Allow me to be one of the few to openly defend the comedy that is known as the college football bowl season.
By the time the Wisconsin Badgers play their 14th game Saturday, the Alamo Bowl against Colorado, 11 of 28 holiday post-season games will have already been played, the highest total ever. Teams such as North Texas, New Mexico, Toledo, Mississippi (6-6), Purdue (6-6) and, yes, even the Badgers (7-6), will all be rewarded with a trip to (mostly) warmer locales and a nationally televised game for what some consider dubiously successful seasons.
But so what? It's fun anyways, and nobody ever said these bowl games had to mean anything. In fact, outside of signature games like the Rose, Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls -- and often including them -- NCAA football's bowl season has faced a long history of relative unimportance.
Remember bowls like the Garden State, Bluebonnet, John Hancock, Copper and Florida Citrus? They're all either defunct or have been officially renamed by a new corporate sponsor, the most noteworthy example of which had to be the recently deceased Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl. That game is now simply known as the MainStay Independence Bowl. Whatever it is MainStay makes, college football fans must be more interested in it than weed-whackers.
And lest you think I'm making precisely the opposite point I set out to, I maintain the bowl season's comedic aspects are merely one its of several positives.
Fifty-six out of Division I-A's 115 teams make a bowl, or 49 percent. This is obviously a diluted field. But at the same time, college football is an extremely hereditary sport -- the same teams are in the Top 20 every year: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio State, Florida State, Miami, Tennessee, Michigan, etc.
Unlike professional sports, there is no way for college football to redistribute wealth and success, such as via a draft or salary cap. And some would argue the NCAA wants to do precisely the opposite, keeping the same high-profile, big-money programs at the top each year.
Therefore, in order for teams like Cincinnati, Tulane and Boise State to get a chance, there has to be a lot of bowls. Are 28 necessary? Probably not, but if bowls arent profitable, they don't survive. So the system will likely retract of its own accord if lousy matchups become the norm in the third and fourth weeks of December.
Additionally, bowls are fun. Plenty of Badger fans will travel to San Antonio this weekend to watch UW play on a Saturday night against a quality Colorado team. Their dollars will help out the city's economy, a good time will be had by all and a loss wont be the end of the world. And whether or not the result of the Alamo Bowl is important is a moot point -- name me a Badger fan that wont be watching, anyway.
Beyond being a travel experience for fans, bowl games are a growth experience for teams. Barry Alvarez's unit is a prime beneficiary of the expanded bowl season. The Badgers are extremely young in key areas, and extending their season by another game gives the UW staff three extra weeks of practice and a positive ending to an up-and-down season. This same scenario paid off handsomely in the 1997-'98 seasons, when a young Badger team got beaten badly by Georgia in the Outback Bowl but returned wiser the next season and made its first of consecutive Rose Bowl runs.
Many will argue that teams like the Badgers, who finished 2-6 in conference play, have no business being rewarded with another game. It's a valid point, and using a .500 conference record (as well as overall) as a benchmark for eligibility would be one way to get around it. But as it stands, there are more bowls than truly qualified teams, so that suggestion would not work. Again, when these borderline bowls fail to turn a profit, that will no longer be an issue.
And, of course, this should not be taken as a defense for the Bowl Championship Series, which is something else again. While the BCS has been moderately successful in matching up the top two teams in the nation since its inception, there is no reason that a mini-playoff format could not be developed in order to determine a true champion. If Division I-AA, II, and III can all figure out a full playoff system -- as well as every other collegiate team sport -- why can't Division I-A college football do the same?
As for Saturday night in San Antonio, I'm taking the Badgers in an upset, 38-35. Happy Holidays, and Merry Bowl Season.
Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.
Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.