‘Tis the most wonderful time of the season?

Everybody talks about March Madness, but to me, Bowl Season is the greatest extended display of NCAA Division I athletics. It is obvious why March Madness dwarfs Bowl Season in terms of general popularity. For one, Bowl Season is not a tournament, like its basketball counterpart. Each team playing in a bowl game is only playing one other team. There are no brackets. There are no magical post season runs. Two teams were placed in the championship game, and there is no possibility that a team not seeded one or two in the final regular season BCS rankings will be able to play for a national championship. Thus, there is the annual controversy about whether the “real best two teams in the nation” are actually playing for the title. Even though there are 35 bowl games, and this controversy only surrounds a maximum of two or three games, somehow the bowl system in its entirety is put in a bad light.

The format of Bowl Season also ensures that a majority of the 70 teams are not playing in their biggest game of the season. Sure, any of the teams playing in BCS Bowls can make the argument that their bowl game is the biggest game of their season, but that still leaves 62 other teams playing in what are essentially consolation games. Let’s take a look as the Insight Bowl, for instance. The participants in this game are the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and the University of Missouri Tigers. I think this will actually shape up to be a great game, but it’s not the biggest matchup of the season for either of these teams. No, the biggest games of the season for Iowa and Missouri were matchups against conference opponents, because the stakes were so much higher. The outcomes of conference games decide who is going to play for the conference championship, and the outcome of the conference championship decides which team from that conference is going to play in the best bowl game. Playing in a better bowl game earns more money from corporate sponsors and boosters, and gives free exposure of the school and its athletic program to potential students and recruits. What’s at stake in the Insight Bowl for Iowa and Missouri? A little more cash than the defeated team, school pride, and a plus one increase in the often-overlooked “bowl wins” statistic. What’s great about March Madness is that every game you watch is the most important game of that team’s season so far. Even if Duke is playing William & Mary, the stakes of the game are a pass to the next round, which is what a team must obtain if it ultimately wants to win a national championship.

Finally, there is a corporate, commercial feel to Bowl Season that far exceeds any corporate, commercial feel to March Madness. Maybe it’s because every goddamn bowl game has a corporate sponsor that puts its logo all over the goddamn stadium, including on the field and on the players, and runs its advertisements incessantly during television coverage of the game. Furthermore, it is no secret that college football programs receive ridiculous sums of money for accepting some of the bowl invitations, and players receive ridiculous gifts from the corporate sponsors (somehow the NCAA is OK with this, but against athletes accepting gifts from boosters?). Seriously, is it not weird that our professional football league, which pays its players, does not have a title sponsor for its championship game, but our college football league does?

However, for all the negatives that people always bring up about Bowl Season, I can name at least as many positives. First and foremost, it is three straight weeks with at least one game every day, except Dec. 19-20 and Christmas. Winter break is my lazy time, y’all. I’m done with one tough semester at Grinnell, I know I have to go back for another one soon; during the month in which I don’t have any schoolwork, all I want to do is sit in front of the television and watch football. Bowl Season allows me to do that, and I don’t even have to worry about what time it is, because there is an afternoon game, an evening game, and a night game. Hell, I don’t even get up before the afternoon game!

Second, bowl matchups are carefully crafted before the invitations are sent, usually pitting two very evenly matched teams against each other. Remember, it is in the best interest of the corporate sponsor to have a good game take place, rather than a blowout. I’ll be the first to say that making assumptions about the skill level of a team is a dangerous route to take. However, most bowl games turn out to be pretty close, and it is nice to see so many marquee matchups among the top 70 teams in college football. Furthermore, every team playing in a bowl has at least two weeks to prepare for its opponent. Thus, the play seems to be sharper, and teams seem to come out more focused than they normally would. One of my only complaints with March Madness is that the early rounds are still riddled with blowouts, because the highest seeded teams take on obviously inferior opponents. Sure, we might see a 15 seed scare a number two, or a 13 beat a four, but most of these matchups are straight beat downs.

Third, it is easy for outsiders like me, and other sports journalists, to dismiss most bowl games as contests with little at stake, but we do not know the mindset of the players. Some of the players in these games are seniors, and are playing their last collegiate football game…no player wants to end his career on a loss. Some of the players are getting one last chance to impress scouts and improve their draft status. The game is played by football players, not pundits and armchair theorists, and it is the motivation of the players that ultimately determines how good a bowl game is.

Bonus Prediction of BCS Title Game – Auburn 36 Oregon 31. Big shout out to Grinnell’s resident Ducks enthusiast, Dodge Greenley! Sorry, Dodge, I gotta calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.