These Three Bowls

Tom Flynn


While most bowl games are exhibitions, I’ll begrudgingly admit that technically BCS bowl games aren’t, in that they have a hand in approximating the final official pecking order of Division I FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) football. Strictly-speaking, however, they have no bearing on final league standings and don’t definitively determine who the national champion is. It’s still a best guess, albeit with the BCS stamp of approval on it.

Outside the select group of 5 Bowl Championship Series games (the BCS championship, Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta Bowls) the other bowls are certainly exhibitions, by and large put on so people can come to a warm place, tip back some drinks, and ward off the onset of a long, cold, college-football-less winter. I think the closest non-football counterpart to the bowl structure would be the old barnstorming baseball games. Fans turned out following the season to dress up the local diamond (typically in the warmer climes of the South and West), welcomed a traveling troupe of players into town, and watched as first the Babe then later Satchel put on a game that was part showmanship and part baseball. It was fun stuff, but in the end the score didn’t impact the Major or Negro Leagues and it was done for the spectacle of it.

It’s the same thing with what I’ll call the “B” bowl games. Is hoisting a Brady “O” Beef St. Petersburg Bowl trophy at the end of the game what drives a player to excel or a fan to cheer? Unlikely. More likely if Louisville knocks off Southern Miss in that particular bowl game this year, some senior on the Cardinals is going to be happy he got to play an extra game for finishing up 6-6 on the season and some fan is cheering because they got themselves to Florida on December 21, a few drinks and a pound of Polish brats in them, and a better insight into just what a “Brady ‘O’ Beef” is.

So my advice to college football fans for truly enjoying the bowl games without sweating the implications of their outcomes is to skip games liberally—there’s 35 of them—and just pick a few obscure ones to take an interest in for several hours. A long history, a quirky old venue, or a pair of unusual rivals is what usually rates my attention while my main focus is on the food offerings at hand this time of year. The big BCS games will be overpackaged and overblown, with longer commercial breaks, and more analysis of how the game might impact the final rankings. Plus sleazy sidenotes, such as Cam Newton’s father bidding his son out to various colleges and five Ohio State players getting suspended after they play in the Sugar Bowl, will morph into human interest stories in keep with the requisite sheen of the BCS matchups.

The B Bowl coverage will need to focus on the game itself, as there’s not much to analyze about the implications of one unranked team knocking off another. The cameras will stay low to the field to avoid the empty seats, and few marketers will consider these commercial breaks as prime real estate for launching overlong ad campaigns. So without further preamble, here’s a trio of bowl games worthy of a glance over the upcoming weeks.

Military Bowl, December 29, Maryland (8-4) vs. East Carolina (6-6) at RFK Stadium—Washington D.C.

The Maryland Terps are going all of about ten miles to play in the cold weather Military Bowl at the aging RFK Stadium. Hardly the inspiring stuff of “Win One for the Gipper,” and to be frank, the Terps are more than a little bummed about it. Maryland was passed over by several other bowls despite a solid record as they don’t “travel well,” in that their fans don’t typically go on the road to support them in any great number. With the Military Bowl, a meager spark of fleeting wanderlust (or even a wrong turn on the DC Beltway) should be ample to get them to RFK.

RFK itself is worth seeing. It’s one of the last of the characterless multi-purpose stadiums built in the 1960s and ’70s that baseball and football fans alike came to loathe as they grew long in the tooth.  Three Rivers Stadium, Riverfront, Veterans Stadium, and other charming peers of RFK have met the wrecking ball, but RFK persists without a major league tenant other than DC United. I went to the inaugural Military Bowl a few years ago (dubbed the EagleBank Bowl at the time) and was impressed by the thrift of it all, if not the glamour (which I can’t say that I was looking for). Some streamers were thrown up around the funky, deteriorating façade and with some pluck and a limited supply of $$, the hosts put on a good show and a good game.

As far as the matchup, the Terps will look to prove they deserve to be in a better bowl and the Pirates should provide the perfect platform as they’ve lost 4 of their last 5 and gave up 76 points in a loss to Navy. Maryland freshman QB Danny O’Brien is a certified slinger and as he lights up the airways check out the fading, potato-chip shaped stadium in the backdrop. It’s one of the few bowls that seems cognizant of the recession.

Pinstripe Bowl, December 30, Kansas State (7-5) vs. Syracuse (7-5) at Yankee Stadium—New York City

This bowl game is in its inaugural staging and the largest factor in the outcome may be the weather. Fans generally prefer their bowl games someplace warm, and if it’s a travel destination, so much the better.  Granted, New York is a huge travel spot between Christmas and New Year’s but it’ll be interesting to see if holiday visits to Manhattan will include a side venture to the Bronx (just the name is enough to scare out-of-towners) to see a football game in sub-freezing temps.

This Yankee Stadium is just a couple years old so references to its storied football history are at best sketchy, but since The House That Ruth Built was largely razed in the mid-1970’s when it was “renovated,” there’s a 35-year track record of attaching undue nostalgia to ballparks that bear the Yankee Stadium name, if not many of its beams and girders. Diving right in with that, the last NCAA bowl game played at this hallowed old venue was the Gotham Bowl in 1962 (I can’t help but wonder if Harvey Dent or evil alter-ego Two-Face presided over the coin toss). Syracuse played in the first college football game held in the stadium in 1923 so is a fitting participant here. Earlier this season, Notre Dame and Army reintroduced college football to the place called Yankee Stadium by playing there for the first time since 1969.

As with many bowl games, the two teams are so-so at 7-5 apiece, so the matchup will to some measure be a comparison of a pretty good Big East team to a pretty good Big 12 team. This, in itself, is not fascinating stuff but what will be interesting are the attendance and the sight of a pair of football teams running rough shod over the home turf of the Mega-Millionaires of Summer.

Sun Bowl, December 31, Notre Dame (7-5) vs. Miami (7-5) at Sun Bowl Stadium—El Paso, Texas

Simply put, the Sun Bowl is and always will be my favorite bowl game. Why? It was born on January 1, 1935 in the depth of the Depression, on the same day as the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl. While those two games have gone on to loftier statures, the Sun Bowl has simply persisted for 70+ years in El Paso, a tribute to quiet, steadfast resolve. The original game was in fact a high school matchup with a squad of local prep all-stars squaring off against a band of college boys from Ranger College (the high schoolers knocked off Ranger, 25-21, so a belated “hats-off” due there). The current Sun Bowl Stadium was built in the early 1960’s and is wedged between two small hills with the scrubby Franklin Mountains centered as a backdrop to the Stadium. As you begin your tune-up for New Year’s Eve, and the shadows lengthen in El Paso, the Franklins grow surprisingly picturesque and perfectly frame the game in the foreground.

The funny thing about this game called the Sun Bowl is that it serves up a wild variety of weather. Snow, eerie fog, rain, and yes, sun have greeted the teams on New Year’s Eve. This year, it features one of the best matchups of two middling teams: Notre Dame (7-5) will face Miami (7-5) for the first time in twenty-years. The two teams dominated the late ’80s and early ’90s with the Hurricanes winning a national title in 1988, the Irish in 1989, and the ‘Canes again in 1990. It is, in its way, a perfect pairing for the game, with the luster of the last matchup long worn off, but the draw still much stronger than some of its brighter counterparts.

So whether you take in those three games, or three other B Bowls, it’ll be easier to enjoy the game and spend less time sifting through the wrapper to find the football.