It's up to you, Clemson and Alabama. You have to salvage the worst bowl season ever.
After a succession of bad games on bad dates at bad times – brought on by a combination of bad postseason management and bad luck – the Tigers and Crimson Tide are all we have left. That may be enough – if Clemson can live up to the moment. History shows that Alabama has a ruthless ability to smash championship-game opponents and win in big, boring fashion.
But we have no choice. That's the last chance to have a game of consequence that is also a game of competitiveness and drama in this college football postseason.
The New Year's Six bowl games, as the College Football Playoff overlords have dubbed the Peach, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, Rose and Sugar Bowls, were wall-to-wall duds. The average margin of victory was 24 points. None was decided by fewer than 14 points – something that's never happened before in the same year for those six bowl games. Only half those games (Peach, Orange, Fiesta) had even marginal second-half interest.
The biggest games were big busts. And the primary culprits were the Big Ten and Big 12.
As usual, everyone wanted badly to believe in Oklahoma. As usual, Oklahoma proved unworthy of that belief. The Sooners got everyone excited by beating the backup quarterbacks for Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State – then could not contain Clemson QB Deshaun Watson or his physical backfield mate, running back Wayne Gallman. Oklahoma was so thoroughly dominated in the trenches that it again called into question the Big 12's ability to slug it out with America's toughest teams. Then Oklahoma State looked like another defense-optional team in the Sugar Bowl, giving up more than 550 yards and 48 points to Mississippi.
As for the Big Ten: Its championship game proved to be a charade that pitted the two luckiest teams in the nation. Michigan State outlasted Iowa 16-13 in what looked like a slugfest but was really two mediocre-to-bad offenses going nowhere all night. Thus the Spartans were in the Cotton Bowl thanks to a bungled Michigan punt and an Ohio State coaching meltdown; the Hawkeyes were in the Rose Bowl thanks to a regular-season schedule that pitted them against just one opponent from the Sagarin Ratings top 35 – Wisconsin, which turned the ball over five times in a 10-6 loss. They were brutally exposed on the big stage, outscored by a combined 67 points by Alabama and Stanford.
This led to renewed whining from Ohio State fans about how they should have been in the playoff, conveniently overlooking the Nov. 21 home loss to a Michigan State team that didn't have its starting quarterback. Bad weather, the Buckeyes fans declared, as if it only rained on their players and not the Spartans. There is little doubt Ohio State was more talented than Michigan State, but the Bucks' disastrous game plan and play-calling negated that on the one day when it mattered. Thus Sparty was fed to the Alabama wood chipper.
But blowout games can't often be foreseen. Sometimes they just happen, beyond the control of bowl matchmakers. Problem is, the CFP honchos screwed up what they could control, too.
We already know the decision to contest the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve was a spectacular failure. Bill Hancock can call the 45 percent ratings decline "moderate" if he so chooses, but in reality that is a swan dive off a cliff – onto the rocks of arrogance, ignorance and indifference to the lives and interests of casual fans. The fact that this debacle was so easily avoidable – play the semifinals on Jan. 2, a Saturday, and nobody gets hurt – makes it all the more pronounced.
The CFP powers had that perfectly feasible solution that was offered to them by ESPN and said, "No, we're good. We're going to change the New Year's Eve paradigm instead."
Perhaps the conference commissioners had become so accustomed to shoveling inconvenience down the throats of the paying customers that they figured they'd swallow this one, too. After all, they have sold football fans on weeknight games; 11 a.m. home kickoffs at schools in Central time; games routinely ending around midnight ET; and myriad other logistical headaches. Why not play the most important games of the year in direct conflict with both the work schedule and the New Year's Eve party schedule? They'll figure it out, right?
Wrong. Expect this scenario to be avoided at all costs in future years.
But that was hardly the only scheduling problem.
Increasing the total number of bowls to 40 led to clutter, confusion and general bowl fatigue. It also undermined quality – particularly with the inclusion of three 5-7 teams. (Yes, they all three won, but that's more an indictment of the defeated: Georgia State and Central Michigan were awful teams, and UCLA should be embarrassed for years by its performance against Nebraska.)
Playing nine games in the two days after the playoff semifinals was no masterstroke, either. Those games reeked of anticlimax, serving as little more than afterthought space filler as opposed to serving as a buildup to the semis.
Again, the calendar presented a simple solution: Move the semifinals to Jan. 2, and play all the other games leading up to it – some on New Year's Eve, some on New Year's Day, and one or two earlier in the day Jan. 2. Instead, even ardent college football fans were burned out and bored by Saturday.
By the time TCU staged its epic, 31-point comeback to beat Oregon in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday night, many people had stopped caring. By the time West Virginia won a 43-42 Cactus Bowl shootout with Arizona State, most people were in bed. The last gasp of the bloated bowl season was a fitting coda: the Cactus Bowl ended around 2:30 a.m. ET – one last insult to the fans' body clock – and left the Sun Devils with a 6-7 record. Pageantry, indeed.
Still, there were more problems than blowouts and bad scheduling. There was more player attrition than usual, plus the usual coaching turmoil.
Think about the important and prominent players who either never suited up for the bowl games or left early: Shaq Lawson (injured) and Deon Cain (suspended) of Clemson; Trevone Boykin (suspended) and Josh Doctson (injured) of TCU; Vernon Adams (injured) of Oregon; Joey Bosa (ejected for targeting) and Adolphus Washington (suspended) of Ohio State; Jaylon Smith (injured) and Max Redfield (suspended) of Notre Dame; Robert Nkemdiche (suspended) of Mississippi; Everett Golson (no-show for personal reasons) of Florida State; James Burgess of Louisville (ejected from his final college game for targeting on the first play of the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M); Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray (transferring) of Texas A&M; and so on. That is a long, star-studded and yet very abridged list.
Coaching staffs from coast to coast were in transition. Interim, lame-duck or newly promoted coaches led nine teams into bowls, with staff changes at the coordinator and position-coach levels complicating matters at almost every school. Nothing spreads the "Who Cares?" bowl mentality to players and fans like coaches working harder at their next job than their current one.
So a nation turns its jaded eyes to you, Clemson and Alabama. Give us one classic that matters to go out on. After two weeks of busts, blowouts and bad scheduling, this bowl season needs a last-game rescue.