IN PRAISE OF THE PARTICIPATION AWARD.
Previewing this year’s College Football Bowl Season.
by Dennie Wendt
It’s popular these days to bemoan the prevalence of the participation award as an un-American symbol of millennial entitlement. Well, I like it. I think anyone who subjects themselves to the trials and tribulations of youth sports deserves a paper certificate, a tiny trophy, a plastic little medal...something.
I’ve coached enough little kids with fear in their eyes who were on the field more to enact a rite of passage than to do anything decent with a ball, and I have no problem giving those kids a material reminder that they stared down their fears. Anyone who really is good gets positive reinforcement enough—why not let the others know we appreciation the effort?
I had a plenty good time as a young competitor back in a simpler time, but I also had a few basketballs thrown at my head by grumpy coaches and I recall a former Marine commandeering seventh-grade soccer practice for about half an hour so we could work on our shoulder rolls. Being a young athlete is tough—a little something that says so hardly represents entitlement if you ask me. If you get a B or a C in school, you get a piece of paper confirming that at least you showed up. If you survive a season as an athlete, you should get a little something for your trouble. Especially if you’re not that good.
Surprisingly, no one seems to understand this quite as much as NCAA football. While it may seem an unlikely source for the recognition of mere effort, the college game has made the decidedly sporting gesture of offering post-season play to 80 of its 128 teams. (I looked up 1975: 11 bowl games, 137 teams.) Teams now only have to win half of their games to earn bowl eligibility, and this season three 5-7 teams received special dispensation for the sin of Being Bad in order to fill out the available spots.
I had once thought of bowl season as a special time, each game featuring players and teams worth sitting down and really watching. Now, it’s customary for stadiums to be half full and for the teams to be entirely ordinary. Coaches have even learned to speak of the lesser games as just “more time to be together,” and a “good experience for the kids.” It’s like they’re talking about some kind of student council retreat and community service weekend.
I think it’s nice that college football is such a welcoming, encouraging place for the young people. It’s about time. Maybe we can all learn a little something from the headset- and khaki-wearing lords of the gridiron who have taken the feelings of the youngsters in their care so close to their hearts.
Inspired by their thoughtfulness, I have determined to offer an award of sorts to each (or to most) of the 80 teams who have earned the right to spend a little more time together over the holidays.
Gildan New Mexico Bowl
University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Saturday, Dec. 19
Arizona (6-6) vs. New Mexico (7-5)
New Mexico's Lobos win the award for Best Team Playing in a Bowl Game with Its Own Name In It. While that’s a little like your mom being the only person who will compliment your haircut, it's better than Arizona, which enters as the Best Team to Win Only 3 of its Last 9 Games.
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas. Saturday, Dec. 19
Utah (9-3) vs. BYU (9-3)
This game has a nice hook, and I think the Las Vegas Bowl would be smart to adopt it as its annual matchup: Team that Hates Utah the Most vs. Team that Hates BYU the Most. I’d never miss it.
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
Cramton Bowl, Montgomery. Saturday, Dec. 19
Appalachian State (10-2) vs. Ohio University (8-4)
Bowling Green (10-3) vs Georgia Southern (8-4)
Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile. Wednesday, Dec. 23.
Legion Field, Birmingham. Wednesday, Dec. 30.
Auburn (6-6) vs. Memphis (9-3)
Don’t you feel like if someone gave you the words “Raycom Media,” “Camellia,” “GoDaddy” and “Birmingham” as thought starters, you could cook up an episode of “Matlock” pretty quick? Something about big-city whippersnappers coming to town using their old man’s money to force some media conglomerate’s evils down a gaggle nice small-town folks’ throats. With camellias involved somehow, maybe in people’s lapels. These six teams all earn special ribbons for Being Willing to Spend Your Holidays in Alabama. (Special Recognition to Auburn for Having to Stay Home This Year.)
AutoNation Cure Bowl
Orlando Citrus Bowl. Saturday, Dec. 19
San Jose State (5-7) vs. Georgia State (6-6)
San Jose State did lose to some fair teams—Auburn, Brigham Young, Boise State—but they only beat four FBS teams all season and they went 5-7 in a weak conference. Georgia State has only even been an FBS team since 2013, three years after the football program began. It’s a nice story, but 6-6 when you’ve lost to Liberty, Charlotte and Louisiana-Lafayette just really isn’t that special. San Jose State gets Best Team in All of San Jose, California.
Georgia State is definitely the Best Team Charlotte Beat This Year (it was either them or Presbyterian, who had a miserable season but are still the Best Team Called the Blue Hose). Good job, guys.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. Saturday, Dec. 19.
Louisiana Tech (8-4) vs. Arkansas State (9-3)
Congratulations, Best Teams Who Sound Almost Like They Might Be In the SEC, Playing in a Bowl Game That Sounds Bigger Than It Is.
Miami Beach Bowl
Marlins Park, Miami. Monday, Dec. 21.
Western Kentucky (11-2) vs. South Florida (8-4)
Western Kentucky don’t sound like much, as I imagine they might say in those parts, but they did finish between Georgia and USC in the final Coaches poll. South Florida don’t sound like much neither, but they finished 6-2 in the surprising American Athletic Conference, playing a tough schedule and beating some decent teams. This may just be the Best Bowl Game Nobody Cares About, but Probably Should.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Albertsons Stadium, Boise. Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Akron (7-5) vs. Utah State (6-6)
These teams have nice logos. Akron easily has the Best Kangaroo, and Utah State’s bull easily wins Best, if Slightly Awkward, Mascot Description on the University’s Website: “The horns of the bull signify strength, fortitude and masculine energy as well as fertility of the earth, growth and propagation.” That may be the way people talk in Logan, Utah, but it's also gross.
Boca Raton Bowl
FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida. Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Toledo (9-2) vs. Temple (10-3)
Midway through the season, Toledo and Temple had both earned the right to think about a big game—like, a really big game…Fiesta, Peach, something like that. Instead, a tough loss here and there, and they’re in the bowl equivalent of the Republican pre-debate debate—a bittersweet George Pataki Bowl. We’ll give them this year’s Santorum-colored ribbon for Better Teams than the Boca Raton Bowl Deserves.
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego. Wednesday, Dec. 23.
Boise State (8-4) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)
Last year Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl; two seasons ago Northern Illinois gave Florida State a game in the Orange Bowl (kind of). This year, fate gave them each other. They’re the Best Teams the Real Teams Didn’t Want to Deal With Anymore. The Poinsettia Bowl will make the case that its teams are Top 25 regulars, which is true(ish), but describing Boise State and Northern Illinois as football powers is like describing a great wine as being from Logan, Utah.
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl
Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium, Nassau, Bahamas. Thursday, Dec. 24.
Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Middle Tennessee (7-5)
Best Tax Haven Disguised as a Football Game.
Aloha Stadium, Honolulu. Thursday, Dec. 24.
Cincinnati (7-5) vs. San Diego State (10-3)
Whenever I think of our fiftieth state, I think of this Fun Fact: We have now had the same number of stars on its flag for longer than at any time in our history. I know fifty’s a great number, and more stars would be a design nightmare, but let’s admit Puerto Rico and Guam, unify North and South Dakota (it really is time the Dakotans lived as one people) and divide California. Declare every panhandle its own state, just for kicks. The fallout of administrative stuff to do would create the greatest flurry of economic activity since the Internet boom. Just a thought. Cincinnati gets Best Trip for a Team that Doesn’t Really Deserve It. San Diego State gets Biggest Waste of a Trip for a Team that Doesn’t Need More Sun. Send the Aztecs to the Potato Bowl—some of those kids have probably never seen snow in their lives—and let Akron go to Hawaii.
St. Petersburg Bowl
Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida. Saturday, Dec. 26.
Connecticut (6-6) vs. Marshall (9-3)
Some years ago, my wife and I moved the family from Oregon to Massachusetts. We knew nothing of New England. During our first fall, my wife volunteered for some Girl Scout-like group that our five-year-old daughter was tangled up with; as she read them a story about what life might be like without animals, my wife said to the girls, “Can you imagine what a world without animals would be like?” One of the girls raised her hand and said, “Connecticut?” After six years out there, we moved back, still not quite understanding what this meant. I hope that girl watches UConn in this game; Football at Tropicana Field Looks Like The Fauna-free Post-apocalyptic Connecticut Wasteland of her Imagination.
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas. Saturday, Dec. 26.
Miami (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)
There's an esoteric piece of Pacific Northwest slang inspired by Wazzou's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: The verb, "To coug." One can "coug" almost anything—a football game, a job interview, a vacation. Anything. The Cougs coug like no one cougs, but they couged less this season than most, and so they get the award for Being Least Like Themselves, In a Good Way. Actually, Miami gets the same award, except in a bad way—they used to be scary good...now they're lucky (like, really, really lucky) just to beat Duke. The Hurricanes get a medal for Being Least Like Themselves, In a Sad Way.
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
Cotton Bowl, Dallas. Saturday, Dec. 26.
Washington (6-6) vs. Southern Mississippi (9-4)
Zaxby’s appetizers are called Zappitizers. On zaxbys.com, its menu claims to be Indescribably Good (if you click on it, it says that “‘delicious’ doesn’t even begin to describe’ it”). The site also claims that Zaxby’s catering is “Indescribably Fun.” It features this sentence for potential licensees: “Take the concept of small business and add Zignificant resources, and what do you get? We call it Zmall business.” I know Washington and Southern Miss don’t have anything to do with Zaxby’s, but they’re stuck with the stench—they each get Our Zympathy Awards for Playing Your Indescribable Ass Off All Year But We’re Really Zorry, Your Zweat Zmells Like Zaxby’s Chicken Fat.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Yankee Stadium. Saturday, Dec. 26.
Duke (7-5) vs. Indiana (6-6)
This is easy, but I have to do it: Best Football Teams from Basketball Schools playing a Bowl Game in a Baseball Stadium. (Each team catches a scheduling break: No Duke or Indiana basketball game on this day.)
Camping World Independence Bowl
Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana. Saturday, Dec. 26.
Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Tulsa (6-6)
A Great American Celebration of Mediocrity sponsored by Camping.
Foster Farms Bowl
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California. Saturday, Dec. 26.
Nebraska (5-7) vs. UCLA (8-4)
I can understand why San Jose State, as the Best Team in all of San Jose, California would accept a bowl bid at 5-7, but Nebraska? The shame, especially when their best win, over Michigan State, was the result of a refereeing error. They also beat South Alabama and Rutgers. That’s right: That leaves three legit wins for the Cornhuskers. This is a team that lost to Illinois. They easily earn Best Team Not Called Penn State That Should Have Had the Decency to Decline a Bowl Invitation. UCLA’s a good team with a great quarterback, but they still get Worst Uniforms for a Team that Used to Have the Best Uniforms. They have the look of dogs whose owners have put them in ugly sweaters—there’s something about their body language that murmurs “Can someone please find our old uniforms? They have to be around somewhere…”
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland. Monday, Dec. 28.
Pittsburgh (8-4) vs Navy (10-2)
Navy's fun to watch. It's like looking searching "Football in the 1940s" on YouTube. They treat the forward pass like a dangerous newfanglement, a fad whose day will soon pass as soon as good, solid American values reassert themselves. Still, their quarterback in fun to watch and they're the Best Team With a Pre-War Playbook. Pittsburgh is in the unenviable position of being the Team No One Will Be Rooting For—which is fine because they won’t win.
Quick Lane Bowl
Ford Field, Detroit. Monday, Dec. 28.
Minnesota (5-7) vs. Central Michigan (7-5)
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl
Arizona Stadium in Tucson. Tuesday, Dec. 29.
Colorado State (7-5) vs. Nevada (6-6)
Motel 6 Cactus Bowl
Chase Field, Phoenix. Saturday, Jan. 2.
West Virginia (7-5) vs. Arizona State (6-6)
These three games are purely friends & family fare. I know these kids worked hard to get to a bowl game, but there's just no sugar-coating these games: There is No Value Here.
The Arizona Bowl is a good example of This Probably Shouldn't Be Happening: It's a matchup between two teams from the same conference, which hasn’t happened in any bowl game since the ’70s, when human life had less value than it does now. “It’s a travesty the Mountain West has been forced into this situation,” conference commissioner Craig Thompson said “in a statement” (which is one of my favorite phrases, I said “in a statement”). “Clearly,” the aggrieved Thompson went on, “the system is broken.” He’s probably voting for Bernie Sanders. Anyway, I think he speaks, in one way or another, for most people’s feelings about all three of these games. Give each player a few bucks for food and a Zune and call it good. These games aren't worth the risk of injury.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas. Tuesday, Dec. 29.
Cal (7-5) vs. Air Force (8-5)
Best Hippies vs. Squares Game. At Cal, trigger warnings, which “the Associated Students of the University of California have recommended as mandatory for all Cal syllabi, consist of prefatory warnings for any material that could discomfit students, such as text or videos that address sexual assault, combat, or other violence” (I got that from the Cal Alumni Association website). I suspect “trigger warning” has at least one other meaning at a service academy.
Russell Athletic Bowl
Orlando Citrus Bowl. Tuesday, Dec. 29.
North Carolina (11-2) vs. Baylor (9-3)
The Sean Combs Identity Crisis Award for Not Loving Your Own Name. Diddy/P. Diddy/Puff Daddy/Puffy, however, is no match for the Blockbuster/Carquest/MicronPC/Tangerine/Champs Sports/Russell Athletic Bowl, which despite its obvious self-esteem problems and unattractive neediness still scored a pretty sweet match-up between two of the best teams in the country. A game that sounds worse than it is, like sauerkraut.
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
NRG Stadium, Houston. Tuesday, Dec. 29.
Texas Tech (7-5) vs. LSU (8-3)
For maximum effect, say the name of this game with the low growl of a muscle car engine, or while pretending to do a voiceover for NFL Films: “The Advocare V100 Texas Bowl from Houston’s NRG Stadiummmmm.” This is a Man’s Game, for Southern Men.
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina. Wednesday, Dec. 30.
Mississippi State (8-4) vs. North Carolina State (7-5)
We don’t have Belk department stores where I live, so I don’t think of Belk as a nice place to shop. To me it’s just a word I’ve never heard before, and it makes me think “What would ‘belk’ be?” And then I think, “Oh, sure, I get it—a belk bowl…like a spittoon.”
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Nissan Stadium, Nashville. Wednesday, Dec. 30.
Texas A&M (8-4) vs Louisville (7-5)
Some teams go to bowl games to celebrate their seasons. Some go purely out of obligation. This is one of those. Both teams were supposed to be better, now they're stuck in this middling nothing of a game—but we're sending them a handwritten thank-you note for Donating Holiday Time Away From Their Families So We Can Sit in Front of the TV Watching This And Not Interacting With Our Own Kin. Football altruism indeed.
National University Holiday Bowl
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego. Wednesday, Dec. 30.
Wisconsin (9-3) vs. USC (8-5)
What the Holiday Bowl always is: The Pretend Rose Bowl. That’s Wisconsin and USC’s award: They get to pretend they’re in the Rose Bowl, like little kids pretending to drive a race car by running around and making the raspberry sound with their mouths, or like grown men pretending to care about their dates when they go to Star Wars movies.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Georgia Dome, Atlanta. Thursday, Dec. 31.
Florida State (10-2) vs. Houston (12-1)
A few years ago, during the controversy around Chick-Fil-A’s objection to gay marriage, a gentleman named Jonathan Merritt wrote a well-reasoned piece for The Atlantic called “In Defense of Eating at Chick-fil-A.” I remembered it for a passage about folks who were considering boycotting succulent fast-food, and Google just rediscovered for me: “Should they swear off the legendary chicken sandwiches to support gay rights? Or could they eat one of the filets anyway…?” That’s good writing, a fair summation of modern morality, and an unfair use of ellipses (my bad!) all in one. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a good football game. I’ll watch it, even though I'm in favor of gay marriage. Houston is Best Story of the Year, which is saying something, and Florida State is Still Pretty Good Without Jameis, which is saying something too.
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida. Friday, Jan. 1.
Northwestern (10-2) vs. Tennessee (8-4)
Northwestern is the college football program Most like a Major League Soccer Team: They play in front of thousands of empty seats, they're happy if they score two or three times, and they don't pass very well. Tennessee is Like a Spanish Football Team: They won't play a home game in front of less than 100,000 people, they play in a color that's hard to describe, and they're overly focused on past glory. If you need to make a wager, go with the Spanish.
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
Orlando Citrus Bowl. Friday, Jan. 1.
Michigan (9-3) vs. Florida (10-3)
When I coached youth soccer, the one award my children assured me no one wanted anything to do was Most Improved. I always thought it seemed like a nice recognition of a kid's hard work, but it turns out the youngsters just see it as an acknowledgement of the fact that you used to suck, but now you suck less. Well, as they said in Toy Story, "If the boot fits..."
Last year Michigan was a sorry 5-7 and Florida was a plodding 7-5. Both teams got new coaches, sucked a lot less, and thoroughly earned their Most Improved Awards. Nice job, fellas.
BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl
University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona. Friday, Jan. 1.
Ohio State (11-1) vs. Notre Dame (10-2)
Ohhhhhhhhhh-K--Now This is a Bowl Game. Great teams with great histories in a great big game...this one has that late '70s/early '80s feel about it, like it should maybe have two safeties, an onside kick and blimp should fall out of the sky. Oh, wait a minute...there it is...oh my god...the BattleFrog blimp. The humanity...
Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual
Rose Bowl, Pasadena. Friday, Jan. 1.
Stanford (11-2) vs. Iowa (12-1)
These are teams five and six in the four-team playoff world—they’re likely about as good as the teams ranked ahead of them, but a couple bad quarters in the wrong games cast them into an unintended but inevitable side-effect of a legitimate post-season tournament: The Rose Bowl as booby prize. It may be the "Grandaddy of them All," but sometimes a visit to grandpa’s house is just weird and you have to watch M*A*S*H five times in a row and then the news. Iowa gets the award for Taking Full Advantage of the 54th-hardest Schedule in the Country (an easier schedule than Memphis, who wasn’t even in a major conference, and BYU, who can play whoever they want). Stanford gets a sportsmanship ribbon for pretending to be Oregon State for a weekend and Losing to Northwestern in their First Game. If they had won that game, the fuss over who should’ve been #4 would’ve gone on for weeks. The Cardinal unknowingly performed a valuable service.
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. Friday, Jan. 1.
Ole Miss (9-3) vs. Oklahoma State (10-2)
I have never been moved, until this moment, to look up the origins of the “Ole Miss” nickname. Well, alas, it more than likely has its origins in the Peculiar Institution, as I might have imagined if I’d bothered to consider it before now. The Okies' mascot is a salty old coot name of Pistol Pete, whose left hand is already on his sidearm before he even gets it out of its durn holster. This game is easily the Best Metaphor for 2015.
EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida. Saturday, Jan. 2.
Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)
Everyone I've ever known from Penn State has been pretty cool. From the alumni I know, I'd go so far as to say the evidence would suggest that Penn State is a great school, and it probably is. Still, they weren't supposed to be back in a bowl game until next season because members of its program knew that a guy was raping children on the premises and didn’t really do all that much about it. Giving them two free bowl because they’ve been reasonably contrite about child rape for a few seasons...well, I can't say anything the NCAA does surprises me any more, but I would have been impressed if the Nittany Lions had had the dignity to see beyond the glitz and glam of the Pinstripe and TaxSlayer Bowls do their time, which really wasn't all that much, considering it was...child rape.
It’s a pretty good indicator of the air quality when people think the “system is broken” because two teams from the Mountain West Conference have to suffer the indignity of playing each other in a bowl game and nobody’s saying boo about this shit. Yuck.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis. Saturday, Jan. 2.
Kansas State (6-6) vs. Arkansas (7-5)
I am sure you will agree that this is the Best Bowl Game Between Two Teams with the Word Kansas in Their Names.
Valero Alamo Bowl
Alamodome, San Antonio. Saturday, Jan. 2.
TCU (10-2) vs. Oregon (9-3)
Non-Playoff Bowl Game Most Likely To Be As Good As Any of the Playoff Games. Over-under could be in the 120s. (If it is, take the over.) TCU: Best Purple Team. Oregon: Best Non-Purple Team That Just Might Play in Purple Someday.
College Football Playoff at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas. Thursday, Dec. 31
Alabama (12-1) vs. Michigan State (12-1)
College Football Playoff at the Capital One Orange Bowl
Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida. Thursday, Dec. 31
Clemson (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (11-1)
These teams don't need any of my phony awards. They're the winners.
That's it folks. Here's to a great 2016 and Our First Reality TV Election. Congratulations, America!