From the Celebration Bowl to the College Football Playoff championship game, from Miami to Boise and so many points in between (plus one game in The Bahamas), the bowl season is upon us. Forty-two games over 24 days. Too many bowls? Maybe. But after we finish counting the bowls, we’ll be counting the days till next season begins.
For decades, there was no way to determine a "mythical" national champion in college football, other than the human polls. And that was bad.
So along came the BCS, which pitted the top two teams according to a convoluted formula of human polls and computer rankings. And that was bad.
So now we have the College Football Playoff, in which a selection committee of 12 humans — A throwback to the old poll days, no? Yes! — places the top four teams in two semifinals leading up to a championship game. And that’s bad.
Now, predictably, with a nonconference champion (11-1 Ohio State) picked over the Big Ten champ that beat the Buckeyes (11-2 Penn State), everyone from NCAA president Mark Emmert (who has no jurisdiction over the CFP) to the average Jeaux on his favorite bar stool seems to be clamoring for an eight-team playoff.
And that will be good. Right? Are we sure?
Expansion to eight teams — presumably all the "Power Five" conference champions plus three at-large picks — doesn’t come without its issues.
When would you play the four quarterfinal games?
Would they be on campus or at bowl sites, potentially asking two fan bases to make three bowl trips to follow their teams to the title game?
Would such an expansion mean the end of conference championship games?
Would it render the non-playoff bowls even more irrelevant than they are now, leaving them gasping for ticket sales and ratings?
Then there’s question of when to play the semifinals. This year, the Peach and Fiesta Bowls are on Saturday, Dec. 31. Next year, the semis are in the Sugar and Rose bowls on New Year’s Day.
But after that? The semis following the 2018 season are Dec. 29. In 2019, they’re Dec. 28. This is because both dates fall on a Saturday, and ratings for New Year’s Eve semifinals were so abysmal last season (on a Thursday). But typically, Dec. 28 and 29 have been dates reserved for the likes of the Russell Athletic and Belk bowls.
There are still flaws to the system, no doubt, but a three-year sample size — heck, the third set of CFP games haven’t even been played yet — seems too small to create an informed opinion.
That said, it took just one year of lousy New Year’s Eve ratings for the CFP to move its non Sugar/Rose semifinals off Dec. 31 — unless Dec. 31 falls on a Saturday. Technically, though, the CFP says its format is locked in until 2025 at the earliest.
Maybe that’s so, but nine years is a long time. Remember nine years ago when college football power brokers were swearing there wouldn’t be a playoff at all?
Starting with a bang
The bowl season begins Saturday with six bowls: the Celebration, New Mexico, Las Vegas, Camelia, Cure and New Orleans. The lead-pipe cinch winner for best attendance will be the New Orleans Bowl between UL-Lafayette and Southern Miss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ragin' Cajuns and Golden Eagles fans will flock to the Big Easy for a preholiday weekend.
Ending with a whimper?
Can anyone or anything derail Alabama’s drive for a second straight CFP title and fifth since 2009 under Nick Saban? The Crimson Tide is a lopsided 16-point favorite over Washington in the Peach Bowl. By comparison, Ohio State is about a three-point choice over Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.
It’ll take a great quarterback to have a chance at toppling the king, which all three other CFP semifinalists possess. Washington has Jake Browning, Clemson has Deshaun Watson and Ohio State has J.T. Barrett. Aside from that, a little disruption in continuity over Lane Kiffin leaving for another job wouldn’t hurt the other teams’ cause, either.
To Birmingham, with love
SBNation.com called it the greatest streak in all of sports.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp is part of a team playing in the Birmingham Bowl for the third straight year. In 2014, Florida beat East Carolina there after Muschamp was fired. Last year, Auburn beat Memphis there after Muschamp left for South Carolina. At least this time he gets the pleasure of Legion Field on a December afternoon.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema left Belk Bowl opponent Virginia Tech off his coaches poll ballot last week, prompting a statement of apology from the school. The Hokies were No. 19 in the poll anyway. … LSU is playing in its 17th straight bowl, the second-longest active streak among Southeastern Conference teams behind Georgia (20). … Southern California and Penn State are playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since they met in Pasadena eight years ago. The Trojans won 38-24.
Five bowls (other than the playoffs) you need to make time to watch:
LSU (7-4) vs. Louisville (9-3)
WHEN: 10 a.m. Dec. 31
WHAT TO WATCH: Even if it weren’t LSU playing, you’d be compelled to watch the Heisman winner leading the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense against one of the nation’s best scoring defenses. That’ll be Lamar Jackson against LSU, which will be minus linchpin middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith. The Tigers will have to score points to win, hoping to get one last memorable performance from the man who was good enough to win the Heisman, Leonard Fournette.
Penn State (11-2) vs. Southern California (9-3)
WHEN: 4 p.m. Jan. 2
WHAT TO WATCH: The Big Ten champion Nittany Lions were the odd team out of the CFP final four, but the Rose Bowl is a nice consolation prize. Simply getting here is a triumph for USC, which started 1-3. The Trojans have won eight straight since, Penn State nine after its 2-2 start. This will be one of the best quarterback matchups of the bowl season between Trojans freshman phenom Sam Darnold and the Lions’ Trace McSorley.
Auburn (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 2
WHAT TO WATCH: Auburn may be in New Orleans by attrition — Alabama was the only SEC team with fewer than four losses — but it will be a test for Big 12 champion Oklahoma. The Tigers defense has been superb under ex-LSU coordinator Kevin Steele (15.5 ppg) and must contend with a Sooners offense full of weapons, starting with Heisman finalists QB Baker Mayfield and WR Dede Westbrook. Auburn needs a healthy QB Sean White and RB Kamryn Pettway.
Colorado (10-3) vs. Oklahoma State (9-3)
WHEN: 8 p.m. Dec. 29
WHAT TO WATCH: Both teams came up just one win short of the CFP bowls — Colorado lost the Pac-12 title game to Washington, Oklahoma State fell to rival OU — but it led to this choice matchup. The Cowboys have a great pass/catch combo of QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington but must contend with the nation’s No. 1 pass defense. Colorado is in its first bowl since 2007, making coach Mike MacIntyre a hot coaching search commodity.
Wisconsin (10-3) vs. Western Michigan (13-0)
WHEN: Noon Jan. 2
WHAT TO WATCH: When LSU lost to Wisconsin in September, few figured the Badgers for a CFP bowl team. But here they are against P.J. Fleck’s upstart Broncos, this year’s “Group of Five” representative. The first two "Group of Five" entries — Boise State and Houston — pulled off big upsets. If the Broncos want to “row the boat” to another win, they’ll have to pick the lock of Wisconsin’s stingy defense with QB Zach Terrell and WR Corey Davis.
The Final Four
The College Football Playoff’s semifinal games:
Alabama (13-0) vs. Washington (12-1)
WHEN: 2 p.m. Dec. 31
WHAT TO WATCH: Alabama is everyone's overwhelming favorite to win it all, but the Huskies are an underrated threat. Washington is led by QB Jake Browning, who will need his offensive line to hold off a Bama defense that gets plenty of pressure with its front four alone. The Crimson Tide has 14 non-offensive TDs this season, two in the SEC title game against Florida — gifts Washington can ill afford to bestow.
Clemson (12-1) vs. Ohio State (11-1)
WHEN: 6 p.m. Dec. 31
WHAT TO WATCH: Should the Buckeyes be here after not even making the Big Ten title game? Regardless, you can bet a blueblood Ohio State-Alabama showdown in the title game is what ESPN craves. To make that happen, the Buckeyes must overcome the talents of Heisman finalist QB Deshaun Watson. Clemson nipped Ohio State 40-35 three years ago in the Orange Bowl. On paper, this should be another thriller — maybe the best matchup of bowl season.