The College Football Playoff lends a new twist to old and venerable bowl games, but that’s not the only way in which this bowl season is going to be different for television viewers. The non-playoff bowls will be moved around, marking a noticeable change from the just-concluded 16-year Bowl Championship Series era. These changes could pose problems if you insist on attending (or are forced to attend) a social gathering of some sort on New Year’s Eve.
Here are the five things you need to notice about the new bowl and playoff structure in college football:
5 – A CHRISTMAS EVE VIEWING OPTION YOU MIGHT PREFER
I can’t speak for others, but my Catholic family has usually gone to evening or late-night Mass on Christmas Eve. This is why the Hawaii Bowl has been hard if not impossible to watch most years in prime time. Maybe you can watch it, but if you also go to Mass at that time of day, you now have a potential option: the new Bahamas Bowl at noon Eastern on ESPN. It’s not a heavyweight bowl, but football in a gorgeous setting might be just the way for you to relax before the final burst of Christmas activity and the stress it might bring.
4 – FOR THE NON-PRESTIGE BOWL GAMES, SATURDAY, DECEMBER 27, AND FRIDAY, JANUARY 2, ARE THE BIG DAYS
The previous (BCS-era) bowl structure — especially in recent years — typically featured four to five bowls on New Year’s Eve. That was the day to load up on second-tier bowls (or third-tier if you made an extra distinction between the BCS games and the Citrus/Outback bowls). This season, the College Football Playoff and the new rotation of six “New Year’s Day” games have shaken things up. If you want a high-volume day of bowl action involving middle-tier teams, Saturday, Dec. 27 is going to be circled in red. So will Friday, Jan. 2.
On Dec. 27, there will be five bowl games, including the Sun Bowl — the one non-ESPN/ABC bowl out of the 38 (plus the national title game) on the slate. The CBS game has been a New Year’s Eve broadcast for the past several years after previously being a Christmas Day game at times in the 1980s. If you’ve been at work on New Year’s Eve afternoon in the past, you will now have a better chance of catching Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson on a Saturday (2 p.m. Eastern time).
The main attraction of January 2 is that it’s a Friday. It follows the playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day and forms the bridge in the best combined football weekend (college and pro) of the winter when the calendar aligns in just the right way. The Friday of four bowl games takes you into the NFL’s wild card weekend. You’re going to have so much postseason football to watch. Chances are you’ll be very happy.
3 – THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: LESS MYSTERY, MORE ANTICIPATION… AND PROBABLY A BETTER BRAND OF BALL
The reality of bowl games is that they involve month-long breaks for the teams involved (certainly for January games as opposed to pre-Christmas bowls). Teams have consistently had to handle a long layoff and all the rust it can potentially bring to the gridiron. Rust is a huge reason why bowl games, both in the BCS era and the old “poll and bowl” era, were so unpredictable.
This season, the advent of the College Football Playoff and a semifinal-to-final progression means that the national title game on Jan. 12 will be played by teams that are battle-tested. There will no longer be a 30- or 35-day layoff. The two teams will have had 10 off days before they meet in Arlington, Tex. This is the kind of situation that fans of up-tempo teams such as Oregon have long waited for, the reasoning being that if the Ducks could play a title game without the layoff, their offense would function much more smoothly, having worked off the rust in the semifinals. This will be a huge talking point if Oregon wins.
Conversely, if Oregon makes the title game but doesn’t play well against Alabama (if the two teams get there, of course), SEC fans who have listened to “The Oregon Argument” for several years will say, “You have fully and finally been refuted, Pac-12 honks.” It’s going to be hugely fascinating to see how the college football community responds to the long-layoff semis and the small-layoff title game. This is a major change in terms of the way the national title is contested — it’s not just having to play an extra game, but playing it outside the normal rhythms of previous bowl structures.
2 – THE POST-ROSE BOWL NEW YEAR’S NIGHT GAME WILL BE ELECTRIC
The Rose Bowl has maintained a brand and an identity as the one non-national championship bowl a lot of Americans still care about enough to watch in big numbers. There is still a romance about the Granddaddy, which is why the game has remained the crown jewel of the non-national championship bowl season. The iconic setting, the picture-postcard sunshine drifting into a dramatic dusk, and the longstanding presence of teams from only two conferences (albeit interrupted in the BCS era) have made the Rose Bowl a respected American tradition, one which has not been eroded by the forces of time.
In marked contrast to the Rose Bowl, the other non-championship January bowls from the BCS era have plummeted in stature. The Fiesta Bowl last year between UCF and Baylor was played before several thousand empty seats in Glendale, Ariz. The previous year, the Orange Bowl — on New Year’s night after the Rose Bowl — was a dreary slog of a game between Florida State and Northern Illinois. The 2011 (New Year’s night) Fiesta Bowl between Connecticut and Oklahoma was also a dud on various levels, television included.
This year, with the arrival of the playoff, the nighttime January 1 bowl will be a main-stage event. The Sugar Bowl will be jumping, and the Superdome will be stuffed. What’s great for college football traditionalists is that this game isn’t an unnamed or re-named “College Football Playoff Semifinal.” It’s simply the Sugar Bowl… but with the status of a semifinal. This preserves college football tradition while modernizing the sport’s postseason. It’s going to be a welcome change from previous New Year’s nights, which would often sag after the crescendo provided by the Rose Bowl.
Nothing about the Alabama-Ohio State Sugar Bowl will sag.
This leads us into the biggest large-scale difference between this season’s bowl structure and the BCS era:
1 – THE BEST AND BIGGEST BOWL GAMES WILL BE PLAYED IN SEPARATE TIME SLOTS, BUT ON ONLY TWO DAYS
This is the innovation which should make the new bowl structure so much better for television viewers… and fans, for that matter.
Many traditionalist college football fans long for the days when all the big bowls were played on New Year’s Day, with the Sugar (ABC) and Orange (NBC) dueling into the night. The season concluded with one huge day. The action and drama in multiple locales were exhilarating. This was a fun part of pre-BCS-era bowl seasons.
However, there was always something lacking in a system which forced viewers to have to choose between the Sugar Bowl here and the Orange Bowl over there. Giving each bowl its own time slot has seemed to be the most enlightened way to handle bowl programming. The key for the traditionalists is to not have the big bowls bleed out into a series of weeknights that are also worknights for parents and school nights for kids.
In the BCS era, you would often see post-January 1 bowl games played on Wednesday or Thursday. These games created some of the smaller crowds of the BCS era, particularly a crowd of under 55,000 for the 2013 Sugar Bowl between Louisville and Florida. That game was played on January 2, a Wednesday.
It’s been long overdue for the big bowls to adjust and fit in with the holidays. This new “New Year’s Six” bowl rotation, with six prime bowls played before the College Football Playoff Championship Game, is the answer.
Three of the six bowls will be rolled out on New Year’s Eve in separate, stand-alone time slots — the Peach at 12:30 Eastern, the Fiesta at 4, and the Orange at 8.
On New Year’s Day, the Rose and Sugar get the playoff semifinal slots at 5 and 8:30, but the Cotton Bowl fits in at 12:30 in its new TV home on ESPN, replacing FOX.
(Side note: The two 12:30 p.m. kickoffs on these days — Ole Miss-TCU in the Peach on Dec. 31, and Michigan State-Baylor on Jan. 1 — are knockout games. They’re perfect “10”s.)
Two days, six premium bowls, all the major games are done by midnight on Jan. 1… and yet each game has its own time slot. This is the perfect marriage of the pre-BCS era and the BCS era itself. It’s going to be easier and more fun to watch the biggest bowls on the slate, with the exception of the Peach in that midday slot on Dec. 31.