This year, as always, the college football bowl games are unfolding in a context in which they are extolled by many fans (and by the colleges whose teams are participating) but jeered by many others as an unsatisfying alternative to a would-be playoff system for big-time football.
The idea of a Division I-A playoff got an unexpected push this year from the nation's new No. 1 fan -- President-elect Barack Obama, who, seemingly not content with trying to end two wars and fix the worst economic crisis in a half-century, has on numerous occasions called for scrapping the current Bowl Championship Series setup for deciding the college national champion and replacing it with a playoff.
Like many such calls, from lower-profile advocates (sorry, President Adams), Obama's proposal for an eight-team playoff received a reception even chillier than his health care plan is likely to get from conservative Republicans. Opponents of a playoff, including many college presidents, have traditionally fought it on the grounds that it would intrude excessively into players' academic schedules, requiring significant additional travel during what is exam time for many universities.
But that critique doesn't really add up when one considers that presidents and others seem perfectly willing to accept basketball and baseball seasons that are significantly longer, involve many more games and more travel -- in the case of basketball, spanning both academic semesters.
The strongest opposition to the idea of a playoff actually comes from those worried about the shift in power that would result from the creation of a new structure. The Bowl Championship Series is run by the major football-playing conferences, and the vast majority of money from the major bowl games flows into the coffers of those leagues and their members. A Division I-A national championship, if one were to emerge, would most likely be run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and chances are good that the association would -- as it does for the NCAA's Division men's basketball tournament, its most valuable property -- find some way to share the revenues from a football playoff more widely among its members.
(There are other reasons cited for opposing a playoff, including concerns about diminishing the meaningfulness of the regular season and hurting the current bowl games that allow dozens of colleges to end their seasons as winners, but money, as in most things, is at the core.)
To give a sense of the money at stake, the chart below lays out the participants and the financial payouts for this year's crop of bowl games. The team payouts are, in most cases, shared with a participant's league peers.
Five of the games -- the Eagle Bank, New Orleans, St. Petersburg, New Mexico and Las Vegas Bowls -- have already been played.
The 2008 Bowl Games, the Participants and the Payouts
|Bowl||Date||Location||Participating Universities||Estimated payout per team|
|Poinsettia Bowl||December 23||San Diego||Boise State v. Texas Christian||$750,000|
|Hawaii Bowl||December 24||Honolulu||Hawaii v. Notre Dame||$750,000|
|Motor City Bowl||December 26||Detroit||Florida Atlantic v. Central Michigan||$750,000|
|Meineke Car Care Bowl||December 27||Charlotte||North Carolina v. West Virginia||$1 million|
|Champs Sports Bowl||December 27||Orlando||Florida State v. Wisconsin||$2.125 million|
|Emerald Bowl||December 27||San Francisco||U. of California v. U. of Miami||$750,000|
|Independence Bowl||December 28||Shreveport, La.||Louisiana Tech v. Northern Illinois||$1.1 million|
|PapaJohns.com Bowl||December 29||Birmingham, Ala.||Rutgers v. North Carolina State||$300,000|
|Alamo Bowl||December 29||San Antonio||Northwestern v. Missouri||$2.25 million|
|Holiday Bowl||December 30||San Diego||Oklahoma State v. Oregon||$2.3 million|
|Humanitarian Bowl||December 30||Boise||Nevada v. Maryland||$750,000|
|Texas Bowl||December 30||Houston||Rice v. Western Michigan||$750,000|
|Armed Forces Bowl||December 31||Fort Worth, Tex.||Houston v. Air Force||$750,000|
|Sun Bowl||December 31||El Paso, Tex.||Oregon State v. Pittsburgh||$1.9 million|
|Music City Bowl||December 31||Nashville||Vanderbilt v. Boston College||$1.7 million|
|Insight Bowl||December 31||Tempe, Ariz.||Kansas v. Minnesota||$1.2 million|
|Chic-Fil-A Bowl||December 31||Atlanta||Louisiana State v. Georgia Tech||$3.005 million|
|Outback Bowl||January 1||Tampa, Fla.||Iowa v. South Carolina||$3.2 million|
|Gator Bowl||January 1||Jacksonville, Fla.||Nebraska v. Clemson||$2.5 million|
|Orange Bowl||January 1||Miami||Cincinnati v. Virginia Tech||$17.5 million|
|Capital One Bowl||January 1||Orlando||Georgia v. Michigan State||$4.25 million|
|Rose Bowl||January 1||Pasadena, Calif.||Southern California v. Penn State||$17.5 million|
|Cotton Bowl||January 2||Dallas||Texas Tech v. Mississippi||$3 million|
|Liberty Bowl||January 2||Memphis||Kentucky v. East Carolina||$1.8 million|
|Sugar Bowl||January 2||New Orleans||Utah v. Alabama||$17.5 million|
|International Bowl||January 3||Toronto||Connecticut v. Buffalo||$750,000|
|Fiesta Bowl||January 5||Glendale, Ariz.||Texas v. Ohio State||$17 million|
|GMAC Bowl||January 6||Mobile, Ala.||Tulsa v. Ball State||$750,000|
|BCS Championship||January 8||Miami||Florida v. Oklahoma||$17.5 million|