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The More The Scarier In Bowl Season

by Joe Coughlin
Dec 19, 2013 8:24 PM EST



“You know what you feed a dray horse in the morning if you want a day’s work out of him? … Just enough so he knows he’s hungry.”

Delivered in the all-time great sports film “Eight Men Out,” the line is a dastardly notion uttered by a cheat who won’t pay up. The thief's intention is condemnable, but his thought is accurage and has plenty of play on human instincts.

Dangle a carrot in front of our nose and we’ll work to get there. Hang a small carrot six inches out, a bigger one 12 inches, a bigger one 18 inches and so on and so forth. Well, most of us will lose interest in that giant carrot 20 feet away and just take the lowest hanging fruit — er, vegetable.

Such is the dilemma with postseason athletics at all levels. Where is the line between player interest and public interest? Unfortunately, for college football fans and players, the answer to that question is there isn't one, or if there is, it's definitely green.  

This year the bowl count is 35. Next year it’s 39. That number has more than tripled since 1970, when there were 11. And is up more than 50 percent since 2000, when there were “just” 25.

After this season, each year, 78 FBS teams will make the “postseason.” A whopping 65 percent of the 120 teams that participate in the highest level of college football will get to play a playoff game. Not only will it be expected, but also it’s statistically probable. The closest numbers to those at the pro level are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where 16 of the 30 NHL teams battle for the top prize.

You may think that the ridiculous extra tournaments involving NCAA basketball teams may rival college football, but you’d be wrong. With the NCAA, NIT, CBI and CollegeInsider.com tourneys, still only about 36 percent (129 of 350) of teams participate in postseason basketball.

What does all this mean? About $2 billion in the last 10 years to NCAA schools, according to a report from the Football Bowl Association through 2011-12.

And that’s where the conversation starts and ends for the NCAA. For John Q. Sports fan, aka you and I, we just keep getting more and more bowls that don't interest us. But that's where I'm confused. The money is there, but how? I’m surprised at the windfall of cash because I’m not watching Ohio vs. East Carolina in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 23.

In fact, I went through this year’s 35 games and here’s what I found:

• Definitely won’t watch: 11

• If I have nothing better to do: 11

• Circled on the calendar: 9

• Will not miss: 4

Those are pretty low odds for the money-grabbers, especially considering that in the Sports Fan Division of human beings, I would say I am a playoff contender myself, residing in the upper echelon of beer-drinking and snack-munching, couch-parked, TV-obsessed college football fans. And on Dec. 26 I won't be tuning in to Pittsburgh and Bowling Green. 

It’s not that I’m sick of college football. It’s that a good chunk of these games aren’t any good. The two teams that kick off this bowl season — Washington State and Colorado State — have lost a combined 12 games. Why would any fan (outside of Cougars and Rams fans) choose to sit in front of a TV to watch something like that for four hours? That’s how long these bowl games last.

Still, networks fight for the rights to these games. The market is saturated, but no one seems to care. I have a feeling in the near future, as more and more viewers drop and advertisers start to get wise, these TV deals aren't going to look like such a good idea. Then maybe we can play only bowls that matter. Maybe that's just wishful thinking, however.

What’s more concerning is that the plethora of postseason games waters down the regular season of college football — a regular season that the NCAA calls can’t-miss because "every game counts." The more bowl games added, the less that's true.

Look at a 7-3 Nebraska team. As of Week 10, it would have been more beneficial to the Huskers to lose their remaining two games and fall into a more winnable bowl game — most likely against Syracuse, which Minnesota (8-4) has the pleasure of playing. Instead, Nebraska gets the SEC’s Georgia, which struggled with injuries and consistency all season, but still has the power to outslug the Huskers. I’m not condoning an attitude of losing-first-means-winning later, but I’m not coaching these teams. There will be programs — out of the title hunt or conference race — that make this decision to pad bowl wins.

What do these bowls mean anyway? What becomes of the winner of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl? To the players in these games, it doesn’t mean much. If superstar Georgia running back Todd Gurley still was battling an ankle injury, he wouldn’t play. There is no upside. What would a win in the Gator Bowl do for his team or his name? Nothing. There will be instances where ailing superstar players choose to sit out inconsequential bowl games and rest for either the NFL combine or a healthy offseason. Playing in a bowl game was once a sign of success and a chance to display your skills. With the watered down field, a mid- to low-tier bowl game is no more important than a regular-season conference game in the SEC.

The most compelling sports TV is watching two hungry, even starving, opponents who need the win, need that trophy. With more than 50 teams competing in bowls unknown to the everyday person, there is no need. There’s just greed.

But money talks and reason walks. All roads lead to more bowls and more teams, but soon six-win teams will run out. And then what? Could we see under .500 teams play in bowl games?

Hey, if the zeroes fit.