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On Junk Bowls, Playoff Systems and the Winter Classic

Brian: Jeff, Jennifer Floyd Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that because of this season's string of junk bowl games, now is the time for a playoff. On the other side of this argument is current BCS Commissioner and ACC Commissioner John Swofford. Swofford argues that college football will never see a playoff because the sport must protect the great bowls.

Great bowls? Like "The Granddaddy of Them All"? Where a dominant USC team smacked around a Big Ten team for the third consecutive season? Where the Big Ten has failed to smell Roses in each of its last 6 tries?

Or maybe Swofford was talking about his conference's own Orange Bowl? An Orange Bowl where the Hokies had to barely blink to beat the Big East's (ex-Conference USA) Cincinnati? A bowl that pulled in a 6.1 television rating, the lowest of any BCS bowl game. Ever. It was also hard not to cringe when watching the Orange Bowl and noting all the empty seats in Miami's Dolphins Stadium. Not to mention this year's version of the NHL Winter Classic - a game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks - netted a TV audience of a 2.9 rating (11.8 rating in Chicago and a 10.5 in Detroit) during the day on January 1. That game, aside from being a pretty cool concept (outdoor hockey in January with two of the original six NHL teams), was the NHL's best overnight regular-season TV rating in nearly 13 years. Think about that for a second. On the same day, college football saw the lowest television rating for a BCS bowl game in its history, while the NHL garnered the highest television rating since before we were freshmen in high school.

Washington Post sports columnist and blog favorite Michael Wilbon, for one, is over New Year's Day bowl games.

"[The] people who run college football had succeeded, finally, in killing New Year's Day."

And Wilbon is not alone. Throughout the media other sports writers are crying uncle, saying that the days of great college football on New Year's Day are over.

I can't say I disagree with him. On New Year's Day, I watched the first two periods of the NHL winter classic, about a quarter of the Rose Bowl until I got sick of Musburger and Herbstreit singing USC and Pete Carroll praises, the fourth quarter of the Gator Bowl (and your Clemson Tigers throwing away victory), and about half of the Orange Bowl until I acquiesced and decided you were correct in predicting a Hokies win (Cincinnati looked terrible).

How can the sport reign back in college football fans on New Year's Day? And will this get any better when ESPN gets the broadcast rights to the BCS games in 2011, or worse?

Jeff: That Jennifer Floyd Engel article is garbage. Nothing new. Texas Tech probably would've gotten beaten by Ole Miss on most days and now can say that they were disappointed in not being in the BCS and lost for that reason. As a BC blogger, I have no patience for that because BC was a win away from a BCS game also and fell to Nashville to play 6-6 Vanderbilt, not the Cotton Bowl to play the #3 SEC team. Big difference, so cry me a river Texas Tech. You're also two plays away from having lost to both Texas and Nebraska and not even being ranked right now.

Onto the point of the Big Ten. The Big Ten only played in one game where the fourth quarter meant anything. Northwestern lost in OT, Iowa stomped South Carolina and then every other Big Ten team got stomped. Yes, Michigan State had a halftime lead but Georgia quickly took the lead and put the game away in the third quarter, the only thing in doubt was if they would win by more than a TD to cover the spread, which they did. I believe bowl contracts are typically four years in length and the bowls with Big Ten tie ins need to seriously reconsider so that they can get some better games. It is not the Big Ten's fault that the BCS Bowls have selected one of their teams for an at large bid several years in a row now but it is their fault that the conference has no depth.

Hockey is not making up ground on college football because they had one game with a good TV rating.

Finally, New Years Day bowls do have no meaning now. It is BCS or bust now. The Outback Bowl began at 11:00am and then the Orange Bowl went well past midnight this year and not many people are going to sit in front of the TV for 14 hours watching college football. Also, arguably, the four biggest non-BCS bowl games are the Cotton Bowl, the Capital One Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Holiday Bowl. Only the Capital One Bowl is played on New Year's Day, so if you don't make the BCS, you are probably not hoping to play on New Year's Day. Football coaches probably used to set goals like compete for the conference championship and make a New Year's Day bowl. Now, their goals are compete for the conference championship and make a BCS Bowl. So yes, New Years Day Bowl has no meaning now and that point was hammered home with 8 win Iowa playing 7 win South Carolina this year.

That being said, not all non-BCS bowls are irrelevant. Attendance and ratings for a lot of bowls this year were fantastic. A playoff in college football just isn't happening because no one is signing those papers without every conference Champ being represented which means a minimum of a 16 team playoff and possibly a 32 team playoff. Getting fans, let alone student athletes, to neutral sites for 4 or 5 weeks in a row just is not happening and the ACC Championship game the last three years is exhibit 1A as to why I am right. But why not play them at the higher seeds home stadium? Because too many cities are making too much money off of the gazzilion bowl games there are right now. Its just the way college football is and the way its staying. Deal with it. If you want to play in a BCS game go to a school in a BCS conference and win that conference's regular season championship. If you're not at a BCS conference school you knew what you were getting yourself into so stop your bitching.

Brian: I will disagree with you here in saying that the NHL Winter Classic TV ratings are insignificant. The ratings are significant. I think the significance is that the NHL can now compete with college football on New Year's Day, the one day of the year where college football used to have a monopoly on the sports worlds collective television eyeballs. Way back when, New Year's Day was THE day in college football where more bowls than simply the BCS title game had meaning. When the big bowl games were played on New Year's Day - I'll call them the commodity bowls - Rose, Orange, Citrus, Sugar, Cotton - a national championship was usually on the line and fans and viewers had multiple options when it came to watching games during New Years Day. Choice is what keeps viewers glued to their TV sets. Honestly, with the bowls scheduled as far apart as they are, if BC isn't playing in the game and I can tell its going to be a blowout early on, I tune out. The games mean nothing aside for some marginal entertainment value. Back when you had multiple bowl games on the same day with more than one bowl with National Championship implications, viewers would remain more interested in the bowl games throughout the day. With the BCS bowl games moving to ESPN in a few years, however, I'm sure the bowls will be even more spread out, and New Years Day on college football will be irrelevant.

And yes, playing a bowl game in January is no longer the goal. Playing in the National Championship game is. While the other BCS bowls are nice, how much satisfaction can really be gleaned for a program when they win their first BCS bowl game against a Cincinnati or a Hawaii?

I'd also add that I'm sick of hearing a knock on BC football being that we haven't played in a January bowl game since 1994. Since ESPN in its infinite wisdom moved incredibly insignificant bowls like the GMAC Bowl, Liberty Bowl and the International Bowl past December 31, that phrase means absolutely nothing for a program.

Finally, you know my stance on having a playoff so I'm going to disagree here. While these cities and bowl committees are making money hand over fist, there will come a time where the money to be made from a college football playoff will far outweigh the money to be made from 33 insignificant bowls and the BCS title game.

Jeff: I refuse to agree that the hockey ratings are significant for hockey or for college football. College football is biggest in the south and hockey is biggest in really really cold places. All hockey fans probably watched that game and many of those would not have instead been watching the Gator Bowl. As you said, the Orange Bowl had the worst rating ever for a BCS Bowl and it still drew 3x the number of viewers that the once in a lifetime type hockey game did.

Brian: Once in a lifetime? Try once a year.

Jeff: Whatever. Enough with hockey, back to football. Cincinnati winning the Big East was bad for the BCS and the Orange Bowl. West Virginia or Pitt or even Rutgers would've been better for attendance and ratings. After a few more years of success and after winning some second tier bowl games, Cincinnati is more than welcome in the BCS as Big East champion, but this year it was bad for business. If the BCS wants it can change its rules so that in the future we would get a bowl lineup that would feature a Alabama/Texas matchup or perhaps even taking Southern Cal away from the Rose Bowl for some better matchups but for now their only concern is the national championship and I'm fine with that too.

As for the playoff, in order to satisfy current bowl cities, first round games would be in cities like Nashville, San Francisco, Detroit and Charlotte. Later rounds would move the the larger bowl venues of San Antonio, San Diego, Atlanta and Dallas and semifinal and final games would be in Miami, Pasedena, Phoenix, and New Orleans. Good luck with that.

Brian: There are versions of a college football playoff system that can benefit both the sport and the stakeholders in the current bowl system. You are simply citing one proposal that, in fairness to the pro-playoff argument, seems a little extreme, far-fetched and of the Mike Leach 64-team playoff variety. Marcus over at ACC Football Report has one such proposal that stays true to Swofford's "great bowls."

Cities like Nashville, San Francisco, Detroit and Charlotte have no bowl history. Bowls named for an obscure, four property hotel chain, a nut company and a muffler company are not great bowls. Yet, a playoff system doesn't preclude these cities from having a year-end, postseason exhibition game while honoring their current conference tie-ins. Besides, the non-BCS bowls are nothing more than that: a postseason, exhibition money grab.

The eight teams that played in those four bowls - Boston College, Vanderbilt, Cal, Miami (FL), Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan, North Carolina and West Virginia - would not have been involved in any form of a National championship playoff this season, and those bowls and the cities that host them would have still enjoyed the relative success they had hosting these exhibition games at the end of the season. Those bowls also benefited from inviting a local team in each case (Nashville - Vanderbilt, Emerald - Cal, Motor City - Central Michigan and Car Care - UNC), which in some ways is a win-win for the bowl, the program and the host city.

There are versions of a college football playoff that are beneficial to both the current non-BCS bowl games and the BCS bowl games themselves. If nothing else, a Plus One system, choosing the #1 and #2 ranked teams out of the 5 BCS bowl game winners, has no substantive impact to business for the current bowl/BCS system and only further enhances business for the sport.

Would there be the same amount of controversy? Absolutely. Taking this season as an example, there's no denying that it would be a knock-down, drag out fight to determine who should play in a Plus One. Your choices would include a 13-0 Utah, the winner of Florida/Oklahoma at 13-1, 12-1 Southern Cal, and a snubbed 12-1 Texas team (assuming they take care of the Buckeyes). But would the Plus One both move the sport closer to a more fair playoff system and be better for business? Again, the answer is a resounding "absolutely."

Jeff: I would have no problem with Marcus' proposal becoming a reality. However, don't call that a playoff because it isn't and don't tell me there won't still be big, big controversy because in the end humans and computers still come up with a #1 and a #2 to determine who plays for the national championship. The system is really just tweaking the current BCS and the BCS has already made several adjustments in its 10 year history so we might see something very similar to this in the near future. Time will tell. Reality is though that hammering out a playoff system (meaning 8 or 16 or 32 team single elimination) for college football is very difficult and is not going to happen in the near future.

If a true playoff system does eventually come to pass, there are going to be some big losers such as the current bowl host cities like Nashville and Charlotte or football programs like Rutgers, Connecticut, Central Michigan, Kentucky, etc. Teams that have gone on to win bowl games the last several years but would not have made a playoff field in any of the last 25 years. I'm sure their fans thoroughly enjoyed attending their team's bowl game this year but would probably not even bother if these bowls became some type of NIT consolation prize or got completely eliminated, in my opinion.

Brian: I fail to see how this would be any different with the current system, Jeff. Try telling an Eagles fan that a trip to the 5th best ACC bowl game in Nashville when the program was (possibly) a broken collarbone away from playing in the big money BCS bowl game in Miami isn't a consolation prize. The reality is that the BCS isn't for every college football team - as you said to mid-majors, quit your bitching (Central Michigan) - and even within the BCS conferences, if you don't win your conference, the message to historically insignificant college football programs is "we don't want you" (Rutgers, Connecticut and Kentucky).

Jeff: Of course the Eagles fell to a meaningless bowl this year that they didn't want to be at, but that same bowl was historic for Vanderbilt and their fans. Vanderbilt is another team along with the Central Michigan, Rutgers, Connecticut, and Kentuckys that I mentioned which would not have made a playoff in football had their been one at any point in the last 25 years yet have made it to and won bowl games. That is important for their programs and their fans so I don't want to see a system come in that eliminates the bowls that those teams strive for. As it turned out for Boston College, this year the Eagles and their fans acted like they would have been just as happy staying home rather than going to Nashville. That's because, two years in a row now, they were a factor in the BCS picture until the last game of the season. What would Rutgers or NC State have had to play for after their starts to this season after starting the way they did in a system where we have a 16 team playoff? I think bowls like the Music City Bowl would cease to exist if we went to a playoff system and while the Floridas, Texases and Ohio States of the world wouldn't care, I don't think that's a good thing for all of college football.

Brian: There is certainly a "middle of the road" solution that preserves both the non-BCS bowl games for programs like your UConn Huskies and levels the playing field more with some form of a playoff. However, to unequivocally state that a playoff will never happen because the sport has to preserve the "great bowls" (cough: John Swofford) represents the type of laziness and simple-mindedness that plagues this sport. College football remains a sport with both the greatest regular season and the worst postseason. I agree with Wilbon: the little charm that college football managed to create over its history - the New Year's Day mega bowl day - is gone. College football needs to remain relevant on New Year's Day. At a minimum, tweak the system to make January 1 the day for the sport.