Bowl game dilemma: too many stars are MIA

Dec 29, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Lincoln Kienholz (12) motions at the line of scrimmage during the second quarter of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against the Missouri Tigers at AT&T Stadium.
Dec 29, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Lincoln Kienholz (12) motions at the line of scrimmage during the second quarter of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic against the Missouri Tigers at AT&T Stadium.

Seems to be a crescendo of complaints about the crappy state college bowl games. Among those screaming for a change are two of the top coaches in the game — Georgia's Kirby Smart and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

The confluence of transfers and opt-outs left many teams unrecognizable after they earned bowl invitations with a good-to-great season that featured players that made these teams fun to watch. But when the bowl games went on without many of those featured players it was damned hard to watch.

Something must change, and expanding the playoff system from four to 12 next year will not be enough.

The lure of pro football, convenience of a transfer portal and enticements via NIL have created a repugnant situation that demeans and devalues what was once the highlight of the college football cycle: bowl games. A record number of players opted out of bowl season this season for those reasons.

The two top-ranked teams outside the College Football Playoff faced off in the Capital One Orange Bowl. But only sixth-ranked Georgia looked the part Saturday — and that led to frustration from Dawgs' Smart, despite — or because — Georgia demolished No. 5 Florida State, 63-3. It was the largest margin of victory in bowl history, topping the Bulldogs' 58-point win over TCU in last season's national championship game. But the lopsided score was due, in part at least, to a host of opt-outs and injuries for the Seminoles.

"People need to see what happened tonight, and they need to fix this," Smart said, lamenting the flood of opt-outs and portal entries on teams playing in non-playoff bowl games. "It needs to be fixed. It's very unfortunate that they have a good football team and a good football program and they're in the position they're in."

The Seminoles played without their top two quarterbacks, top two running backs, top two receivers, starting tight end, three starting defensive linemen, two of three starting linebackers and three starting defensive backs. They were down 29 scholarship players in all.

Florida State coach Mike Norvell strongly intimated that the College Football Playoff committee's decision to leave a 13-0 Seminoles team out of the playoff in favor of two one-loss teams — Texas and Alabama — motivated a significant number of his team's opt-outs.

Florida State beat Louisville 16-6 in the ACC championship game with third-string quarterback Brock Glenn at the helm of a lackluster offense, and the committee used that performance — and the injury to star quarterback Jordan Travis that preceded it — as rationale for keeping an undefeated Power 5 team from the playoff.

Read results, analysis of CFB Bowl games

Iowa's Ferentz, the senior coach in college football, is fed up the bowl season clashing with the December recruiting calendar and an open window for the transfer portal.

Similar to thoughts shared by Smart after the Bulldogs' 60-point win, Ferentz went deep into what college football has become.

“Sorry to say two years later, we are in worse shape than we were two years ago. I did not think that was possible,” Ferentz said ahead of his loss to Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. “We, the adults, have done a lot to really screw this thing up. We have a great game, so I do — old guy in the room — I have got some concerns about what the future is going to look like. I think most people are aware that we have some real issues right now. I am not sure what we can come to agreement what the remedies may be. You see a lot of things that just concern you, and again, there are a lot of moving parts. I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers.

“Despite all the challenges, I think the thing that remains consistent, the single best part about what we do is we get to work with really high-quality young players, and that has not changed. It was the same way two years ago, 10 years ago, and that is the part you really enjoy. I have always told people in any job, you have X amount of percent of things you do not really look forward to doing, and then another percent, hopefully, you do like doing. If that percent outweighs the other side, then it is still a pretty good deal.

"It is just a different world. Even 20 years ago, you had guys possibly opting out for the NFL, not near to the extent now," Ferentz said. "There are just a lot of parties involved now, and it us not always healthy voices that the players here and some of the parties involved are not necessarily thinking about what is best for the individual young people. Just kind of flies in the face of what we try to do as coaches I think, so that is part of it.

"As (Tennessee coach) Josh Heupel alluded to, we have opened the rules up now where it is real easy for people to make bad decisions. I have always — not always, but for a while now — I have been just concerned about how our thirst for the playoffs and our thirst for the national championship race: Two teams, four teams, with all the focus going there with the public and the media, really diminishes some of the other bowls."

Cutting down on bowl games will lose money

For a while, the proliferation of What-The-Hell-Is-That? Bowl games became somewhat tolerable. It gave teams with marginal success something to shoot at. It is the next-level version observed by youth leagues of awarding everybody at least a participation plaque to assuage their tender feelings, declassifying winning as a motive. Next they will cease keeping scores to further insulate kids from the reality that there are winners and losers in real life. But we digress.

There were 43 Bowl Games on the 2023–24 schedule, with such names as Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe, Wasabe Fenway and others based on whomever coughs up enough sponsorship money.

That influx of cash is important because coaches and even athletics directors have a Bowl Clause, rewarding them for participating in one. Ohio State AD Gene Smith made a $35,000 bonus because the Buckeyes took part, more or less, in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic Friday (Dec. 29), losing to Missouri, 14-3.

It was a pathetic display for the usually entertaining Buckeyes, a team that scored a touchdown in its 88 previous games, including at least one each in eight straight games by wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., our No. 1 player in ratings by the Hall of Football on

But as was the case in so many 2023 bowl games, the star players — the main attractions from the regular season — did not participate. Harrison opted out, no doubt to preserve his health and get ready for the NFL draft and the 2024 Indianapolis Combine. His longtime teammate, going back to high school, starting quarterback Kyle McCord, transferred to Syracuse earlier this month.

So, Ohio State started backup QB Devin Brown, and, when he was hurt resorted, to true freshman Lincoln Kienholz as the Buckeyes were held to 203 total yards and gave up four sacks, two fumbles and 10 tackles for a loss.

This postseason hit a peak of players abandoning their teams in bowl season, either to prepare for the draft or seek another school through the transfer portal. In 2016, star running back Christian McCaffery skipped Stanford’s Sun Bowl so he could prepare for the pros.

That move became so popular that it is almost expected and when a player packs it in the announcement is relegated to a footnote. Couple that with transfers and bowl games are no longer showtime for this season’s great players, but rather a tryout for spots on next year’s rosters, with numerous freshmen getting a shot at quarterback.

It will be interesting to see, even among those in the 12-team playoff, how many players will abandon their team next year. Although concerns over health for the draft will remain for players who already have a high rating, the transfer portal can still ruin the attractiveness of bowl games bereft of standout players from the regular season.

“It’s a terrible system,” Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin told reporters last Wednesday (Dec. 27) at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. “I wouldn’t think any other sports, professional sports, have ever set up a system where free agency starts while the season is still going. It really makes no sense.

"You can leave, you can stay, you can go other places, coaches can call you and our season is still going. It would be like before the NFC or AFC playoffs start in a couple weeks, all of a sudden, hey, free agency the week before opens."

So, what needs to happen? The most obvious idea might be to move the dates of the open window for the transfer portal until, say, February. This should punch up high school recruiting, so teams and preps can focus on commitments without dealing with a simultaneous transfer sideshow.

Realistically, that may not prevent disenchanted players from sitting out during Bowl Games because (fill in the blank).

Monetary incentive missing

One issue is that, unlike coaches and administrators, players have no vested interest — and we mean monetary — in playing extra games with the team they want to leave. In so-called amateur sports the evolving pay-for-play environment needs to be fine tuned before it devours the sport. There are certainly ways to address this, fight fire with fire. Offer money-based incentives to play out a bowl season. But it would create a major distraction as different stars try to leverage their respective values at various levels. Great social media fodder.

And who would pay? The bowl sponsors? Some NIL conglomerate? A third-party sponsor (hello Under Armour vs. Nike)? How about Electronic Arts as it is tries to relaunch its college football game?

Yet, despite all the negativity surrounding these postseason games, the bowl season’s heavy schedule will continue for the usual reason: money. There is so much damn money that it serves as a deodorant for schools, coaches, administrators and even the complicit broadcast partners.

But the stench remains for fans, whose almost blind loyalty continues, so far, to underwrite the whole thing, either wilth high-priced event tickets or a subscription to some pay-for-view streaming service.

If this perverse system hasn’t already collapsed in the College Football Playoff/transfer portal/opt-out era, why should we expect it to do so over the next few years?

There is no shortage of sponsors. There is no shortage of willing broadcast partners. And, although bowl season is a pathetic remnant of those attractive postseason battles of yore, rabid fans and crass commercialism will not allow the demise of a 120-year old tradition to perish. Never mind that it was originally staged in warm-area stadiums where players wanted to put an exclamation on their season or their career. Times have irreversably changed. 

But unless this dilemma is addressed, these games will be more properly promoted as a sneak peek, an audition for the next season rather than a celebratory culmination of the current season.

As that continues to play out, the question is will sponsors and fans continue their costly support of what has devolved into little more than a prequel to spring games.

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