On the first Friday evening of 2014, Ohio State will play Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The game is sponsored by a major credit-card purveyor and will be televised by ESPN. It is a BCS bowl, but it is not the BCS bowl, which means it will almost certainly gather respectable ratings despite meaning absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ohio State blew its opportunity to play in the national championship game last Saturday against Michigan State; Clemson got throttled by Florida State back in October. It is a consolation game, which is what makes the next few weeks the strangest and most fascinating period of any “season” in American sports.
There is no competitive justification for the continued existence of bowl games, except that we like them. They are here largely because they’ve always been here, because we are all sentimental creatures and that sentiment ratchets up during the holidays (I still feel a pang of sadness every New Year’s Eve for the dearly departed Bluebonnet Bowl; I have a friend whose emotional attachment to the Cotton Bowl is so deep I fear he might miss the impending birth of his child if it occurs at the same time as Missouri-Oklahoma State). The bowls exist because the people who run them play golf with the right people, and because (sometimes) they make money for the schools and conferences involved, and because people (including me) believe the corruption and inexplicable sponsorship deals are offset by the comfortable kitsch they provide.
Of course, if Ohio State defeats Clemson, its season is slightly better, but still ultimately disappointing, given the Buckeyes’ position heading into the last weekend of the regular season; if Clemson beats Ohio State, it still got smoked by the finest team on its schedule.
And yet it is precisely because it means nothing that the bowl season is so inherently interesting.
Only two teams have anything concrete to play for at this point. But everyone else has to play, anyway. Some teams, like Minnesota, will no doubt be thrilled to spend Christmas in Houston; some teams, like Arizona, will be sentenced to spend New Year’s Eve in Shreveport. Every fanbase (other than Florida State’s and Auburn’s) will spend the next few weeks squeezing out the last twitching bit of life from the sub-narratives that only matter to their own collective self. Every coaching staff is seeking to overcome apathy and senioritis and the wandering eyes of a hundred college students set loose on the streets of a major American city. It is three weeks of inconsequential football; it feels almost like a test of everyone’s loyalty to the sport. Upsets almost never feel like upsets in bowl games, because it’s very possible that one team stopped caring weeks ago.
The last time Ohio State and Clemson shared a football field, this happened, which means you’re probably going to hear a great deal about Woody Hayes this bowl season. So here’s something: Before that ignominious Gator Bowl, the end was already nearing for Hayes. According to John Lombardo’s biography of the coach, his assistants were already angling for his job. Hayes and his team actually considered turning the Gator Bowl down before deciding it was better than nothing. When Hayes punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman, Lombardo writes, he “was attacking everything that had failed him during the long and frustrating season.”
There are 35 bowl games this season; 34 of them will involve teams looking to attack what had failed them during this long and frustrating season. Some will do it successfully, others will give up midway through the second quarter, which will cause further strife heading into next season. Thirty-five years after Woody’s punch, two teams dueling their own mounting frustrations — Nebraska and Georgia — will meet in this year’s edition of Gator Bowl. It is the second straight time that Nebraska and Georgia will play each other in a bowl game, and no one is excited about it at all, which means it could be kind of awesome.