The bowl season has kicked off, in all of it's glory. Half empty stadiums littered with advertising, filling holes in the ESPN television schedule, pre-empting poker and rhythmic gymnastics.
This is how the college football season is supposed to end?
Many years ago, bowls were something special. New Year's Day was a smorgasbord of big games matching up big games on every television network. Not any more...the bowl games start a week before Christmas and last a week after New Years Day. They're all filler in the television schedule until the "BCS Championship Game"; relegated to sideshow status as every commentator tries to discuss Texas and Alabama. If you're not in the BCS title game, you're not terribly relevant...and it's essentially made the rest of the college football season - even the regular season - meaningless.
Look at Texas. The Longhorns made a mockery of scheduling this season in their quest to win a national championship, scheduling Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP, and Central Florida to coast into Big XII play. When the rewards of making the Big Game are so high, why would the Longhorns risk anything knowing that non-conference schedule would be meaningless? Win the Big XII championship and go undefeated, and Texas was virtually assured of their objective.
Sadly, much of the rest of college football is doing the same thing. In the case of Boise State and Texas Christian, it's unavoidable. The Broncos and Frogs would gladly play a tougher schedule, but few teams want to risk a loss.
CornNation's Jon Johnston suggests that college football needs to focus on improving schedules rather than worrying about a playoff system. The problem with that approach is that bad schedules are a symptom of the ills of college football. The real problem: the bowls themselves.
Certainly the Rose, Orange, and Cotton Bowls are traditions in college football. But bowls have become a parody of themselves, with the Weed-Eater Independence Bowl and this year's Papa Johns Pizza Bowl. 34 bowl games, to be exact.
Great for college football, right? Well, maybe for fans who take the the week between Christmas and New Years off to sit in front of their televisions. The ratings for bowl games are high, and that's why ESPN continues to create new bowls to fill out their schedules. In fact, evidence seems to indicate that tourism and ESPN are benefiting from the bowls at the expense of college football.
One of the principal advantages of bowl games for college football is an extra month of practice time. Nebraska is putting it to good use to try and correct a moribund offense. But Nebraska won't make any money playing in the Holiday Bowl; they'll spend every penny just getting there and back. Nebraska's in good shape in this regard... most schools actually lose money on bowl games...even BCS games. Last year, Virginia Tech and the ACC lost $1.7M going to the Orange Bowl due to unsold tickets. Nebraska's great fan support works to the advantage of the Nebraska athletic department, giving them an advantage over the rest of college football.
Simply put, college football is being harmed by the bowl system. It's expensive for fans and schools, and serves only to profit ESPN who gets to fill their holiday schedule with highly-rated games at a cut-rate price to them.
Eventually, college presidents are going to look at the money they lose on bowl games and realize that they no longer can dismiss the lure of a playoff system. Playing the games at home sights ensures lower costs (only one team needs to travel) and higher attendance (larger stadiums located closer to fans). It's how they do it in every other sport - even lower levels of college football. And guess what, for those teams that don't qualify for the playoffs, the bowls still could exist if they chose. Nebraska-Omaha missed out on the Division II playoffs, and got to play in the Kanza Bowl in Topeka earlier this month. All the benefits of the bowl system: extra practice time and an extra game, but minus all of extra expense. Yeah, Topeka is not an exotic location, but since most fans don't travel to the bowl game anyway, what does it matter? Play the game at a home site or in a regional site (how about Arrowhead in Kansas City?) where more fans could attend? ESPN could still televise the game to fill their TV schedule, and then save schools all of the excessive airfare and hotel costs.
And by opening more opportunities to play for a national championship, teams don't have to run scared from competition. In fact, by reinstating strength of schedule to the formula for selecting teams for the playoffs, we actually might make the regular season more relevant.
When Oklahoma is penalized for losing to Miami on South Beach, while Texas is rewarded for whipping Louisiana-Monroe at home, you know that the system is broken.