The Exhibition Season Has Begun

UCLA played a football game in Los Angeles last night, at a venue significantly closer to its Westwood campus than the Rose Bowl stadium they usually play their home games in.   Ostensibly billed as a post-season reward, it was dutifully covered by what remains of local media as such, with all the trappings of what would seem to be a milestone victory.  Per the LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS’ Haley Sawyer:

UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers might not have been feeling 100% healthy heading into Saturday’s LA Bowl against Boise State, but he had no hesitation stepping onto the field when starting quarterback Collin Schlee exited the game due to injury.

What followed was a furious comeback at SoFi Stadium that included a 21-point third quarter and a 35-22 win over the Broncos (8-6) and the Bruins’ first bowl game win since 2015.

“When I looked out there and the team needed me, that’s my biggest priority,” Garbers told reporters after the game. “I sacrifice my body for the team, for these guys. We put blood, sweat, and tears into it. And at the end of the day, it’s all for them.”

UCLA (8-5) came back from a nine-point halftime deficit to win the game. Garbers was named the game’s offensive MVP and announced at the postgame press conference that he plans to return to UCLA next season.

Which is all well and good, since mere days after the Bruins accepted this bid, the dude that Garbers battled for that job with during 2023 made this announcement, as reported by ESPN’s Tom Van Haaren:

UCLA freshman quarterback Dante Moore plans to enter the transfer portal, a source confirmed to ESPN on Thursday.

Moore was the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2023 class out of Detroit. He originally committed to Oregon out of high school before flipping to UCLA and signing with the Bruins.

He appeared in nine games this season as a true freshman and threw for 1,610 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

And in a world where transfer portals have attracted more than a thousand interested wanderlust seekers, the idea of dozens of post-season college football games that offer little more than a curtain call for those who weren’t necessarily good enough to attract immediate attention has become arguably more and more outdated and irrelevant.

More than ever, the starters who led their teams in the regular season are eschewing these showcases, lest they risk injury that could severely diminish their ability to perform in the Indianapolis combines, and hence their draftability.  And since a great deal are now being paid anyway, there’s little incentive beyond personal integrity to want to risk the chance of the gravy train continuing with at least their best shot at a professional career.

USC’s Caleb Williams won’t be playing in the upcoming Holiday Bowl.  North Carolina’s Drake Maye will be eschewing the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.  Syracuse didn’t hesitate to fire now ex-coach Dino Babers in advance of this week’s Boca Raton Bowl.  A demand for teams that at least broke even may have created a chance for the Orange to be rewarded with a 6-6 season with a pre-Christmas junket to Florida–not something to be dismissed if you’re facing a holiday season in a climate like Syracuse’s–but it didn’t sit all that well with the school itself.

And yet…there remains a legion of fans and supporters, such as the WASHINGTON POST’s Steven Godfrey:

There’s no such thing as too many bowl games. Ever. There are 41 this year involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams. I would watch 90.

The Myrtle Beach Bowl is not important. But the team I grew up cheering for, Georgia Southern, will play Ohio in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at 11 a.m. Saturday. If Georgia Southern wins, it will provide little to salve a disappointing 6-6 season and a four-game losing streak. If Ohio wins, I probably will shrug and forget the details of the game in a few days.

This behavior will appropriately reflect the merit and significance of the game. It will be an honest transaction among the fine people at the Myrtle Beach tourism board, myself, and ESPN charging ad rates for live sports instead of replaying a talk show, all without affecting or arresting college football’s postseason.

It is football, and I will watch it. It is an American birthright that this sport distract us during uncomfortable times. The smaller and more meaningless the bowl game, the more ethically sourced that distraction is.

Godfrey also pointed out the growing difficulty of continuing this amidst the impending expansion of the post-season games that DO matter–the college football playoff–from a three-game, four-team tournament decided in nine days to a 12-team, 11-game juggernaut to be spread out over three weeks.  The newly added games will be played in the same window of the majority of these made-for-TV, alumni and yes, gambler-friendly events, arguably rendering them even more irrelevant.

And the sentiments that he expressed regarding that reality check effectively echo mine:

In two weeks, we will be asked to invest in the invisible stakes of the final, ludicrous iteration of the “New Year’s Six.” Two bowls (this year it’s the Rose and Sugar) will host actual, meaningful playoff games (that’s good!), while four others (the Peach, Fiesta, Cotton and Orange) will boast entirely worthless exhibitions among a smattering of very, very good teams that just missed the cut for the real postseason.  All of these games (No. 9 Missouri vs. No. 7 Ohio State, No. 11 Mississippi vs. No. 10 Penn State, No. 6 Georgia vs. No. 5 Florida State and No. 23 Liberty vs. No. 8 Oregon) would be appointment viewing if they actually mattered at all. Instead, thanks solely to the arrested scope afforded by bowl tampering, we have a four-team playoff and then these . . . other games. Last week I spoke to staff members at three of the schools playing in these games about unrelated matters, and all three volunteered how little they or their programs actually cared about the outcome of these meaningless exhibitions.

The Rose Bowl was once the only game played on New Year’s Day, and for decades Keith Jackson would reverently show said Pasadena sunset, the first of an otherwise hopeful new year, to jealous and otherwise freezing viewers around the country.  Always the Big 10 and the Pac Whatever.  This year it’s an elimination game between, yes, a Big 10 team (Michigan), but one that will share a conference with three former Pac 12 teams next season, rendering a traditional rematch forever impossible.  Without the cache of a tournament bracket, future Rose Bowl matchups might be as attractive as the LA Bowl, and trust me, a more difficult drive and parking experience.

Sure, we’re watching.  Again, as Godfrey reminded, anything’s better than a talk show rerun or, for me, an umpteeth holiday special.  But I also watch pre-seasons exhibitions in professional sports.  By next weekend, we’ll be less than two months away from the first pitches of the 2024 major league baseball exhibitions.  They’ll be white noise then just as the majority of the 41 games, seven of which already took place yesterday, are now.

But do offer your condolescences to Godfrey.  Because yes, to some of us, exhibition results do matter. 

Courage….

 

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