Too many bowl games? Hardly

DEKALB, Ill. -- The holidays are all about gluttony, but Sean Frazier doesn't gorge on food or shopping. His indulgence is bowl games.

The Northern Illinois athletic director watches as many bowls as he can at home. Anything he misses live is recorded for later viewing. Frazier, a former Alabama linebacker who experienced five bowls with the Tide and others as an administrator at Wisconsin, can't get enough of college football's postseason. If the burgeoning number of bowls equates to what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany calls "too much ice cream," Frazier happily will ride a two-week sugar high.

He also understands that not everyone shares his bowl affinity, especially with the first College Football Playoff only 10 days away.

"Like March Madness in basketball, some people don't start watching until the Elite Eight," Frazier said. "I think you will see some reduction in viewership because the playoff has put another category that people are excited about. But I would never, ever take away the bowls. Those who say otherwise haven't played, haven't coached. I'm very passionate about the bowls because of my personal experience.

"They have a place, but they have a purpose as well."

That purpose is clear for Group of 5 teams like Northern Illinois, Marshall, Memphis and East Carolina. The bowls might overserve the market, but the bowl system undoubtedly helps college football's underserved. Their already quiet voices in the national discussion were drowned out even more this season by the incessant clamor over the playoff and its blue blood, Power 5 candidates.

Marshall's 11-0 start received some attention, mainly because the Thundering Herd, lacking a Power 5 opponent on their schedule, couldn't crack the playoff rankings. You might have caught wind of East Carolina's wins against two ACC teams, Memphis' rising-star coach Justin Fuente or Northern Illinois' continued mastery of #MACtion.

But the conversation, inevitably, steered back to the playoff.

"There's a lot of analyzing of the same thing over and over," Fuente said. "The playoffs are fantastic. We should crown a champion, I'm all for that, but you can still enjoy the sport and enjoy the game with two teams that aren't playing for the national championship.

"There's some fantastic, fantastic matchups and fantastic games."

The bowls take top Group of 5 teams from behind the curtain into the spotlight, at least for a few hours. Some share the stage together. Memphis takes on BYU later Monday in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl. About 45 miles to the north on Tuesday, Marshall and Northern Illinois play in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl, the only non-playoff game pairing two conference champions and teams with 11 or more victories.

Motivation always becomes a subplot of bowl season, but the Group of 5 teams lack none.

"We love it," Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato said. "It's an opportunity for everyone to see Marshall, what we're about. It's a great matchup overall, and it's keeping us motivated, keeping us energized.

"Any time we have the chance to showcase our talent on the big screen, we have to take advantage."

Several factors underscore why the non-playoff bowls matter most to this coalition of teams.

Matchups: Unlike members of the Power 5, who have the luxury of the eye test, Group of 5 teams are often judged more on who they play, not who they are. Bowl opponents can provide an accurate final gauge on whether a team is for real or a product of a flimsy conference.

"If you're talking about a bowl, the crescendo to the end of the season, people want to see something spectacular," Frazier said. "They want to see a mini national championship. We're the best of the MAC going against the best of Conference USA. Who is the best at the end of the day? If we can get there, let's get there. If we can't, then we can settle for some of these other matchups, which are more about bowl eligibility than a championship."

Throughout the regular season, Marshall heard the criticism for its schedule and its league. The bowl matchup provides the final chance for the Herd to get their due.

"The opponent was No. 1 for us," coach Doc Holliday said. "We wanted to play the best possible opponent, the highest-ranked opponent, and a team out there that has the respect Northern Illinois does around the country."

"It's a great chance for us to try to put on display all the hard work that our kids have put in over the past couple of years."
Memphis coach Justin Fuente

NIU coach Rod Carey agrees with Holliday that matchup is the most important bowl driver for top Group of 5 teams. And not just for the season being completed.

Carey thinks quality bowl wins can springboard Group of 5 teams into contention for New Year's Six bowl spots in the following season. The New Year's Six spot given to the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of 5 is the top goal for teams like NIU.

"If you're looking at the whole body of work, which the committee says they look at, your bowl plays into your body of work for next year," Carey said. "Humans are going to remember that."

Memphis recorded its first winning season since 2007 and claimed a share of its first league title since 1971. The Tigers played on big stages earlier in the season at both UCLA and Ole Miss, and the bowl provides another recognizable opponent in BYU.

"Every college football fan in America knows about BYU football," Fuente said. "It's a great chance for us to try to put on display all the hard work that our kids have put in over the past couple of years."

Exposure: There's a reason #MACtion often occurs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November, or why East Carolina played four of its final six games on Thursdays or Fridays. Group of 5 teams are starved for attention, and avoiding the Saturday logjam gives them a better share of the spotlight.

Bowls do the same. Memphis-BYU is the only college game Monday, while NIU-Marshall is one of two on Tuesday and the only game in prime time for most of the country. (Navy-San Diego State kicks off at 9:30 p.m. ET.)

"It's a perfect time slot," Holliday said. "Being on the 23rd, people aren't bowl-weary at that point. They're anxious to watch football games."

Memphis won its final six games to win the American, but how many people actually saw the Tigers play?

"It's certainly a nice deal when you're not sharing the spotlight," Fuente said of Monday's game. "You're the only show on."

ECU's highest-rated TV game not surprisingly came against Virginia Tech, as the Pirates beat the Hokies in Week 3. Although a 6-5 Florida team playing for an interim coach before Jim McElwain takes over isn't an ideal bowl opponent, the Gators are a national brand and a TV draw.

The Birmingham Bowl is the only college game on Jan. 3.

"That's a big deal," East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher said. "That kind of exposure means a lot. There's a lot of eyes on your program."

Recruiting: The bowl trip is a homecoming of sorts for Cato and the other 28 Florida natives on Marshall's roster. It's also a chance for Marshall's coaches to keep the Florida recruiting pipeline going.

Northern Illinois makes its second bowl trip to South Florida in three years after a historic appearance in the 2013 Orange Bowl. The Huskies have 11 Florida natives on the roster and are looking for more.

Although it's a recruiting dead period until mid-January and coaches can't have direct contact with recruits, recruits can visit practices. NIU held open workouts in Florida, and Carey said last week he anticipated "a significant amount" of recruits to attend.

"Any time you can get around each other more, that's a huge deal," Carey said. "It goes back to that recognition, putting a face with the name instead of hearing a voice on the phone."

It's even more significant because the official-visit rush is just around the corner, between the end of bowl season and national signing day.

"You can start to brag on your program a little bit and say, 'Take a look at us still competing in late December, early January. You'll have a chance to do that, too,'" Compher said. "That's a big piece of it."

NFL hopefuls: NIU dropped the 2013 San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl to Utah State, but it wasn't a total loss. Huskies All-America safety Jimmie Ward finished his college career with an interception and two pass breakups.

That following May, Ward was selected with the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft.

"Jimmie Ward doesn't go in the first round if he doesn't have the bowl game he had," Carey said.

Although NFL scouts had studied Ward and have evaluated this year's top Group of 5 prospects, they can focus on them more during bowl season. A strong performance against a comparable Group of 5 team, or, in the case of East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden, a talented Power 5 defense in Florida, can boost a prospect's stock before other pre-draft events.

NIU left tackle Tyler Loos, a two-time all-conference selection, hopes to earn an invitation to one of the pre-draft all-star games.

"Maybe after this game, I'll get one," Loos said. "It's a prime-time game against a good team. Hopefully, scouts will be watching and I'll get some exposure."

And one other side note, as good as it is for the players to get noticed, it's a nice boost for the programs, too. Don't think recruits don't notice which teams are placing players in the NFL.

So what does the future hold?

Despite the bowls' obvious benefits for Group of 5 teams, the system has an uncertain future in the playoff era. Holliday admits that the tone of the season -- and the postseason -- has changed with the new format.

"It used to be you went to a great bowl game or one of the BCS games and you walk out of there and there are a lot of people happy," Holliday said. "Right now, everybody's concerned about the four teams in the playoff. The rest of the teams that are out there, there might not be quite as much interest, so it's going to be interesting to see where it goes and how the other bowls are attended and what kind of exposure they get."

The system undoubtedly will be tested at the market in the coming days. But the bowls always will have support from administrators like Frazier.

"You should just leave them the hell alone," he said. "I still think there's a place for them."