The most fun things teams did during bowl season

Belk Bowl participants Texas A&M and Wake Forest got to take on the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Charlotte Motor Speedway before their game. Chuck Burton/AP Photo

Out here, we love to spend the holidays debating the validity of bowl games. There are too many. They cost too much. Their financial structures are wonky. Would-be future NFL stars shouldn't waste their time or risk their bodies playing in them. We should be replacing all these games with ones that matter, like an expanded College Football Playoff, right?! Argh!

But that's what we do out here, where none of us actually suits up for games. Those who do indeed hold down a roster spot -- they don't care about any of our cantankerous bowl season back-and-forth.

They're too busy having fun.

You don't think Alabama and Georgia were having fun on Monday night? Of course they were. We all were. Well, OK, maybe not Dawg Nation after the last play of the game. But up until then, the fellas in black and red had the same look on their faces they did a few years back when their birthday parties were throwing down at Chuck E. Cheese.

"These two games have been business trips; there's no doubt about that," Georgia running back Sony Michel said at championship media day. "But we have tried to make sure we've taken time to really enjoy the experience. Especially out in California before the Rose Bowl."

"OK, maybe not Nick," Michel said of backfield mate Nick Chubb, smiling slyly. "Did you see his viral video?"

We'll get to that in a minute. Before that, let's check in on the teams that were laboring through smaller bowl games. Like the tortured souls at Wake Forest and Texas A&M, forced to spend their Christmas in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Belk Bowl, where they were strong-armed into a shopping spree at the game's namesake department store and then marched into miserable activities such as practicing pit stops at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and riding shotgun at 170 mph-plus with the professional stock car racers at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

"I think after all of this I might quit football and become a NASCAR racer," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson half-joked, wearing a fire suit and helmet at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. In years past, some Belk Bowl participants chose to sit out the race car ride, fearing a crash that might alter their NFL draft status. None of this year's Demon Deacons or Texas A&M Aggies bailed.

"Naw, man," Texas A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk said. "We all did like Ricky Bobby. We wanna go fast!"

In a span of just a few weeks, players flew through a lifetime's worth of bucket list activities -- just, you know, without the bucket. Unless you count the buckets used to catch all the oyster shells, chicken wing bones and empty hot sauce bottles left over from teams' meals-turned-eating-contests. And there were a lot, hosted everywhere from the party rooms of America's most famous barbecue joints to the decks of aircraft carriers.


Georgia and Oklahoma face off before Rose Bowl

A tradition dating back to 1956, the Bulldogs and Sooners take part in the 62nd annual Lawry's Beef Bowl.

There were other kinds of competitions, too. Did you see TCU throwing down on some Chris Stapleton in the Alamo Bowl talent show with Stanford? With Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson whistling and six-stringing?

Or perhaps you saw the Longhorns doing a very Texas-like thing and setting a Texas Bowl record for cattle pinning.

OK, well maybe you saw the Horned Frogs and Cardinal arriving in San Antonio like conquering heroes? I mean, if conquering heroes were allowed to arrive via neon riverboat ...

Or maybe you saw Purdue hanging out with Kay Corleone on the ferry to Alcatraz? Perhaps she was en route to see Michael doing hard time while the Boilermakers were en route to the Foster Farms Bowl?

"People forget what a bowl bid really is," said Stanford head coach David Shaw, whose trip to San Antonio was the Cardinal's seventh postseason appearance in seven seasons on his watch. "It's a reward for a season. And even if you don't make it to the Rose Bowl or the playoff, it's still a reward. You are there to win, but it's also fun. Fun is OK, you know? No team is ever the same year to year. Come January, the guys on this roster might not ever been in the same room at the same time ever again. This is this team's last chance to be together, and that's not just about playing their last game. These are their last experiences together."

A couple of decades from now, ask the members of the Florida International football team about their amazing climb from the depths of college football's cellar to their invitation to participate in the 2017 Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, and chances are they won't be able to recall many details from the game. But they'll remember with great detail the dramatic victory of backup center Shane McGough in the week's other big event, a race atop those Bad Boy Mowers.


FIU player shows supreme lawn mowing skills

Florida International center Shane McGough competes in a lawn mower race at a local amusement park before his team's Gasparilla Bowl matchup against Temple.

"These guys have gotten watches and gifts and all kinds of stuff," coach Butch Davis said after his team's 28-3 loss to Temple in the game. "But even though we didn't win the trophy for the game, [center] Shane [McGough] got the trophy for the lawn mower race, and I think that's all anyone is going to remember!"

While Georgia was in Pasadena, California, for its CFP semifinal game, perhaps you heard the stories about the team's last Rose Bowl trip. Ask anyone involved with that 1942 visit to the Granddaddy of Them All was about the game. Do they offer details about the 9-0 win over UCLA? Eventually, yes. But only after tales of visiting Paramount Studios and meeting Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. And, oh yeah, the train ride out there that went across the desert and provided a bunch of kids from the Deep South with their first peek at the Rockies.

"These kids, they are almost exclusively from the Midwest and from a lot of tiny town you've never heard of," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said before his team's matchup with Boston College at a freezing Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl. The Hawkeyes and Eagles took in the entire Manhattan Christmas experience and also rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, experienced the beautiful silence of the National September 11 Memorial and, like most bowl teams, visited local children's hospitals. Continued the coach: "We go into living rooms and promise parents we're going to take their sons and broaden their horizons. Well, here we are."

Teams can broaden those horizons because recently bowl directors have broadened what a bowl experience should be. Not so long ago, providing teams with a place to practice, some branded jewelry, a fancy dinner and a purse to (maybe) cover expenses was considered plenty. But as the number of bowl games swelled, those on the lower tiers of the postseason food chain devised ways to make their event stand out from the crowd.

"We know we aren't the Rose Bowl," Belk Bowl director Will Webb said a year ago. "But our immediate goal was to never be the game where the team gets the bid and says, 'Oh man, why would we want to go there?' We wanted to have the reputation of being a destination. 'Hey man, if you ever get a chance to be in the Belk Bowl, do it. We were there last year and it was great.'"

Those bowl games embraced social media with windbreaker-covered, open arms, posting photos and videos of team events and creating a competition among the games that lasts throughout the holidays. The creative efforts of those newer, smaller, sometimes short-lived games created upward pressure for the old standbys to do the same.

"When you get into a giant bowl, it's a business trip, there's no doubt about it," said Patterson, who has led TCU to 16 bowls, from the Rose to the GalleryFurniture.com Bowl. "But the teams -- and the games -- have learned that it is also OK to have fun, too."

Fun, as in getting to see some NBA action.

Fun, as in fish bowling inside the world's largest Bass Pro Shops.

Fun, as in playing football on the beach while it's 34 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground back home in Michigan.

And fun, as in going to Disneyland and buckling up for its newest big ride, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. Heads up, this is the video that Michel wanted to make sure you've seen. Watch Nick Chubb's face. It's the perfect representation of most players' bowl experiences.

Initially, they aren't sure if it's really that fun. Then they realize, why yes -- yes, it is!