During the regular season, every game matters. If you’re a top team, then one critical loss can put you out of the national championship hunt (except for LSU in ’07). Those upsets can happen anytime, anywhere (tell me you saw BYU over OU coming). For teams lower down the ladder, a few key losses can make or break their quest for a conference championship. For teams below that, there is often a very narrow margin between making and missing a lucrative trip to a bowl game.
Rivalry games matter regardless of the record. When Auburn and Alabama or Ohio State and Michigan play, the stadium will be packed with raving fans and eyeballs will be glued to HDTVs across the country, even if both teams are 4-7. As a Kansas fan, I want to beat Missouri all the time at everything. If Mizzou was playing the devil himself, I would be yelling “Go Big Red!” at the top of my lungs.
Every game matters. The teams are playing for something, be it the national title, conference title, bowl eligibility, or just plain hatred.
That’s why I generally prefer college to pro football. In the NFL, if you lose a game, meh, it’s no big deal. 10-6 will almost always get you into the playoffs. Losing a game to your rivals stings, but 1) you get to play them twice, so you have another shot and 2) most NFL teams are geographically separated enough that you don’t meet the other team’s fans on a regular basis. In college, many rivalries are close enough that opposing fans live in the same neighborhoods, work in the same offices and eat at the same restaurants.
There’s a particularly sick feeling to walking into a bar after a big loss and seeing fans of the other team celebrating.
December and January reverse all of that. Instead of playing for something, most of the teams are playing for nothing. For example, Rutgers beat UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Is anyone going to remember that Rutgers proudly carried home the coveted St. Petersburg Bowl trophy at the end of the 2009 season?
On the other hand, the NFL goes to a playoff, which teams are fighting desperately to get into at the end of the regular season, and battling to move on to the Super Bowl in the playoffs.
[Playoff. Hmm. I wonder if anyone would watch a college football playoff?]
The teams you meet in a bowl aren’t very compelling. Often teams play that are spread over the country. There’s no animosity between teams, because they never see each other. There’s no motive for revenge. With the exception of that awkward post-game time when both teams fans are hitting the bars in team colors, the fans never see each other. There’s no one to remind you of a loss, and no one for you to remind of a victory.
It’s important for a school to go to a bowl because of the exposure and money. You can tell recruits you’re a bowl team. That’s all it is: an exhibition.
The stakes are a little higher in the BCS games. Unlike the New Mexico Bowl, people will actually remember who won the Rose Bowl. Even then, winning or losing, while slightly more important, matters less than getting there. This year Ohio State will proudly tell everyone that it won the Rose Bowl, and Oregon will proudly tell everyone that it went to the Rose Bowl (or vice versa).
The only bowl game that truly matters is the National Championship. That’s the trophy that goes in the center of the case. That’s the one that people remember. But even the National Title game is marred by the process of entry. This year Texas and Alabama are playing. Are they the two best teams? I tend to think so, but neither of them have played TCU, Cincinnati, or Boise State, all of whom remain undefeated. Last year, Oklahoma got in, despite losing to Texas head-to-head.
All of these factors cast a pall over the bowl season. I’ll still watch; it’s still football, and it’s a long time from January to next September. I can only compare the excitement and energy of the last weekend of the regular season, when Cincinnati edged Pittsburgh 45-44 in the snow (oh how I love watching football in the snow- from the couch), Alabama shocked Florida and Nebraska and Texas played a defensive duel that came down to the final second. Even the Georgia Tech-Clemson game in the ACC was good; I didn’t see it because I ran out of room on the DVR, but it sounded exciting.
Those games had everything great about college football: passion, rivalry, and playing for championships. With a few exceptions, the bowls have none of those.
I’ll still be excited come January 1. Just not as excited as I was December 3.