Think bowl games don't mean anything? Think again

Last week, as the first flight of college bowl games were played and the clicks were still coming on the "McCaffrey, Fournette to skip bowl for NFL draft prep" headlines, there was a word being thrown around on TV, radio and in columns that increasingly bothered me whenever it was used.

"These bowl games are ... meaningless!"

I am told that the College Football Playoff has rendered the other 39 FBS postseason games meaningless. They have been neutered. There's no reason for them to be played. What a waste of time. No one cares!

"I know a whole lot of people who care," Bob Davie says. You remember Davie, right? As head coach at Notre Dame, he coached against the likes of USC, Stanford and Michigan and walked the sidelines of the Fiesta Bowl. As an assistant coach at Arizona, Pitt and Texas A&M, he spent plenty of time in lots of big games. But in 43 years of college football he'd never been carried off the field. Not until last weekend, when his New Mexico Lobos outlasted Texas-San Antonio to earn their first bowl victory since 2007. "I realize that where we are and what we do might not be a blip on the radar of the playoff end of the spectrum. But you look in the eyes of my seniors, who have worked so hard. You look in the eyes of New Mexico alumni who love football and have kept supporting this program through a lot of losing. You see the looks on their faces and tell me this is meaningless."

Look into the eyes of Tanner Mangum, BYU's 23-year-old sophomore quarterback who was the hero of 2015, stepping in for Taysom Hill and then relegated to the bench this season, even as Hill struggled. When Hill suffered his fourth season-ending injury, Mangum was once again called upon to step in. He answered by leading the Cougars to a storm-drenched victory over old WAC-rival Wyoming. After the victory, the 21 BYU seniors posed for a picture in the rain, reflecting back on a ride that included the literal wild west of transitioning into becoming an FBS independent, Hail Mary wins and losses, and losing their head coach. Hill and Mangum embraced, crying.


The social media feed of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl has been a parade of fun. The Old Dominion Monarchs didn't even have a football program a decade ago. This year they won nine games. From 2012 to 2015 the Eastern Michigan Eagles won seven games over four seasons. This year they went 7-5 during a season that included a dramatic 27-24 win over Wyoming that was overrun by a student protest about racist graffiti, just seconds after the clock hit zero.

The Bahamas Bowl was defensive end Pat O'Connor's record-tying 49th appearance in an EMU uniform. The Eagles lost 30 of his first 37 games. Earlier in the week, he recalled a February meeting at the home of head coach Chris Creighton. The team's seniors gathered in Creighton's basement and agreed on their goal for 2016. "We said the losing stops now. We said we were going to win a bowl game. Any bowl game."

On Friday afternoon, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, some 1,300 miles south of Ypsilanti, Michigan, O'Connor ran through a smashed cinder-block wall and took the field wearing that EMU for the final time. His face painted, the senior hustled, joked with the refs and registered a half-sack, a pass breakup, a QB knockdown and two tackles for a loss. But it was the last tackle that summed up his career. He got his hands around the ankles of ODU running back Ray Lawry on a third-and-6 in the waning seconds ... but Lawry gained 7 yards. The game was over, and the Eagles lost their first bowl game in 29 years by a score of 24-20. The team took forever to finally board the bus, choosing to linger in the locker room. O'Connor, his face paint now streaked, didn't want to take his college uniform off.

"That's a heartbroken locker room right now," Creighton said on behalf of his team. "We've had such a wonderful week here. This is not how we wanted it to end."


There was Idaho, being dropped by the Sun Belt in 2017, entering Thursday night's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl a double-digit underdog to Colorado State and holding off a furious fourth quarter comeback by the Rams to win 61-50. "No matter what was said to begin the year," senior QB and game MVP Matt Linehan said after the game, holding back tears (and calling out the school's president), "we spent so much time dealing with adversity and tough losses. I think we were just tired of losing."


Meanwhile, beat writers with teams ranging from Iowa and Michigan to USC and Auburn asked players with likely NFL futures about whether they considered sitting out their final collegiate game. "That was not a thought in my head at all," said Iowa's Desmond King, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back one year ago but elected to return for his senior year. He did so to honor his brother Armon, who was killed in a robbery gone wrong during King's final year of high school. "I always ask what would he want me to do? That was to come back and get my college degree. And I also wanted to come back for my team. We had unfinished business. I support those other guys [Fournette and McCaffrey] making their decisions. But for me, I want to stand with my brothers one more time, in the Capital One Bowl against another great program in Florida. What a way to go out, right? It will mean so much to us as a team."

You hear that? It will mean so much.

There is a natural tendency for sports fans, and yes, those who make their living in the press box, to swing our collective attentions toward the shiniest light. But that doesn't mean what's happening elsewhere is without merit.

Are there too many bowl games? Probably. Will we see more NFL draft prospects bail out of bowls in seasons going forward? Yes. Could the financial model of the bowl system, in which more often than not participating teams lose money, use an overhaul? No doubt about it.

But that's not the conversation here. The issue here is that, while the pre-New Year's games will certainly have no impact on the four teams playing for a national title, let's watch ourselves when it comes to that word, meaningless.

They do still award a trophy to the winner of these games. They do still give the participating players rings and watches and, more importantly, memories. The same people who complain that student-athletes deserve more will also complain that this reward -- one more game and, for so many seniors, one last chance to play football -- is a waste of time.

No, what's a waste of time is acting like these games don't matter just because they don't matter to Alabama, Washington, Ohio State or Clemson. But here's the thing: I've been in all four of their football offices. And guess what they have displayed right alongside their mementos of their national championships? The trophies they brought home from the Blockbuster, Humanitarian, Fight Hunger, Heart of Dallas and Mastercard Alamo Bowls.

"I don't care what the name of the bowl game is, it's a football game and at the end of the football game there's going to be a winner and a loser, and I want to be the winner," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. "More than that, I want my guys, especially those guys who have been playing football their whole lives and this is their last down in their last game, I want them to be the winner. Somebody tells you that game is meaningless, well, they clearly didn't play in that game."

Well put, coach. Now let's get on with Flipping The Field.

Playoff-worth cornhole: Actually, it isn't cornhole at all, but rather fowling, a combination of football and bowling played on a cornhole-ish board setup. As part of the buildup to Monday's Quick Lane Bowl (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) old ACC foes Boston College and Maryland squared off in fowling. BC long snapper Len Skubal won the night with a walk-off Hail Mary that might have even been better than Doug Flutie's.

Speaking of lanes that are quick ... The Auburn Tigers did a little pre-Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) warming up at the bowling alley. Some of these dudes seemed to think they were supposed to throw the ball all the way down to the pins.

Donnel Pumphrey watch: We've been tracking him all season, so naturally we had to file a final DP Watch chapter. My 2016 man crush contributed 115 rushing yards to San Diego State's 34-10 rout of Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl presented by Geico, reaching 6,411 for his career to break Ron Dayne's FBS record. Yes, as Dayne politely reminded in his congratulatory tweet, Pumphrey's number includes postseason games while Dayne's does not. But, as my Champ Drive podcast coworker Brad Edwards reminds in an effort to sooth his frustration over the NCAA refusing to retroactively adjust the bowl-less stats of Dayne & Co., Pumphrey did still reach the top of the charts with fewer carries than Dayne back in the day. Pumphrey also overtook Texas' D'Onta Foreman for tops in 2016 with 2,133 for the year. AND he teamed with backfield mate Rashaad Penny, who rushed for 1,005 yards on the year, to help the Aztecs become the first team in FBS history to have rushers of 2,000 and 1,000 yards in a single season. Penny returns next season. We'll see if he's good enough to earn a Flipping The Field Rashaad Penny Watch.

Oh holy Nick: How did your family handle its Christmas decorations this year? Did it follow a Process?

Speaking of Saban ... My coworker and hero, Holly Rowe, with a little reminder that any football coach anywhere who might be watching the Alabama-Washington College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta (Dec. 31, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN) would behoove themselves to take copious notes on how to coach a football team.

From the Ridonculous Stats Department: Colorado State scored 36 points in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl ... and still lost. BYU tied an NCAA record with its seventh game in a single season decided by three points or less. Their record in those games was 3-4. Their final record was 9-4. Western Kentucky's 51-32 blowout of Memphis was the Hilltoppers' 23rd win in two seasons, tops among all FBS teams.

"We're going streaking!" The Sun Belt Conference started the bowl season 3-0, marking the first time the conference had topped two postseason wins. And no, it has no problem still bragging on the very Vandals that earlier this year the conference decided it would no longer need after 2017.

Speaking of the Fun Belt ... Troy knows how to party.

"Get in the car, Frank ..." When Miami plays West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl (Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), The U will be trying to snap a six-game bowl losing streak. The Canes' last postseason victory was over Nevada in the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl. That was so long ago that this year's starters were in kindergarten and the company who sponsored the game (now the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl) no longer exists.

If you're going to a fried chicken island bowl ... then you eat fried chicken and wear an island shirt. Isn't that right, Eastern Michigan at the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl?

If you're going to a bowl in Idaho in December ... then you do Idaho in December things. Isn't that right, Colorado State? I'm told that the guy auditioning for our ESPN Magazine Body Issue is lineman Tomas Rivera. A lot of Rams went down the mountain shirtless, but Rivera was the only guy who did it repeatedly.

Bowl week's version of "The Nutcracker"? After all, it is the holiday season. But instead of your local ballet studio, the Wyoming Cowboys didn't intentionally do this move.

Danny Ford Scientific Rocket Quote of the Week: Lane Kiffin, FAU. Back on Dec. 13, Kiffin's introductory media conference as new head coach of the FAU Owls was, well, odd. He did manage to say a couple of semi-weird things and dug hard to convince everyone in the room that this was his dream job. But for the most part it was a pretty bland exchange. At one point he even paused and said, "This is a boring press conference."

Weston Steelhammer Name of the Week: Lion King, DL, Eastern Michigan. His full name is Lion King Conaway, but he liked the first two parts so much he had it legally changed to simply Lion King. His parents, Rudy and Diane Conaway, had no problem with that. After all, they gave him the name, right? But on the day he was born in Southfield, Michigan, did they go on the roof of the hospital and hold him in the air with two hands like Simba?

Frank Reich Backup QB Of The Week Award: Tanner Mangum, BYU. Once again Mangum was asked to step in for Taysom Hill and did just enough (8-15, 96 yards, one TD, one INT, plus a TD run) to help the Cougars hang on for a rain-slopped Poinsettia Bowl win over former WAC rival Wyoming. The Cowboys are used to seeing second-string signal-callers. This season Wyoming faced backup QBs in their games against Eastern Michigan, Colorado State, Nevada, Utah State, UNLV and BYU.

The Team You Should Know About, But Probably Don't: Miami (Ohio). If you're reading this on Monday, then you still have time to check out the Redhawks in the St. Petersburg Bowl (11 a.m. ET, ESPN), so do it! Win or lose, their 2016 story is remarkable. They started the season 0-6, earning an ironclad spot in my Bottom 10. Then they went 6-0, earning a spot in the game at Tropicana Field, to face 5-7 Mississippi State. Should it win, Miami will become the first team in NCAA history to start 0-6 and come all the way back to win a postseason game.

The Game You Should Be Psyched For But Probably Aren't: Valero Alamo Bowl (Dec. 29, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN): As per usual, the Alamo Bowl has landed one of the best if not the best pre-New Year's weekend matchup. The Pac-12's perpetually weak tree of non-Rose Bowl postseason ties keeps sending great teams to San Antonio. This year it's the season's Cinderella, the Colorado Buffaloes, vs. the Big 12 would-be contenders Oklahoma State. If -- and this is not a small if -- the Cowboys and QB Mason Rudolph aren't too bummed about landing in this game, this could very well be the most entertaining shootout of December. If nothing else, I wish I was going to be at the coaches' media conferences with the Mikes, Gundy and MacIntyre.

Extra Point: Last week I was once again honored to be asked to join Ivan Maisel for the annual "In Memoriam" edition of the Championship Drive podcast, when we remember those from the college football community that we lost during the year. As a college football history junkie, it's one of my favorite shows of the season. You can listen to it here. But I am still kicking myself over a name we missed, someone I was reminded of while watching the first week of bowl games, instinctively reaching for my phone with a rules question and then realizing that he wasn't there to answer. Former ACC officiating coordinator Doug Rhoads passed away in the spring after a shockingly short cancer battle. I believe I forgot about Doug during our podcast because I am still in denial that he's gone. You can read my column written after his passing in May here.