Playoff as good as advertised, but bowl system is paying the price

ByIvan Maisel ESPN logo
Saturday, February 20, 2016

On the day after the Granddaddy of Them All, more than one person said or tweeted to me something along the lines of, "It's a shame that Stanford isn't playing Alabama or Clemson."

Only Jan. 2 and already I had heard one of the more dispiriting comments of the year.

No, it's not a shame. Winning the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual should be what it ever has been, an accomplishment that sends Stanford fans floating into the winter. It should send the players and coaches away with a cache of endorphins they can summon as needed for the rest of their natural-born lives.

When the premise exists that winning even the Rose Bowl is not enough, the bowls as we know them are disappearing. Beginning with everyone's favorite day in Pasadena, bowls have been the tasty dessert at the end of a 9-, and then 10-, and now 12- or 13-course meal. In the playoff era, they are a substitute that looks like the real thing, a Mrs. Smith's apple pie heated and served to us with the promise that it tastes just like mom's.

Nothing against Mrs. Smith; I'm sure she's a nice industrial conglomerate posing as a lady. But the bowl matchups this season, with a couple of notable exceptions, illustrated the price we have paid to match the top four teams in the nation in the College Football Playoff.

On the morning after he won his fifth national championship in a second different format, Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "I am concerned about how does a playoff and a bowl system coexist, and how could we make it better if that's possible or get it right."

Since the number of bowls began expanding a generation ago, the majority of the games have showcased teams from the middle of the pack. But the top games still held promise. The top games still provided intersectional matchups of highly ranked teams. The playoff has thrown that equation askew. There is only one champion left for the non-playoff games in the New Year's Six (or, as became evident this year, the New Year's Three and the Almost New Year's Three).

So we get Stanford playing Iowa, nominally the second-best team in the Big Ten and, as the Hawkeyes revealed in Pasadena, definitely the third.

We get an Allstate Sugar Bowl matching Oklahoma State and Ole Miss, two teams ranked in the teens.

We get Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly opening his remarks about the Irish going to the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl by saying, "I won't tell you that they were jumping up and down when the announcements were made today, because they were disappointed that they weren't one of the four teams, but they also want to play one more game together, and this is that opportunity to play one more game together."

You could just feel the excitement pulsating through the Irish, couldn't you? Ohio State scored two touchdowns pretty much as soon as the coin hit the grass. Notre Dame never had the ball again when it wasn't at least two scores behind.

After the 44-28 victory by his Buckeyes, Urban Meyer was asked about not making the playoff. "Those who know me, I can't let go of things," Meyer said. "I've let go of that. We just won the Fiesta Bowl."

I always liked that guy.

Let's take a breath here and aver that the College Football Playoff has been as promised, an in-season engine every bit as powerful as the BCS for revving up tension and excitement. But it has not come without a cost. Saban's concern revolved around the ability of his players to maintain their intensity across two games in 11 days and the toll that the travel took on players and fans.

Saban described it as "this whole dynamic of how do we keep a healthy bowl system, which I think is great for college football, it's a lot of positive self-gratification for a lot of players who had a good season, and the national interest that we have in a playoff, which sort of overwhelms the importance of all the other bowl games."

On the Championship Drive podcast Wednesday, College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock pleaded for patience. "I think we're going to have to let a little more time go by," he said, "Get a little more data, a little more games under our belt. See how this comes out."

Hancock also called for patience regarding the concern about the playoffs being part of the Almost New Year's Three. The issues that arose this year, with New Year's Eve landing on a Saturday, will be diminished going forward. In 2017, when the semifinals revert to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, they will be played on Jan. 1. The conference commissioners will discuss the state of the playoff at their annual meeting in April.

"I want to make sure that people are aware that whatever we do in April will not affect the game date[s] for the next two years," Hancock said.

College football changes. Bowls evolve. Forty years ago, matchups weren't decided until Alabama coach Bear Bryant decided where he wanted the Crimson Tide to play. In the late '80s, bowls got so competitive that they couldn't wait until season's end to make their matchups. By 1990, the Sugar Bowl locked in No. 1 Virginia around Halloween. The Cavaliers lost three of their last four games and arrived in New Orleans unranked.

Now the playoff comes first and the bowls take what's left. If you saw Alabama and Clemson play and your heart rate didn't return to normal until sometime Wednesday, then you grasp how valuable the playoff is. But judging by the bowls this year, the playoff didn't come cheap.

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