any traditional draw. Some of the lowest-attended bowl games of the last few years include the Cure Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Frisco Bowl, New Orleans Bowl, Camellia Bowl, Bahamas Bowl, and Myrtle Beach Bowl, all drawing far less than 15,000 in attendance. Those will be the first to fold their tents and join the ranks of the Bluebonnet Bowl and Grantland Rice Bowl.
Trying to keep bowl games with those attendance numbers afloat will be next to impossible with the new playoff format, and fewer players will have an interest in risking injury for what has become nothing more than competitive exhibitions.
As a few more years pass, and the continued influence of the Transfer Portal and NIL cause more and more players to jump ship before bowl games are even played, other more popular bowls will find themselves forced to make decisions about the viability of their games. From there, things will progress at a dizzying pace.
What has been a slow, metered demise will quickly escalate into a complete reorganization of the bowl system, with only bowls that have a tie to playoff contention being left among the rubble of this sport's once glorious and distinctive postseason.
"College football has gotta decide what they want."- Georgia head coach Kirby Smart
Kirby Smart's words following Georgia's destruction of Florida State in the Orange Bowl couldn't have been more true. Like many, Smart can see things will likely get worse before they get better, and as a collective, college football coaches, players, athletic directors, and conferences need to decide what they want and how it will best benefit everyone -- including fans.
"I know things are changing, and how things are gonna change next year," Smart said. "But you know what? There’s still going to be bowl games outside of [the playoff]. People need to decide what they want and what they wanna get out of it."
Regardless of what anyone wants, it's almost certain we will lose many bowl games, and when all is said and done, we may see the entire bowl game system dismantled and mothballed in favor of a tournament similar (but much smaller in scope) to the NCAA basketball tournament.
When you think about the rise of superconferences, the loss of regionality, and no remaining reason to tie bowl games to conferences at all, there doesn't seem to be any other outcome. While the new era of college football's postseason may be sleek and full of window dressing for advertisers and player NIL collectives, it will have lost much more than will be gained.
Bowl season was more than unique and more than just a reward for the players. It was something that truly catered to the fans and their voracious appetite for the sport during the winter holidays. It was our sacred cow that is now being led to slaughter.
The ever-expanding playoff may make more blueblood programs happy, but the Bowl Season seems an unfitting sacrifice.