Bowl Season Recap: Duds, Classics, Bailouts, Struggles, Profits, Parity
The 2021-22 college football season is in the home stretch, with just the TaxAct Texas Bowl and the CFP championship remaining. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights of “bowl season” to date:
Semi Duds: The semi-final games of the College Football Playoff have tended to be unexciting, one-sided affairs, and this year's games were no exception. No. 1 Alabama pulled away from No. 4 Cincinnati, 27-6, and then No. 3 Georgia annihilated No. 2 Michigan, 34-11 (frankly, we expected more from Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines).
Unfortunately, this is par for the course. Since the four-team format was established in 2014, 12 of the 16 semi-final games have been decided by 17 points or more.
So once again we are left with two SEC teams duking it out for the national title. As my youngest daughter used to say, “BOR-Ing.”
Expansion Will Help: If the conference commissioners would just stop their silly posturing and adopt the 12-team playoff model that was recommended last year, things would improve dramatically. Quarter-final matchups of the No. 5 through No. 12 ranked teams would almost certainly produce high-quality, exciting games, particularly if they were played on campus.
And with more teams participating in the playoff, we’d have fewer top players skipping “meaningless” bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft.
Rose Classic: The best game of the post-season, and one of the best games of any season, was this year’s Rose Bowl matchup between Ohio State and Utah. The Buckeyes prevailed, 48-45, in a thriller that went down to the final 12 seconds.
Ohio State was playing without four of its top players, including two of their three All-World receivers—Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. No matter, the third stud wideout, Jaxon Smith-Njigba (above) caught 15 passes for an all-time bowl record 347 yards and three touchdowns. And freshman Marvin Harrison Jr. stepped in and caught three more TDs.
Bowl Music: The Music City Bowl in Nashville was another classic, with Purdue edging Tennessee in overtime by the same score, 48-45. The game also drew a record crowd of 69,000. Unfortunately, a blown call on the goal line cost Tennessee the game.
Bruins Bail: The raft of bowl game cancellations was distressing, to say the least, for the players looking forward to their last opportunity to line up with their teammates and the people who work throughout the year to plan and present post-season games. Most schools handled the cancellations responsibly, keeping bowl officials and opponents appraised of their COVID situation and ability to field a team.
Not UCLA. Last Tuesday, just four hours before the kickoff of their Holiday Bowl game against North Carolina State, the Bruins informed bowl officials that because of positive COVID tests they didn't have enough defensive linemen to play the game.
Before that, there was nary a word to alert anyone that UCLA's participation might be in jeopardy. In fact, Bruins' coach Chip Kelly joked earlier in the week that he would play the game even if he had only 11 players available.
Instead, the Bruins bailed and the game was canceled at approximately 10 am; kickoff had been scheduled for 2 pm. This left the bowl with no time to try to bring in a replacement team.
Needless to say, NC State wasn't pleased. Wolfpack AD Boo Corrigan learned of UCLA's withdrawal on Twitter. His coach, a visibly angry Dave Doeren, said his team was lied to.
"We're upset because they had to have known prior to four hours before the game that this was a possibility, and communication would've been great," Doeren said. "Surely they had an idea. A heads up so we could start calling other schools that are out there to play would've been good."
We hosted the Bruins in our bowl game three times—2007 Emerald Bowl vs. Florida State, 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger vs. Illinois and 2015 Foster Farms vs. Nebraska. They were always a class act, and I was always immediately made aware of any issues or potential problems. I know that UCLA's former athletic director, Dan Guerrero, a man of great integrity, would've handled this much differently.
More Pac-12 Woes: Another year, another embarrassing, winless performance by the Pac-12 in post-season play. Utah played well and gave a valiant effort in the Rose Bowl, as noted, but otherwise, conference teams stunk up the joints they played in.
Washington State lost to the Mid-American Conference’s Western Michigan in the Sun Bowl. Oregon was thrashed by Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl. Arizona State lost to Wisconsin in the Las Vegas Bowl. Oregon State was outclassed by the Mountain West’s Utah State in the LA Bowl.
If you include UCLA’s no-show in the Holiday, the Pac-12 was 0-6 this year.
Irish Struggles: Notre Dame blew a 28-7 lead over Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl and how has lost five straight major bowl games in the last 10 years, including two Fiestas, a Cotton, a Rose and a BCS championship game. In fact, the Irish have lost 10 straight majors going back to 1994. They do well in the Pinstripe, Camping World and Independence, but stumble in the ones that really count the most. New coach Marcus Freeman, seemingly on the way to a huge win in his debut, has vowed to get his program over the hump.
Attendance Down, Ratings Up: Continuing the trend of the last decade, most of this year’s bowl games struggled to sell tickets but attracted huge TV audiences. Bowl games are now essentially TV content for ESPN and ABC (both owned by Disney). ESPN produces all but one of the 42 bowl games, which generate huge profits for the network. Even mediocre and lower level bowls produce strong ratings, and ratings translate to advertising dollars and negotiating leverage with cable providers.
Consider that the Armed Forces Bowl between two mediocre teams, 8-4 Army and 6-6 Missouri, averaged 2.57 million viewers on ESPN. The night before, the Golden State Warriors-New York Knicks game in which Steph Curry broke the NBA all-time three-point record averaged 2.35 million viewers on TNT.
Turner pays $1.2 billion in rights fees to televise about 60 NBA games, while ESPN spends roughly $100 million in team payouts for 35 lower and middle-tier bowl games.
And bowls draw more viewers. Needless to say, the Disney cash register is ringing.
Premature Pro Bowl Picks: Why does the NFL find it necessary to announce Pro Bowl selections after only 13 weeks of a 17-week season? The final four weeks are arguably the most important, with playoff spots and post-season seedings determined. And sometimes players who start fast sizzle down the stretch while others come through at the most critical time.
Parity Prevails: The NFL's long-stated goal of achieving parity has been achieved. Only three teams in the NFL have lost fewer than 5 games and almost half of the teams in the league are either 7-9, 8-8 or 9-7. It's hard to find a truly outstanding team—or a truly awful team other than Jacksonville—anymore.
This of course is music to the ears of commissioner Roger Goodell and his band of moneybag owners, who want to keep as many teams as possible in playoff contention for as long as possible, so fans will have an incentive to keep buying tickets.
The same holds true in college football, with fewer truly elite teams, a cluster of mediocre clubs, and Group of Five team frequently upsetting Power Five schools during the regular season and bowl season.
One of the biggest reasons is free agency. Now that players can transfer without sitting out a year, lots of talented quarterbacks who would’ve been holding clipboards or signaling plays in from the the sidelines are now throwing touchdown passes for their new teams.
Stanford’s Christmas Gift: Speaking of transfers, Stanford head coach David Shaw got a late Christmas gift when Oklahoma safety Patrick Fields, defensive MVP of the Alamo Bowl, announced he will be enrolling at Stanford this week as a grad transfer.