With bowl season upon us, Michael Weinreb and Jon Dolan reflected on the past year in college football, discussed their favorite minor bowls this year, and looked ahead … to 2026.
About three months ago, you journeyed to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, beheld the rare sight of Southerners attempting to use a commuter mass transit system, saw the University of Georgia Bulldogs unveil the worst Oregon rip-off football uniforms conceivable without the use of hallucinogens or the creative input of Haysi Fantayzee and — most importantly — watched your beloved small-conference strivers, the Boise State Broncos, completely dismantle a team that would eventually win the SEC’s Eastern Division.
Upon returning to your Brooklyn apartment, you ensconced yourself in the plush confines of your resplendently appointed home office, sat down in your ergonomically designed chair (Swedish, modern), placed your fingers in the correct home row position and proceeded to knock out 2,000 words of what we in the journalistic profession call a “reported feature-length essay,” wherein you argued that Boise had earned over many years of nearly unblemished performance the right to play for the national championship, even though its schedule is crummy and its field looks like Drake’s soul crossed with Jim Morrison’s liver. The Broncos had dominated the dumpy little league they play in year after year, beaten team after team from BCS conferences (including Oklahoma in a bowl) and built a great program on the college football equivalent of the moon. What was one missed field goal against Nevada? They’d earned it. And even in a credit-default-swap existence, that had to be worth something. If it wasn’t, then why give a shit — or so my caricature of your argument went/goes.
It was a very Michael Weinreb thing to do because you are that rarest of cock-eyed dreamers: the college athletics optimist, not the moralist who stands outside a clearly debased system glibly awaiting its imminent collapse, but a muckraking reformer who believes if he yells loud enough and types fast enough the powers that be, bathed in the guiding light of revealed wisdom, will do what is just and right, even if it hurts a little — in this case elevate a great program like Boise’s to the echelon its body of work deserves, even if its fan base travels about as well as a 14-year-old goth on a family trip to Knott’s Berry Farm.
You had good reason to believe that such righteous rightness was possible, even in the moral drainage ditch that is college sports. You knew it could happen. You’d seen high ideals get the glory before. You’d watched merit and excellence and honesty and tradition congeal throughout your entire life, over and over, from boyhood to manhood, size 6 sneaker to size 33 waistline. It wasn’t an aberration for you. It had been the natural course of human events. Others might not get it. But you did. You went to Penn State.
Fast forward to mid-November. In the intervening months, your worldview should’ve been smashed like a child’s fallen toy on freshly polished marble. You should’ve gone from “Charge of the Light Brigade” to “The Waste Land” in all the time it takes an undersized freshmen to disgorge a couple of Four Lokos on a State College sidewalk. Should’ve, but didn’t. Instead, on Nov. 30, you surveyed the college football season that just passed you like a German tank division — a season that included not only the entire collapse of your JoePa-delineated ethical system but also the failure of Boise to attain the undefeated record that might’ve put them in national title contention.
You processed it all and what did you do? Well, you paused for what had to be seconds of reposeful reflection, re-enclosed yourself in your home office and knocked out another 2,000 star-spangled words of what we here in the journalistic profession call “deranged shouting,” wherein which you argued that Boise State STILL had more than earned the right to play LSU for the national championship.
The Werner Herzog of Fitzcarraldo could learn a thing or two from you about single-minded determination.
Well, here we are, smack in the middle of what Adam Duritz might call a long December. And what’s on the menu for the seventh-ranked, one-loss Broncos? Is Chris Petersen poring over game film right now devising a super plan to un-hat Les Miles? He is not. Instead, he is prepping his eternally bucked Broncos for the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, where they will take on 6-6 Arizona State. Meanwhile, 10-2 Michigan is playing 11-2 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
It’s weird. I mean, you typed out all those words. There weren’t any misspellings. You didn’t accidentally write “Dear Fascists, please submarine my favorite team.” You’d almost think everything wasn’t totally on the level in the selection process.
Oh, well. By now, I’d hope you’d have learned to stop hoping. Sadly, something tells me you haven’t. Because you are what you are. In short, a masochist, eternally freshening yourself up for the next round of punishment, always on the lookout for a new illusion to belly flop in to. You’re the Morrissey of college sports — no amount of suffering is too deep, no amount of misery too luxuriant. You see the light that never goes out on the double-decker bus crashing into you and you stand astride the yellow line, arms outstretched gleefully waiting to get pancaked.
And I’m sure you’ll keep searching for meaning and redemption even in this the most meaningless of seasons, bowl season, where one game really matters and the rest are essentially fund-raising scrimmages (like presidential primary debates in July). So let’s have it: What annoying underdog cause have you found to champion? What categorical imperative do you plan to pry out of the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl? What is the bottomless existential resonance implicit in this year’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl? How can college football fail to redeem itself one more time all over again in the eyes of its most dedicated misery goat?
I await instruction.
Hello Jon Patrick Dolan:
Well, as you are the world’s foremost expert on “playful ruined teen dementia,” I should probably heed your warnings. I also know that you are both an avid George McGovern historian and a longtime Minnesota Golden Gophers fan, and so you haven’t had much going in terms of excitement since Rickey Foggie wrested that bronze pig away from Chuck Long. However, there is a certain amount of deflection in your words, for it is you whose inner conflict is evident, most notably in an e-mail you sent to me and a handful of other friends several weeks back, in the wake of that nauseating Jerry Sandusky grand jury report. I submit it here in its entirety (the subject line, I should note, was “Two Thoughts”):
1. This week I am kind of wondering if college sports are just a bad idea our society needs to get rid of.
2. Are you guys gonna watch Oregon/Stanford?
XXX XX Street
This succinct list pretty much sums up everything about your life, as well as your true attitude toward college football. You are an idealist who cloaks himself in cynicism, because it is safer to make people presume you believe in nothing. It is a classic Gen X strategy; when they make the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life, as your heroes in Pavement once sang, Ethan Hawke will play your role. This is a stance I’m presuming you took on in the ’90s while bobbing your head cautiously at Superchunk shows and assuring your highbrow rock-crit friends that Vitalogy was horseshit and that anyone who voted for Ralph Nader was an idealistic hippie, right before you ducked into a voting booth and pulled the lever for the Green Party. And now you blame yourself for the aughts happening, and you have fallen into helpless despair about America.
I am on to you, Jon Dolan. I know how you work. You like to mock my idealism (as manifested in my comically overwrought affection for little ol’ Boise), but you would like to see the the system upended in favor of the underdog as much as I do. You’re just afraid to say it in public. How do I know you’re afraid? Because anytime we are watching a football game together, and the non-favored team falls behind 14-10, you begin muttering, This game is over. This game is over. But you never actually leave the premises. You always stay until the end. It was you who insisted we depart one of those television-less Brooklyn taverns full of hipsters and microbrews and find a place to watch the end of the utterly meaningless Big Ten championship game. You are the Stephen Malkmus of college sports, cloaking your passion for the game and your belief in its essential goodness behind low-fi riffs, laconic vocals, and senseless references to Geddy Lee. You are the kind of person who, when the fascists overrun our city, will simply shrug his shoulders and take up a shovel in the first prison camp he can find, because, hey, at least the supreme leader gives one hell of a speech.
Well, this game is not over, Dolan. This game is not over.
And yet this time of year, our philosophies converge, because we can agree that as futile and infuriating and heedlessly corrupt as it may be, the bowl season is an incredible diversion from the burdens of, like, talking to your parents and stuff. So let us not dwell only on our differences: Let us celebrate the annual making-of-excuses-to-watch-the-Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. (Speaking of which, did you know that Beef O’Brady’s is not, in fact, a Hamburger Helper alternative, but is an actual restaurant? And that this restaurant’s slogan is “Meet Me at Beef’s”? And that it is an Irish sports pub that apparently serves award-winning buffalo wings? America, motherfuckers. It’s like a Mike Judge prophecy come to fruition.) With that in mind, I throw these questions at your face:
1. What “minor” bowl are you most looking forward to? And I mean this in two ways: As in, which bowl matchup are you excited about, and which of the bowls themselves — due to timing or sponsorship or sheer ridiculousness — gets you jazzed up to abandon your 4-year-old child on his swing set and glue yourself to the tube?
2. Speaking of which, when your son is a freshman at Mankato State in 2026, how many bowls will be in existence? And what will be the method of determining a national champion at that point?
3. What bowl game will Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars play in next season? What will be the trajectory of his tenure there? And what are the odds he will lose his job after administration officials discover that he has been distilling moonshine in his basement?
4. Fill in the blank: This is the best Rose Bowl since ______
5. Honestly, what in tarnation is a Belk? Is that the band you saw open for Husker Du back in ’87? And does Louisville ever play in bowl games that aren’t sponsored by obscure and ridiculous corporations?
6. Finally, if Alabama beats LSU 9-6 in overtime, and Oklahoma State beats Stanford 35-3, what are the chances that the Cowboys sidle up to no. 1? Is it 0.0 percent, or something more? Do you believe the system can be bucked, or is T. Boone tilting at his own damned windmills?
You’ve given me a lot to chew on and I will have answers to all your questions momentarily. But first, in the extremely appealing fascist scenario you describe above, what role does Lee Corso play? Is he merely a state-media functionary, playfully donning mascot head after mascot head as a means of distracting us from our oppressed immiseration? Or do his years of faithful service to our overlords warrant something with a little more juice — Lieutenant Viceroy perhaps, if not Deputy Grand Moff? Anyway, if the design and manufacturing of my prison-camp shovel is underwritten by Phil Knight and it comes in 500 unique but equally annoying styles, I’m down.
You ask which minor bowl I am most excited about? Well, defining “minor” is not easy in a confused age of relativistic drift when the GoDaddy.com Bowl is one day before the national championship. But I think I get what you mean. Florida State vs. Notre Dame has a decadent, dynasties-in-collapse quality, and Ohio State vs. Florida has been magically transformed from nugatory to hate-steeped by a Bowie-esque chameleon named after the greatest radio-format euphemism ever invented. But I think I’m going with one of the weirder matchups: Houston vs. Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. In a way, this game is kind of like a micro-version of the last year’s Rose Bowl, with the uppity, high-octane fringe-conference hopefuls diabolically pitted against a stolidly overpowering (at least on defense) Big Ten team in what transparently seems like an attempt to punish the little guy for having the temerity to almost muddy the BCS picture. The game also has an element of twilight struggle to it, as both programs may soon be entering prolonged dark nights of soul — Penn State for reasons I won’t go into so as not to cause you further beard strain, Houston because coach Kevin Sumlin has decamped for Texas A&M and the superstar Cougars quarterback Case Keenum is finally playing his last game after six lively years and 57,000 total passing yards. It’ll be interesting to see who clings to their dying breath most tenaciously.
For runners-up, I’m also interested in the Military Bowl (presented by Northrop Grumman, who I believe was Secretary of the Navy during the Coolidge administration; great to see you’re still in there swinging, Northrop!). Air Force runs the triple option and Toledo participated in my favorite basketball game in disguise of this season (a 63-60 loss against eventual MAC champs Northern Illinois that inspired you to argue — correctly, I think — that Toledo could finish third in the Big Ten Legends Division).
Lastly, here’s sort of a personal sleeper runner-up: the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. I realize this game sucks, but I am fond of it. It’s on Christmas Eve night, and it’s always a blowout, with some lucky 7-5 team traveling to the islands to beat up on the perennial hosts, the University of Hawaii’s (once and always Rainbow) Warriors. But I like putting it on and getting drunk while everyone else is asleep. The poor quality of play actually lends itself to the desultory nature of the ritual. Sadly, though, Hawaii couldn’t even make its own bowl this year, opening up the possibility for a matchup between two genuinely pretty-good teams — 10-2 Southern Miss and Nevada, which averaged 500 yards of offense this year. So, it looks like the traditional Yuletide awfulness I’ve come to cherish may be upended.
2. You ask how many bowls will be in existence the year my son enters college and how the national champion will be determined. My immediate instinct is to answer “zero” and “there won’t be one.” In 2026, instead of dropping my son off at Mankato State, helping him set up his dorm room and leaving him with one last sage piece of fatherly advice (“When choosing a long-distance provider, you can’t go wrong with AT&T”), he and I will more likely be wandering the Cormac McCarthy-esque dystopia that is the American future, living off whatever dry goods we can pillage from the rat-ruled storerooms of decaying Chick-fil-As. The primary concern of the college football nation — and that of the nation as a whole — will not be “Who will be left out of the playoff they enacted in 2015 that only served to redefine and redistribute the ways people get mad college football?” but “I wonder if anyone’s siphoned all the fuel out of that overturned Hyundai up ahead because I’m almost out of potatoes to barter?”
If this dark tomorrow does not befall us, the college football postseason will be a 32-team playoff with each game sponsored by an online tax service or oil company or chain steakhouse or sports drink that will kill you. So the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl becomes the AdvoCare V100 Independence Western Regional Semi-Final Bowl-Style Event Game. Technically there will no bowls, but a bowl-like filament will linger like lipstick traces on a cigarette, simultaneously inspiring nostalgia tinged with revulsion (always the best kind).
3. You ask me to guess which bowl Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars will play in next year.
The answer is — somewhat ironically, given its humanitarian ethos — the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Cougars will go 7-5 next year and the Apple Cup will soon replace the Civil War as the premiere in-state rivalry in the Upper Northwest. But while the prospect of Mike Leach back with complete control over a backwater program is rife with promise, I fear he is in for something resembling South Carolina-era Steve Spurrier. Texas Tech was the perfect place for him, off the cultural grid but smack dab in the middle of the recruiting grid. It’s going to be harder to convince the Michael Crabtrees of 2014 to come up to Twin Peaks land and get rained on all year just so they can anchor some batshit offense run by a mercurial control freak viewed by many (however unfairly, I think) as a torturer. Plus, the Pac-12 is going to be the best non-SEC conference throughout the next decade. The Pirates’ best year before his Hawkeye Pierce-esque distilling operation is exposed will be 9-3. His best bowl will be the Capital One Bowl. His next job will be as a Fox college football analyst. Or he will disappear from society completely.
4. This will be the best Rose Bowl since 2008, the final score of which was USC 49, Illinois 17. Or at least that’s the edition of the Granddaddy it is most likely to resemble. I’d like to pretend this could be as close as last year’s Wisconsin loss, but after their weirdly easy home blowout of Nebraska — at which point I honestly believed they might have a chance at competing against an SEC team if they ran the table in the Big Ten — the Badgers turned out to be the year’s biggest letdown, outside of Oklahoma. I love Russell Wilson (his decision to leave NC State to take advantage of Wisconsin’s comparative lit program was admirable), but I think Wisconsin’s seeming defensive strength is just a function of the Badgers playing incompetent offenses all year, and LaMichael James will pour through their line like it’s a corn-fed sieve. Final score: Oregon 49, Wisconsin 27.
5. You ask what a Belk is. A Belk is a superdrug briefly popular in the ’90s and reported upon frequently in the pages of Spin magazine that makes things that should be fun seem like things that are boring. I think we took some once at a party in Greenpoint a few years ago — or maybe were we at the DMV? Anyway, it was awesome/I hated it.
6. You ask how windmill-tilting T. Boone can buck the system and be redeemed. The system is a priori unbuckable. No outcome can stop either Alabama or LSU from being no. 1. I know you’re kind of feeling Hope and Change-y again because your quasi-outsider guy won the Heisman. But you need to realize that the train of history has left the station. I really wish there was an Alabama-Oklahoma State play-in game. Or maybe we could just declare LSU national champ, since it is clearly the best team in the country and probably the best team since peak Pete Carroll USC. (If the Tigers really insist on playing one more game, let them take on whoever finished last in the CFL or something.) Then the Tide and the Cowboys can go at it, we can definitively know who’s no. 2 (What’s wrong with no. 2? I’d love to be no. 2 at something), and Mike Gundy’s claims about defenses in the SEC needing a true test of Big 12 offensive craziness can be either validated or revealed as bloviating nonsense. Of course, that would be both improvisatory and logical and utopian — like something sprung from the dreadlock-draped mind of Michael Weinreb, a nature kid who ain’t got no BCS function, as Stephen Malkmus might sing.
Now, having satisfied your scholarly curiosity, let me point the inquisitorial foam finger your way for a minute:
1. Michael, what is this year’s MF Global Michael Weinreb Under-the-Radar Pick for Aesthetic Goodness in 2011-12? By which I mean, which game would you advise the casual college football-viewing fan to tune into that he or she probably wouldn’t have without your advisement?
2. How many national championships will USC win before 2022?
3. Urban Meyer will retire from coaching in ____?
4. Which of the BCS bowls will be the most fun to watch?
5. Who will win the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and how will the cause of Liberty be forwarded by the event?
6. Put on your pundit hat. What is your “takeaway” from this past college football season? What does the year, or any aspect thereof, tell us about the way We the American People live in 2011?
You know, every time I think perhaps I’m becoming too obsessed with college football, I do something like Google the phrase “Grand Moff,” and I realize that there are no sane people left in the world. That said, I can tell you that Lee Corso is somewhere in this photograph.
Speaking of the Hawaii Bowl, did you know that Hawaii’s coach mysteriously “retired” after four seasons, following that 6-7 campaign? And that this retirement came after an anonymous letter was sent to athletic department officials accusing unnamed players of point-shaving, after which police declared there wasn’t enough evidence for an investigation? It’s like the framework for a James Ellroy novel, if Ellroy started dressing like Randy Newman and became obsessed with the run-and-shoot offense. Also, since when is a losing season at Hawaii grounds for displacing the coach? Is this some sort of reactionary response to the loss of the Pro Bowl? (On a side note, it’s good to know that Timmy Chang still has some arm strength left.)
Now, on to your queries:
1. Here are a couple of as-yet-undiscussed games I find fascinating enough to stay at home and watch while eating Moo Shu and lamenting the war on Hanukkah:
- The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, and not just because it still makes no sense to me that a local institution grounded in the tenets of socialism (at least it’s an ethos, dude) would be willing to associate itself with bowl-system fascism, let alone with a flower that may or may not have killed a 2-year-child a mere 92 years earlier (how quickly we forget).
But anyway, TCU is 10-2, with close losses to Baylor and SMU, and a win over Boise State, so given my default stance on Boise it is my job to make them seem far better than they actually are. (Although I really do think Gary Patterson may be one of the top five coaches in America. If he stays, they will win the Big 12 title within the next three years.) And Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes, whose team won the WAC, was the receivers coach under Mike Leach at Texas Tech and is the son of the coach with the greatest name in Texas football history, Spike Dykes. (Seriously, children. That was his name. Look it up.) There will be some firepower in the Plymouth of the West.
- The Capital One Bowl, traditionally known as that Big Ten-SEC matchup you watch while sprawled on a sectional sofa, attempting to extricate the buzzing of a thousand tequila-induced bumblebees from your skull. However, this year, because Lord forbid we preempt the NFL’s monopoly on Sundays, the New Year’s Day bowl games will be played on Jan. 2, which means you will sprawl on your couch watching Tim Tebow while trying to recall if you vomited in your friend’s umbrella stand, and you will be fresh and renewed for this matchup between Nebraska and South Carolina, two completely unpredictable squads with coaches who both seem one bad play away from being committed to Happy Acres. The Head Ball Coach will fling his hat, and Bo Pelini will turn purple, and Jimmy Fallon will not stop asking that damn baby if he wants more money, and we will all head into the Rose Bowl completely pissed off at the vagaries of the universe. It’ll be a blast.
2. USC will win one (1) national championship sometime in the next four seasons, and then Lane Kiffin will depart to become the head coach of the NFL’s expansion Los Angeles Rush, and then USC will once again go on probation for egregious violations of NCAA bylaws, and then Pete Carroll, having been fired by the Seattle Seahawks, will return to coach the Trojans, winning two more national championships before he is hired to replace Kiffin (who will be hired by the University of Florida, despite losing 80 percent of his games as the Rush’s coach and insisting on drafting a punter in the first round of the expansion draft).
3. … a panic.
4. Well, as usual, my optimistic side finds your bleak prediction for the Rose Bowl to be a bit dour, largely because Wisconsin is not really a Big Ten team, since they heisted a quarterback who is far too good for this conference. I believe the Badgers will hang tough for three quarters, and Montee Ball will score 13 touchdowns, and then the Ducks will accelerate the tempo to the point that they won’t even be calling actual plays anymore. (Chip Kelly will later refer to it as “The Hyena Offense.”) And they will win 103-91.
That said, a couple of other BCS games fascinate me: The Cotton Bowl, because I could see Bill Snyder coming off the sidelines to make an unassisted tackle; and the “Plus One” Fiesta Bowl between Oklahoma State and Stanford, because I honestly have no idea if the Cardinal can hang with the Cowboys, who I keep thinking are overrated, even though I cannot get over how unbelievably, insanely good Justin Blackmon is. The dude dispenses with cornerbacks like Godzilla tromping a Tokyo newsstand. Either way, it should be noted that this game is not for all the Tostitos, but merely enough Tostitos to placate the masses, which, when they are coated in that mystical lime-flavored dust, is not many.
And of course, there is the game to end all games (which follows the game that ended several weeks ago in overtime, and apparently did not end anything), but why bother addressing Alabama’s inevitable 9-6 victory when we can discuss …
5. The Liberty Bowl! I have fond memories of the Liberty Bowl boring the crap out of me: In 1979, Penn State played Tulane, and won (fittingly enough) 9-6, and the game-winning field goal was set up on a halfback option pass by fourth-stringer Joel Coles. When two good teams play a 9-6 game, one can make excuses. When two bad teams play a 9-6 game, one can only lament. It remains one of the least-interesting bowl games in Nittany Lion history, which brings me to my larger point, which is that for many years, I presumed this game had been played in Philadelphia, where boredom leads people to misplace cats in their walls. However, the Liberty Bowl actually moved from Philadelphia to Memphis in 1965. But let us not neglect Memphis’s undeniable place in the cause of liberty! Memphis has afforded us greater freedom to (A) send packages overnight, (B) eat pork ribs, and (C) be stuck inside of Mobile. So if we’re not already part of the great Memphian/AutoZone inspired “zone of freedom,” Cincinnati and Vanderbilt are sure to drop us in there like a spare feline.
6. But enough mirth, Jon Dolan. You pose a serious question, and I’m not sure if I know how to answer it. It has been a terrible and trying and downright depressing year to be both a college football fan and an American citizen. We are living in miserable times, and it’s hard to know if we just have a tendency to over-exaggerate the awfulness because the dumbing down of media has made it far easier to hate everything, or if our nation is actually headed toward some McCarthyian (Joseph, or Cormac, or Melissa) denouement. Your tenor in these e-mails, as well as the cases of Chunky beef sirloin stew stacked in your basement, speak to your attitude about the future, but I guess my takeaway can be summed up by this, or this, or this. As much as college football sucked this season, all of those moments were downright awesome, and there were a dozen more just like them.
Good old-fashioned optimism is what led us to believe that college students playing games could salve us in the first place; this is a uniquely American manifestation of blind idealism, according to historian Taylor Branch, whose opus in The Atlantic appeared before the scandal at my alma mater broke things apart even further. And that’s just the thing. Perhaps we cannot regain our innocence, but we can adapt to new realities, because this is what Americans (outside of Charlie Sheen) do so well. If we stop clinging to Puritanism, college football will still be awesome.
A playoff, or a plus one, is such a simple tweak that the corrupt bastards who preside over the bowl games will eventually figure out is merely a way to fleece their constituents even further. And I’m not sure why knowing that the athlete who made this catch was receiving some kind of stipend would somehow diminish my enjoyment of his athleticism. If we make some necessary moral compromises and abandon our high-falutin’ notions of the amateur ideal and the deification of coaches, the game will not turn into the NFL, or at least not any more than it already has. There will still be marching bands, and there will still be Steve Spurrier press conferences, and there will still be insane Alabamians who feel a compunction to (allegedly) poison trees and brag about it on regional radio programs. College football is great, and college football is terrible, and yet it will survive, because liberty is enduring, and so is the Liberty Bowl. Get in the zone, my brother.
Jon Dolan is a rock critic for Rolling Stone and Grantland staff writer Michael Weinreb is the author of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ‘80s Created the Modern Athlete.
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