On either side of BYU head coach Kalani Sitake sat mud-soaked players, fresh off a 24-21 win over Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“The win is all them. They’re the ones [who] are dirty,” Sitake said. “I’m only dirty because they hugged me and they dumped Powerade on me.”
Running back Jamaal Williams joked, had the Cougars anticipated the deluge of rain in typically sun-drenched San Diego, they’d have avoided wearing all-white. Nevertheless, the stains covering BYU players’ uniforms symbolized the effort put in not just for that night in Qualcomm Stadium, but throughout the season.
Sure didn’t look meaningless.
Neither did the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the Idaho Vandals. Dropping down to FCS in 2018, Paul Petrino’s team used the program’s first postseason appearance since 2009, and the rare opportunity of a national stage, to make a statement.
Surrounded by the fans who stormed the Smurf Turf after a 61-50 defeat of Colorado State, Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan gave an impassioned plea for the Vandals to remain in FBS. The bowl win proved their worthiness of college football’s top tier, and they want more opportunities on that stage.
Not exactly meaningless.
The last season Idaho bowled marked the first of varsity competition for Old Dominion. The upstart program launched in 2009, and in short order grew from newbies, to FCS Playoff participants, to Conference USA championship contenders.
Friday’s 24-20 win over Eastern Michigan marked a new milestone in the growth of Monarch football. Old Dominion finishes 2016 10-3, winning the first bowl game in program history.
“This was a life-changing experience,” Monarchs head coach Bobby Wilder said, via ODUSports.com. “We talked about this all week. We made memories to last a lifetime, and to win the game makes it that much more special.”
Despite the loss, 2016 was special for Eastern Michigan, too. The Bahamas Bowl gave the Eagles their first postseason experience since 1987.
An all-too-common cynicism exists around the sport, which manifests this time of year in complaints about bowl games. From the laments that there are too many, to the inclusion of 5-7 teams, photos of sparse attendance shared on social media and a chorus of cries that bowls are “meaningless,” college football’s most ardent followers turn into a bunch of Grinches this time of year.
Christian McCaffrey’s decision to forego the Sun Bowl, and Leonard Fournette doing the same for LSU’s Citrus Bowl appearance, further fueled the “meaningless” rhetoric lazily tossed about.
For McCaffrey, who put on arguably the most spectacular, individual performance in the history of college football’s most prominent bowl game last January, the Sun Bowl might be meaningless. Ditto Fournette, whose NFL stock was so high even before last year’s Texas Bowl, takesmen took to their keyboards to suggest he skip his entire junior season in preparation for the draft.
With McCaffrey and Fournette, however, you have the roughly one percent of college football players who will reach the NFL. And of that one percent, the dynamic running back duo approaches that demographic’s one percent of elite prospects.
Viewing the entirety of the sport only through the lens of its top fraction-of-a-percent is a wholly cynical mindset. Dismissing a bowl game as meaningless is a byproduct of that prevailing attitude, but it isn’t just cynical: it’s flat-out wrong.
This week demonstrated the value of bowl games. Particularly for programs in various state of building or rebuilding, the postseason carries particular meaning.
For a team like Old Dominion, getting to a bowl game marked a new step in the history of the program. For Wyoming, playing in the postseason one year removed from a 2-10 finish rewarded the remarkable turnaround of a team head coach Craig Bohl said exemplified, “a can-do attitude.”
“It was awesome to be able to do this and for us seniors: go to our first bowl game,” Wyoming wide receiver Tanner Gentry said. “What’s really cool about college football is the bowl games.
Wyoming’s rally from down 24-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl, to drive with an opportunity to win in the final minute set a tone for the week.
Friday wrapped with bowl games decided by four, three and five points, with Louisiana Tech’s three-point defeat of Navy in the Armed Forces Bowl decided on a field goal in the waning seconds.
Amid the saturation, the questions about NFL prospects, and the ever-increasing focus exclusive on the College Football Playoff, bowl season still has meaning.