Column: Classic Michigan and Washington CFP semifinal wins make up for a slew of meaningless bowl games

Bowl games, like holiday treats, are mostly empty calories consumed by those of us who consider overindulgence an unavoidable hazard of the season.

By the time you get to the main course, the College Football Playoff semifinals, you had watched so much bad football and listened to so much inane commentary that you were just begging for one decent game to end the madness.

On New Year’s Day we were fortunate to cleanse our bowl palates with two instant classics — Michigan’s 27-20 overtime win over Alabama in the Rose Bowl, and Washington holding off a last-gasp drive from Texas in a 37-31 victory in the Sugar Bowl.

That cornucopia of pleasurable football-watching set up what should be a great championship game pitting the Wolverines, the Big Ten’s most legendary program, and the Huskies, their future Big Ten rivals from the West Coast.

The title game also matches up a polarizing coach with a history of controversies in Jim Harbaugh against the best of the next generation of college coaches in Kalen DeBoer and gives Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix Jr. of Washington a chance to show he was robbed of his rightful place in future Heisman House commercials.

In the end, the bowl season was a resounding success. But to get to this place we first had to watch a mascot getting eaten by the winning team, a coach getting Frosted Flakes dumped on his head, a slew of meaningless games played in half-empty stadiums, name players opting out of bowls or hitting the transfer portal and Rob Gronkowski starring as “the Gronk.”

Here are eight takeaways from the 2023-24 bowl season.

The most annoying part of watching a meaningless bowl game is having the announcers constantly remind you it’s not meaningless. This usually was invoked when teams had an on-field skirmish, after a team scored and wildly celebrated or when the cameras panned to the stands for shots of college kids with their school’s color painted on their chests.

Note to ESPN: We know they’re meaningless and don’t really care, unless the school we root for is involved. As a Mizzou alumnus I was happy for the Tigers’ Cotton Bowl win over Ohio State, even if it was a dull affair affected by Buckeyes opt-outs (notably receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.) and transfers (notably quarterback Kyle McCord). I’m sure the rest of the viewers went to sleep early.

Next year’s 12-team playoff should make the rest of the bowl games even more meaningless. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was among those calling for those affairs, which he compared on “College Game Day” to the now-obscure NIT for NCAA men’s basketball.

“That’s where the bowls are going next year,” he said. “I think you eliminate the bowls. Nobody wants to play in them. Just have the 12 (playoff) teams. … And if you want to add five or six bowls outside of that, then do five or six.”

That obviously won’t happen because of all the programming the games provide for his network. But credit Herbstreit for speaking the truth.

“Opt-Outs Are Us” was the motif. After complaining about not getting into the playoff with an unbeaten record, Florida State gave a white-flag performance in the Orange Bowl. Opt-outs, injuries and transfers led to the Seminoles sending out a second-tier version of a bowl team. Florida State was promptly road-raged in a 63-3 loss to Georgia.

“People need to see what happened tonight and they need to fix this,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It needs to be fixed.”

Good luck with that. Opt-outs do it to avoid risking future earning potential. And if they move the transfer portal to January, where it belongs, how would it affect the “student-athletes” getting ready for the new semester?

Meanwhile, Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman, in a sideline interview with CBS, said with a straight face he would’ve loved to have played in the Sun Bowl instead of opting out, obviously saving himself for the draft. Giving backup quarterback Steve Angeli “and everybody an opportunity to go out and execute and play well is something I will always cherish,” Hartman said.

Sure thing.

Kudos to Oregon QB Bo Nix for playing in the Fiesta Bowl and risking his rankings in the NFL draft leading up to April.

We were “Gronked” again. The little-watched Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl was renamed the “LA Bowl Hosted By Gronk,” partnering with Rob Gronkowski’s family’s businesses. A news release said the “partnership further cements Gronkowski’s presence and influence as a leader in sports marketing, and will focus on expanding his reach, as well as the family brands, into college sports.”

I’ve never quite understood the media’s fascination with Gronkowski, who is neither funny nor interesting, as evidenced whenever words come out of his mouth. Attempts to make Gronkowski a “character” worth paying attention to are not working.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl proved you could dump things on a coach’s head besides Gatorade, even mayonnaise. Now every bowl must find a unique dumping method to promote its brand. There was nothing inherently wrong with Notre Dame players dumping Frosted Flakes on coach Marcus Freeman’s head after their Sun Bowl win over Oregon State. But failing to follow up by dumping a bucket of milk on Freeman was a faux pas of major proportions. In summary: “Not grrreat!”

My lifelong dream of watching a mascot mutilated on national TV almost came to fruition when the Pop-Tart Bowl mascot — a giant Pop-Tart, of course — jumped into a giant toaster and came out as an edible treat for the winning Kansas State players. This was a purely an “empty calories piled on empty calories” kind of game, but it got more attention than almost every other bowl game. And congrats to Pop-Tarts for still existing in the Oatmeal Era.

ESPN announcers briefly mentioned the Northwestern hazing scandal in the Wildcats’ win over Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, with Sean McDonough assuring viewers they spoke to people who told them the accusations of hazing were “nonsense” and that one assistant coach even told him they were “totally made up.” There was no one there to provide context or dispute the remarks, which were casually brought up as if the two were debating a video challenge of a disputed catch.

If he was watching his former team, former coach Pat Fitzgerald was no doubt smiling.

The Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl has to be second-guessing itself after the Sugar Bowl included a shot of a woman exposing her breast on Bourbon Street. ESPN apologized for the video.

Better luck next year, Barstool.

Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is the Draymond Green of college football, always getting suspended but coming out smelling like a rose in the end. His “Michigan versus the World” narrative should play well in the lead-up to Monday’s championship game, which could get huge ratings.

ESPN downplayed the Big Ten suspending Harbaugh for three games for the sign-stealing scandal. In a taped interview with Marty Smith, Harbaugh was asked how he felt about his “integrity” being challenged. Harbaugh responded that he was “muzzled” and couldn’t address the investigation, referring to a previous statement claiming his innocence.

The title game in Houston could be Harbaugh’s final act before moving back to the NFL.

Not sure how college football — or college football commentators — will survive without him.