With apologies to college football traditionalists everywhere, I've got some news to report: the first Saturday in December has become the sport's biggest day of the year. I can hear the protests filling cyberspace. What in the name of Knute Rockne?! Madness! New Year's Day . . . now and forever!!
Nope. Not anymore. This Saturday -- December 2nd on your calendar -- is the biggest and best day the college game has to offer.
First, a refresher on what New Year's Day has become in the 21st-century world of college football. Gone is the age when you killed your hangover with an early dose of Cotton Bowl, followed by a mid-afternoon lunch with the Rose Bowl, and an evening channel battle between the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl. On January 1, 2007, there will be six bowl games for your viewing pleasure, but nary a Sugar or Orange among them. Ever try killing a hangover with an Outback Bowl? How about a Capital One Bowl? (That's the one that has Rockne throwing fits on his cloud.) And how, exactly, did the Gator Bowl -- a second-tier, opening act made for December if ever there was one -- land on New Year's Day?
Worse yet, those six New Year's bowl games will represent less than 20 percent of college football's "bowl season." No fewer than 32 postseason games will be played, starting with the -- be quiet, Knute! -- Poinsettia Bowl on December 19th. More than half of the programs in Division I-A will attend bowl games and, somehow, call the contest their biggest game of the year.
What about the grand Orange Bowl, you ask? It'll be held January 2nd, after your work year has begun. The Sugar Bowl? January 3rd, when your attention has already turned to the upcoming NFL playoffs. And get this. The Sugar Bowl will be played FIVE DAYS before college football's big sendoff. The newly christened BCS Championship Game will be held on January 8th and won't even be the first bowl game played in January at Glendale Stadium in Arizona (the Fiesta Bowl is held there, yes, on New Year's Day). This, my college football-cheering friends, is true madness.
So we turn to the first Saturday in December. Three of the finest conferences in the land (the SEC, Big 12, and ACC) and even little old Conference USA will hold old-fashioned -- well, actually new-fashioned -- championship games. In the age of the "super conference" these four leagues have figured out the virtue in deciding its champion on the field, with contestants based on actual standings. No computers or voting system in the mix, whatsoever. Two divisions per league, each with a first-place team to square off for all the marbles. (And in the case of the SEC, Big 12, and ACC, an automatic bid to a major -- or BCS, for Bowl Championship Series -- bowl hangs in the balance.) Absolutely the closest thing to a legitimate playoff this great but flawed sport will ever see.
Go ahead and make your plans for watching the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, plotting how to dodge that Gator Bowl intruder as you channel surf. I'll be filling my fridge and seizing the remote control this Saturday. Nebraska and Oklahoma from Kansas City for Big 12 Supremacy (glory to the late, great Big 8). Georgia Tech taking on Wake Forest to prove that the ACC is worth watching away from a basketball court (give 'em hell, Deacons!). And Arkansas carrying the Mid-South torch into Atlanta to battle Florida for the SEC title. (You C-USA loyalists can pick between Houston and Southern Miss.)
Somewhere, sometime during the infiltration of big-money sponsors and the mighty hand of television, college football lost track of an element that made it unique from the other major American spectator sports: a single day during which the game's finest played on multiple stages in a nationwide festival of gridiron greatness. Good luck trying to find this day once "bowl season" starts. The best the game has to offer now comes a week after Thanksgiving. Worth putting off your holiday shopping one more day.