Like so many others, we watch a lot of college football around New Year’s. This year, our very own Fighting Illini were in the party again, making it to one of those also-ran Bowls: The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. Illinois lost 35-18 and probably should have won – though you wouldn’t know it by the score.
With all these bowl games, especially in light of the inaugural 4-team playoff, the sports talkers have been discussing bowl viability, money, TV contracts, etc., and as we sit here watching Oregon pound Florida State, we have some thoughts as well.
If you’re among those who think that the major conference re-shuffling and re-jiggering is horrible, look no further than the now-departed BCS system. Between the BCS contract and the guaranteed conference contracts to various bowls, the Big 10, Pac 12, SEC, and ACC had ample motivation to expand. More money. More prestige. More TV markets. Now that we’ve finally entered the playoff era, there’s a chance the system could correct itself over time.
Here’s a theory: When the playoffs expand to 8 teams, the big boys will be looking for that magic number of reaching 10 or 11 wins with a strong schedule. This will guarantee a spot. Conference perceptions/ rankings will gradually begin to matter a little less, and individual strength of schedule will matter more. If that happens, having huge conferences may not actually be an advantage, and maybe we can gradually move back to smaller more traditional conferences and matchups. Maybe West Virginia can go back to playing teams around them. Maybe Rutgers and Maryland decide those trips west aren’t worth it (yeah, I know – fat chance with all the money involved).
However this plays out, we hope the smaller also-ran bowls continue to be viable. They are fun for the teams. They have ridiculous sponsor names (Bitcoin, Duck Commander, Tax Slayer, etc.). Most importantly, they’re important to the viability of those teams outside the Top 20. A team like Illinois can build on a bowl appearance – it can help recruiting, provide additional practice time, and be a measuring stick for progress. The teams from smaller conferences like the MAC and Conference USA also deserve their shot at the season’s end.
For many years, we advocated for a playoff system (not exactly revolutionary). As we move into the playoff era, it could be a long time before we see an FCS-style 16 team tourney. Surely we’ll see eight teams in a few years. When that happens, will the smaller bowls remain viable? Will the naming rights and commercials and the TV deals be lucrative enough to keep them? The continued existence of the NIT in basketball would make you think, yes. Only time will tell.