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ORLANDO, Fla. — The question of whether non-playoff bowl games mean anything isn’t one that really matters.
Bowls draw great television ratings. All but two of the 24 bowls played through Dec. 29 had a million or more viewers. The Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl had 2.9 million. Wednesday’s Clemson-Iowa State Cheez-It Bowl had 4.9 million.
Thus, bowls make moola for ESPN, the college conferences and their member schools, and the administrators and coaches and merchandisers at those schools.
Also, they bring in a lot of money to economies in markets covering 18 states when no games are canceled. So, yes, they are relevant.
Are they meaningful? In one way, not really. You don’t remember who won the 2018 Independence Bowl or 2019 Liberty Bowl or 2020 LendingTree Bowl. Few in Kissimmee, Fla., can cite details about Iowa’s 2017 Pinstripe Bowl triumph over Boston College.
From what we’ve seen of bowls in person and on television this week, though, they sure as shooting matter to the players and coaches, and their fans.
Not quite as many people are traveling to bowls as in a non-COVID year (remember those?), but there still are plenty. None of the Iowa State and Iowa supporters here this week needed to be asked if they thought the games were valid.
The dollars they voluntarily and even gladly forked over, the air or auto travel they contended with to get here — people don’t do that for what they think are exhibition games.
The Clemson Tigers had been to the last six College Football Playoffs and won two national championships in that time. Yet, they treated their 20-13 Cheez-It win over Iowa State Wednesday with enormous satisfaction.
While Cyclones Coach Matt Campbell was answering questions in a postgame press conference in a media room in Camping World Stadium, the sounds of celebration reporters heard from the Tigers in the adjoining Clemson locker room definitely were, well, roars.
“Y’all got a show,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “We were a little loud.”
Oklahoma, with interim coach Bob Stoops, had a big old party in San Antonio after defeating Oregon 47-32 in the Alamo Bowl. The Sooners played in a lot of more-important games than that under Stoops and in the five years after he retired. But going out with a win is fun, fun, fun.
If you saw the Music City Bowl and didn’t enjoy the way the players poured their hearts and bodies into it, you’re not to be trusted with heavy equipment. Purdue’s 48-45 overtime win over Tennessee was an all-time entertaining bowl.
So here are Iowa and Kentucky. Neither will ascend to the AP’s final top 10 with a Citrus Bowl win. The game almost surely will be an afterthought most places by midafternoon, with the Rose and Sugar bowls following it.
The Citrus Bowl won’t even be the main event in its own time slot since Notre Dame will play Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl at the same time.
But you watch. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats will play as hard as they have all season, and the winner will have a whale of a celebration when it’s over.
“Ultimately, as I tell our players,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said Friday, “the greatest memory (of a bowl trip) they’ll have is postgame if you win. Collecting that trophy is important.”
In the incredibly commercialized bowl system, there is much to mock. The passion and purpose of the teams that play the games, however, is above the fray.
Of course, Pittsburgh played Michigan State Thursday night in the Peach Bowl with the Panthers without Heisman-finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Spartans minus Heisman-finalist running back Kenneth Walker III.
Both opted out of the game to avoid potential injuries as they near the NFL. So the bowls mean a lot to players, but only if something else in their football lives doesn’t mean more.
Iowa and Kentucky both have three-game winning streaks in bowls. The carry-over effect of coming home victorious? Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz knows it.
“It’s a whole lot better after winning,” he said. “You learn that when you’re in third-grade, probably.”
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