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Florida’s flurry of opt-outs helps reveal meaninglessness of bowl season

Stop squinting and see bowl season for what it is: A series of glorified made-for-TV exhibitions.

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NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-California vs Illinois Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

In case you were thinking of putting a lot of stock into the result of a matchup between a Florida Gators team that emptied its tank against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game and an Oklahoma Sooners team that has only rounded into form recently, most of Florida’s best players making the entirely rational and thoroughly defensible choice to not play in the 2020 Cotton Bowl should help you:

This is another meaningless exhibition in a season comprised of them.

Florida’s stream of opt-outs began with Kyle Pitts doing the obvious just a day after the bowl itself was announced. It continued in earnest on Monday, first with Trevon Grimes and then Kadarius Toney, but by day’s end also including Marco Wilson. Add in multiple COVID-19 positive tests sidelining wide receiver Jacob Copeland, and Florida is down Kyle Trask’s top four targets from his Heisman finalist-caliber season — but not Trask himself — and a starting cornerback.

These are not questionable decisions: Pitts, Toney, and Grimes are sure NFL Draft picks for whom catastrophic injury could mean a loss of future millions in earnings; Wilson, whose NFL Draft future seemed secured after an excellent freshman season but who has been a lesser player since a second ACL tear suffered in 2018, is clinging to his dream of making it in the pros, absolutely can’t afford an injury, and probably doesn’t need to continue putting questionable tape together. Copeland missing a game due to COVID-19 protocols isn’t even a decision at all.

Rather, these are decisions by actors that get at why the whole of bowl season is begging a question by its mere existence.

There are prestigious bowls in college football, to be sure. The Rose Bowl is played in front of the sport’s most cinematic view in sunny Southern California. The Sugar Bowl is a time-honored SEC tradition that comes with a trip to New Orleans. The Cotton Bowl used to be played in the actual Cotton Bowl, as did the Orange Bowl in the former Orange Bowl. These games — and some others — have long been associated with the decades-long tradition of New Year’s Day being a celebration of college football.

But few of these bowls matter, or ever have, to the national championship picture in a sport that has only in recent decades made naming a single legitimate champion a goal of its seasons — and there is a good argument as of 2020 that the only bowls that matter in any given year are the ones that are part of the College Football Playoff, and only because they are part of the Playoff.

Look no further than this year’s “Rose Bowl” — being held in Cowboys Stadium on Friday, rather than in front of a blazing Pasadena sunset, because state and local regulations would not have permitted enough fans to attend a real Rose Bowl for organizers to admit at least family and friends of players to a College Football Playoff Semifinal — for proof that the Playoff now rules bowl season, tradition be damned.

Just three postseason games are critical to the college football season, whether or not a wastefully focus-grouped logo with the most obvious name possible is on the field for the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl or any of the dozens of other games largely taking place in states where regulations regarding COVID-19 and mass gatherings are lax enough to permit a facsimile of the light crowds that generally turn out to see also-rans from Power Five conferences, whether or not those games are shrewdly positioned as year-end bonuses for the underpaid laborers without whom the bowls couldn’t exist or simply part of the bloat of an industry that exists to create television inventory.

Bowls continue to exist — and to multiply — because viewers choose to watch enough of them in the usually sports-starved final weeks of December to justify ESPN selling ads and charging for carriage; ESPN has so ingratiated itself within bowl season that its ESPN Events subsidiary owns 16 Football Bowl Subdivision bowls outside of the Playoff and New Year’s Six rotation outright. Just 20 such bowls — nine of which are owned by ESPN, and all but one of which will be televised by ABC or ESPN — are being played this year, but a staggering 40 were played a year ago, and that number could still swell in 2021-22, with this season originally set to add three new bowls but only one being played.

And the ruse that bowl bids go to “deserving” teams has been revealed as a canard in recent years, too. The ESPN-driven expansion of the bowl schedule — originally premised on bowl-eligible teams from conferences whose games ESPN televised not having any postseason games to play in — has now created so many spots that teams with losing records regularly make bowls, and this year’s craven decision to waive all bowl eligibility rules (“in keeping with the Division I membership’s desire to provide maximum flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic,” natch) is why 3-7 Arkansas and Mississippi State teams are farcically spending New Year’s Eve in Texas.

Do we need any of this? Hell no.

The world would obviously continue to spin without the Cheez-It Bowl getting Miami and Oklahoma State on a field to determine which team should finish 17th and which should finish 22nd in polls of coaches and media members that also have little to no relevance in college football in 2020. It’s spinning this year without more than a dozen bowls that bowed to the reality wrought by COVID-19. It will spin even if every bowl doesn’t exist: The Football Championship Subdivision’s continued existence is proof that college football doesn’t need an endless series of televised exhibitions in late December to make a season whole.

But what happens if bowls recede or go dark? A lot of people making a lot of money end up making slightly less money.

ESPN isn’t going to find a substitute for bowls that will draw as many eyeballs, because there’s no addiction quite like live football. Those people employed by bowls at levels beyond typical operations staff may have to find other work that doesn’t involve glad-handing local politicians. College football players will ... wait, college football players are only getting about $500 worth of swag and maybe a free trip to Albuquerque at the end of a brutal, bruising season?

Why should we ever be surprised if they step away from this rigged game?

Florida is going to play against Oklahoma on Wednesday, and I’m going to watch — it’s my job to do this. But I don’t do this job with my eyes closed, or by looking away from the reality of what I’m seeing, and bowl season is as bullshit as anything in college sports.