College football’s bowl system has survived and expanded despite many external threats, including PR disasters, community indifference and heavy criticism of the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series.
More serious threats are building within the system — and that was never more clear than during the 2018-19 bowl season.
Coaches bailed on their teams, players opted out of games they didn’t consider meaningful enough, recruiting and transfers drew attention away from the field and one game was canceled for weather rather than endure the financial and logistical headaches of rescheduling.
And outside of the cancellation — here’s hoping that was a once-in-a-lifetime debacle — there’s every reason to believe those cracks in the bowl system are only going to get worse.
▪ Coaches bail: Coaches have been leaving their teams for new jobs and bigger paydays between the end of the regular season and the bowl games for more than a decade. It was always difficult to reconcile the idea of the bowl game being a meaningful contest with a coach’s willingness to skip it, but the situation has worsened with the 2017 addition of a December signing day.
Not only are head coaches bolting, but assistants are, too. Boise State defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a took a job at USC last month, leaving the Broncos’ defensive linemen to prepare for perhaps their biggest test of the season against Boston College in the First Responder Bowl without their coach. Another familiar name, Eliah Drinkwitz, took the job as Appalachian State’s head coach, leaving N.C. State to prepare for a challenging Gator Bowl against Texas A&M without its offensive coordinator (the Wolfpack got crushed).
▪ Players withdraw: Players have decided that they, like coaches, should focus on their financial futures in December. At least 17 players decided to skip bowl games this season to focus on the NFL — most notably West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. Those players’ teams went 5-7 in bowls, including some of the ugliest performances of the month (N.C. State got whipped 52-13, Houston was crushed 70-14, West Virginia lost 34-18, South Carolina got skunked 28-0).
I’m not a fan of players skipping bowls — why not skip the November games, too? — but you can’t blame them when coaches are doing it. And like leaving early for the NFL Draft, it’s likely to gain steam even among fringe prospects before long. It’s like a status symbol — you must be big time if you can’t risk injury in the bowl game.
▪ Can’t wait till next year: The early signing day this year was Dec. 19, diverting coaches’ and fans’ attention from the early round of bowl games. BYU and Western Michigan signed their 2019 recruiting classes while in Boise for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The early signing day also has increased the incentive for programs in transition to hire coaches quickly, and get them to leave their existing programs before the bowl games. The early signings trickle down to the burgeoning transfer market, where players are declaring their intention to transfer and skipping bowl games. Boise State linebacker Desmond Williams did that this year.
And when that transfer is a high-profile player, it’s easy to see a distraction forming. The top story around Georgia before the Sugar Bowl was the fate of backup quarterback Justin Fields, who eventually decided to transfer to Ohio State. A key story surrounding Alabama — even as it prepared for the national championship game — was whether former starting quarterback Jalen Hurts would transfer.
It’s clear that December has become more about next year than this year — and that’s lessening the importance of the bowl games.
▪ And then there’s the First Responder Bowl: The decision to start the Dec. 26 game between Boise State and Boston College with a daylong thunderstorm approaching the stadium instead of exploring alternative arrangements doomed the event. The Broncos and Eagles played about 10 minutes before the game was declared a no contest. This might be the greatest gift ever to the “meaningless bowl games” crowd — if a game featuring a Top 25 team isn’t worth saving, maybe these games are closer to exhibitions than championships after all.
It’s impossible to say what all these factors will mean for the future of the bowls — they certainly aren’t going away anytime soon. ESPN needs the December programming.
It might be tempting for the Group of Five to create its own playoff, but those five conferences get more than $80 million per year from their participation in the College Football Playoff system — even though they have virtually no hope of making a four-team playoff. That’s plenty of incentive to keep those schools tied to the current postseason format, however frustrating it might become. Bowl options for those teams are getting worse — for example, the Mountain West loses its spot in Las Vegas in 2020.
But the TV exposure and bowl trips are still coveted, at least until better job offers — or pro football agents — come along.
Boise State finishes in Top 25 again
Boise State finished in the Top 25 in both major polls Tuesday, the 12th time in the past 17 years that the Broncos have ended the season ranked.
Boise State finished No. 23 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 24 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. Fresno State (18 AP) and Utah State (22 AP) also finished in the Top 25, giving the Mountain West more ranked teams than the Pac-12 (two).