Bowl-O-Rama

Five cities. Ten teams. Endless debate. Let the games begin.
Illustrations by Christopher Serra

Remember the Alamo Bowl? By all means I will . . . once I figure out whether the game is on a Wednesday, Saturday, or Monday and whether its kickoff is in the afternoon or evening. Of all the teenage, made-for-cable, serially sponsored college football games for teams that either belly flopped in November (longtime number one Penn State in 1999, defending national champ Texas in 2006) or got jilted by a bowl older than Miley Cyrus (11-1 Kansas State in 1998), San Antonio’s indoor contest is my absolute favorite. Let those games on New Year’s Day or later have the glamour—there’s something to be said for bowls that take place in the same calendar year as the season. Am I the only one who gets confused referring to that stellar UT squad as winners of both the 2005 national championship and the 2006 Rose Bowl?

After beating Texas this season, the Texas Tech Red Raiders may manage to be one of the last two teams announced on Fox’s bowl-selection show. Then, just as surely as we’ll hear complaints about who is or isn’t playing for the title and why that Mountain West team is or isn’t worthy of a BCS at-large spot, nearly every message board and blog will fill up with harrumphs about the glut of unimportant bowls: Too many games! Teams that finish seventh in their conference shouldn’t be rewarded! May as well call one the Toilet Bowl!

Aside from the notion that a Christmas trip to Shreveport for what used to be the Poulan-Weed Eater Independence Bowl (it currently lacks a title sponsor) is somehow a reward, such sentiments are understandable. These days, a team can go .500 and still be eligible for the postseason. However, as Sports Illustrated college football scribe Stewart Mandel noted, it’s possible there won’t be enough teams to fill the slots. There were 22 bowl games in 1999; this year the count is 34, but only 71 of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s 119 schools went 6-6 or better in 2007.

Teams that reach the end of that six-win rainbow often find their pot of gold in Texas, which has five bowls, the second most of any state (Florida has half a dozen, California four). In addition to the once dominant Cotton (established in 1937 and about to hold its last game at the actual Cotton Bowl) and the Alamo (1993), we have El Paso’s Sun Bowl (dating back to a high school field in 1935, it’s the country’s second-oldest bowl game after the Rose) and the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl (née the Fort Worth Bowl, which debuted in 2003). The baby of the bunch, Houston’s Texas Bowl, turns three this season but can trace its lineage back to the Bluebonnet, a stalwart between 1959 and 1987 (the city had the Gallery furniture.com Bowl and the EV1.net Houston Bowl from 2000 through 2005).

Who watches all these little bowls? Actual college football fans, happy to enjoy that two-week stretch when there’s a game on every night and they’re exposed to teams that they might have missed during the regular season. The people who complain about these games are merely sports fans, content to watch the last weeks of the NFL and then the BCS. But if we’re really gonna gripe about the glut, I’d point my finger at the BCS.

No, not at the whole system (that’s a column, not a sentence), but at the BCS National Championship Game itself, one of four bowls the NCAA added in 2006. In theory, this allows the sport to have a more impressive and monopolistic main event, with Fox paying big bucks for the privilege. In practice, it’s made the title game less special. New Year’s Day used to be a national holiday for sports, and even as the games stretched out to January 2, 3, and 4, college football owned the landscape. By the time the championship kicks off now, I will have sat through the NFL’s first playoff weekend and spent the day at work. Who has time to smoke a brisket or make chili then?

The championship game also has a trickle-down effect. Last season, teams that would have otherwise accepted invitations to the Cotton (SEC runner-up Georgia) and the blue-turf Humanitarian (WAC champ Hawaii) earned a lucrative promotion to the Sugar Bowl. As part of the resulting lineup shuffle, 6-6 Alabama played 6-6 Colorado in the “Who Cares?” Independence Bowl—except that the Crimson Tide’s 30-24 win over the Buffs made for better viewing than the Bulldogs’ 41-10 blowout of the Warriors. One year before that, the Fiesta Bowl gave us Oklahoma-Boise State, an all-time classic. But that same season the Sun (Oregon State beat Missouri 39-38 by going for 2 points at the end of the fourth quarter) and the Alamo (Texas overcame a 14-0 hole to hold off Iowa 26-24) bowls were just as entertaining.

And isn’t entertainment all that matters? Of course the smaller bowls are unimportant—but with the advent of the BCS, so is every bowl but the national championship. Of course there’s nothing special about conference also-rans that simply hope to finish with a winning record. But is a 9-3 team gunning for a number nineteen ranking that much more extraordinary? The only real difference between a BCS game and a December game is about $16 million. With their tiny payouts, second-tier sponsors, and complete absence of hype, these games can almost fool you into thinking that they exist for the good of everyone involved—fans, cheerleaders, coaches, students, bowl queens, players—instead of just being a platform to sell advertising.

Bowls have always been about vacations and the chance to play an interesting opponent, the sort of interconference games we used to get. If Oregon State and Missouri square off in September, that’s an attractive battle between the Pac-10 and the Big 12. And it’s no less so in El Paso in December. What’s great about the little bowls is the very thing some people complain about—they’re

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