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Justifying today’s bowls: Mediocrity on the dock of the bay

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Bowls: There are a lot of them. Most of which seem to have been created solely to bilk taxpayer-funded universities for the sake of upselling a few hotel rooms. As a public service, we're cutting through the fat in search of a few good reasons — or any reason — for these spectacles to exist. Today: Scanning the New Year's Eve fare in the Car Care, Sun, Liberty, Fight Hunger and Chick-Fil-A Bowls.

LOCALE: Well, at least the view is nice.

The novelty has worn off a bit after it played host to five of Cal's six home games in the regular season, and the configuration has been altered so that both teams no longer have to share the same sideline. But San Francisco's AT&T Park remains a bizarre setting for a football game, even by the standards of baseball stadiums: The corner of one end zone encroaches onto the warning track, dangerously near the left field wall, and the default television angle is set again a backdrop of portable bleachers in right field — the only thing keeping a badly shanked punt from potentially winding up in McCovey Cove.

Considering the alternatives, though, it actually works quite well. Now, if only we could say the same thing about this eyesore of a matchup.

TRADITION: The Sun Bowl is old.

Finally, a game your grandparents actually recognize: The Sun Bowl began in El Paso in 1935, the same year as the Orange Bowl, making it the second-oldest existing bowl game behind the Rose. It remained a New Year's Day institution until 1958, and has been broadcast by CBS every year since 1968 — one of only two non-SEC games (along with Army-Navy) on the network each year, and one of only two bowl games this season (along with the Cotton Bowl on FOX) not broadcast by ABC/ESPN. As always, it will kick off at "High Noon" in the Mountain time zone.
Alas, it's sponsored again this year by a company based in South Korea.

SWAG: The way to a lineman's heart.

For the second year in a row, I nominate the Chick-Fil-A Bowl for "Best Swag" of the 2011-12 postseason, on three fronts: a) The gift bags include a $250 Best Buy gift card, already established as the pinnacle of bowl swaggery; b) They're diverse, also including a Fossil watch, a knit cap, a travel bag and a commemorative football; and the piece d'resistance, c) A gift card for free, delicious Chick-Fil-A chicken. Unfortunately, the gift card is worth only $15, barely a light afternoon snack for an offensive lineman. But fellow Chick-Fil-A addicts can attest: You really couldn't ask for much more without the NCAA getting involved. (This item has not been sponsored by Chick-Fil-A, though suitable compensation can be arranged.){YSP:MORE}

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Bonus swag: For probably the 77th consecutive year, Sun Bowl participants will receive a hair dryer courtesy of El Paso-based beauty giant Helen of Troy, only one of the many ways the Sun Bowl cultivates the enduring sensibilities of the Eisenhower Administration.

SPONSORS, PARADES AND OTHER AMBIANCE: The Liberty Bowl goes antiquing.

The Liberty Bowl began in Philadelphia in 1959 — hence the name — and joins the New Mexico Bowl in awarding one of the most distinctive trophies in sports: An accurate one-quarter scale model of the original Liberty Bell, complete with "the same nicked edges, foundry marks, misspelled inscription and even the famous crack—all crafted to maintain the integrity of the Bell in every detail."

To complete the reenactment, recently retired journeyman Howard Schnellenberger — a Liberty Bowl winner in 1993 as head coach of Louisville — arrives after the new year in a horse-drawn wagon to move the Bell Trophy under the cover of night from the winner's athletic department to a small church in Allentown, Pa., until the Redcoats are out of Philadelphia.

Bonus Ambiance: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Marty Robbins:

This Bonus Ambiance has been brought to you by the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, which reminds potential visitors that — despite Mr. Robbins' experience and other popular misconceptions — El Paso consistently ranks among the safest large cities in America.

THIS YEAR'S MATCHUP: At least one of us is happy to be here.

The records are the same, but it's hard to imagine two teams arriving in the same destination with more divergent feelings about it than Northwestern and Texas A&M in the Car Care Bowl of Texas. The Aggies began the season ranked in the top ten and remained in the polls through Halloween, before dropping four of their last five and throwing coach Mike Sherman overboard on the heels of an especially heartbreaking loss to Texas that left them licking their wounds at 6-6. Five of the Aggies' six losses came by a combined 17 points — four of them on the last play of the game — all following the collapse of a double-digit Texas A&M lead in the second half.

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Northwestern, on the other hand, rebounded from a five-game losing streak in September and October with four straight wins — including a major upset at Nebraska — to secure its fourth consecutive bowl game in November, and has no plans to part with coach Pat Fitzgerald any time soon. Note, though, that the Wildcats still haven't won a bowl game since 1948.

STAR POWER: Yes, that Rodgers.

The closest thing to a household name in any of today's games is Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, but it's only because of the name: Even with nine starts under his belt for an SEC team, Rodgers' identity is still very much as "Aaron Rodgers' little brother," a distinction that just got him profiled in the New York Times:

NASHVILLE — The whole idea of following the path already traveled by his brother only goes so far with Jordan Rodgers. He may have done the championship belt touchdown celebration favored by his older sibling, Aaron, once, just to appease some of his teammates, but he aspires to have a more creative expression of himself the next time he reaches the end zone.

"I'm trying to get my own celebration dance if Coach doesn't get too mad about it," Jordan said. "I can't do the same thing as Aaron. It's still in the design stage. I'm thinking about a ninja bandanna. We'll see."

Hopefully, yes, we will. Please.

Oh, by the way: Today may be your last chance to catch Illinois All-American Whitney Mercilus, who came out of nowhere to lead the nation in sacks and forced fumbles and may well be on his way his way to the NFL Draft.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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