Finally, just in time to rescue the bowl season from terminal boredom and indifference, the national playoff happened. At last, there were bowl games worth watching, games that were meaningful enough that even the players showed up.

Before Michigan and Alabama went to overtime and Texas-Washington went to the wire, the bowl season was an abject failure. Like just about everything else in college football, bowl games are in disarray.

Other than the playoff, the bowls accomplished only their real purpose anymore — providing programming for TV and advertisers (weren’t you about to go Will Smith on your TV after watching all those insurance commercials and that annoying “Have-it-your-way” burger ad?).

Don’t you wish we could have it our way when it comes to college football? From the Las Vegas Bowl, where Utah’s Utes played for a crowd consisting mostly of their parents and girlfriends, to the once-proud Orange Bowl, which featured the Florida State junior varsity team, it was ugly. According to College Football Network, nearly 900 (healthy) players chose not to play in bowl games this season.

Related
Why College Football Playoff selection was an epic fail

The 12-team playoff, which starts next year, can’t get here soon enough; now there will be 13 meaningful games, instead of three. But what do we make of the other 30 bowls? They are propped up, not by ticket-buying fans, but TV outlets that pay millions so they can fill programming with the Avocados from Mexico Cure Bowl or the Duke’s Mayo Bowl instead of “Andy Griffith Show” reruns (although Andy and Barney would be more entertaining).

The bowl season reached its nadir with the Georgia-Florida State Orange Bowl, featuring two-time defending champion Georgia (still the best team in the nation) and unbeaten Florida State. After the Seminoles were wrongly snubbed by the playoff selection committee despite their 13-0 record, they lost interest — 29 scholarship players didn’t play, most of them opting out. This included their top two quarterbacks, top two receivers, top two running backs, their starting tight end and eight starters on defense. The result was predictable:

Georgia 63, Florida State JV 3.

“Bowl games ... used to mean something,” tweeted Jets receiver Garrett Wilson (a former Ohio State player who opted out of the 2022 Rose Bowl against Utah).

If the Orange Bowl is the way bowl games are headed — when not even the New Year’s Six bowls earn the respect and interest of players and they result in what looks like a spring practice game — not even ESPN is going to continue to pay millions for them, and then the golden goose is dead.

Related
College football: The State of the (Dis)Union

The problem, of course, is that more and more players each year are opting out of bowl games. Soon after the playoff was created, a few players began to opt out to prepare and preserve their health for the NFL draft, but then along came the transfer portal and allure of NIL money, and now opt-outs have spread like the flu. Loyalty to State U. has been replaced by the opportunity to play elsewhere, for more money or more playing time or both.

The other (old) problem: the glut of games (43 bowls this year, compared to 25 in 2000 and 19 in 1990), which further dilutes their value; 84 of the FBS’s 130 teams advance to a bowl. Teams still like to boast of their bowl appearances, but it doesn’t mean what it once meant.

This year’s opt-outs included the country’s best tight end, Brock Bowers of Georgia, the country’s best receiver, Marvin Harrison of Ohio State, the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jayden Daniels of LSU, among many other star players. The opt-outs make the bowl games even more meaningless.

The bowls are supposed to be the highlight of the season for players, coaches and fans, but not anymore. The Las Vegas Bowl, like so many of them, was a desultory affair with poor attendance by fans and players. 

The bowl tradition is dying. It’s not difficult to imagine that one day fans will opt out, too.

Florida State defensive lineman Patrick Payton (11) reacts during the Orange Bowl game against Georgia, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Miami Gardens, Fla. A large contingent of FSU players opted out of the bowl. | Rebecca Blackwell, Associated Press