Wall-to-wall ball: Let the games roll

This is the best time of the year in college football.

That's because there already have been a bunch of bowl games and there will be a bunch more. And any football fan worth any college fight song can find reason to be interested in any game, no matter how ugly the matchup seems at first blush.

For example, Nebraska plays Northwestern tomorrow in the Alamo Bowl. This one has the smell of six-day-old fish. If both teams play to their potential, Nebraska will win 128-0.

But hold on, buckaroos. Nebraska is disappointed not to be playing in a much more glittery bowl, and it could be the Huskers will try to get away with lip-syncing instead of actually singing their song. Conversely, Northwestern has an impressive offense and is thrilled to be in this bowl against this opponent.

Every game can be talked up. Well, OK, let's exclude Fresno State vs. the Air Force in the Silicon Valley Classic Sunday. The teams have a combined record of 15-7 which, truthfully, earned each the right to be home with family these holidays. But every other game has talking points.

Yet this is not the point at all.

What is the point is that college football games during this fortnight are important parts of the rhythm of our holiday lives. Not having them at this time of year would be like not hearing Handel's "Messiah" or not getting together with friends or - and this is key - not hanging on to traditions. Football games are tradition. Yes they are, too, even for those who care not a whit for football or games. They adorn our culture, like New Year's Eve party hats.

They are background noise, like a harpist at an elegant dinner. Maybe neither the game nor the harpist are the stars, but they contribute to the mosaic. We'd be less without them.

In millions of homes, some are laughing and preparing meals in the kitchen while others are laughing and watching football on television. If everybody is having fun together under a single roof, that's not awful.

The bowls fit right in with the good-times demeanor. Other than the so-called national championship game Jan. 3 in Miami between Oklahoma and Florida State, it truly is not all that important who wins any of these games.

Even this game lacks luster, however, because it's not a title game at all. Oklahoma, at 12-0, belongs but Florida State, 11-1, doesn't. After all, the Seminoles' loss was to Miami (10-1), which finds itself not invited to the Big Show.

Does this make sense? Of course not. But what the heck? The college bowls are about style, not substance. The important thing is to be good enough to go to a bowl. Winning it is but a footnote. Whether Wisconsin beats UCLA today doesn't matter. The bowls simply are rewards for players, coaches, and fans.

Too, the weather is miserable, for example, in South Bend, Ind., these days, but Notre Dame will be in Tempe, Ariz., playing Oregon State, (who will be relieved to be putting Corvallis, Ore., in its rear-view mirror for a few days). A little Arizona sun on New Year's is good for Northern dispositions.

The only serious underlying purpose for the bowls is that the 50 teams that are playing in the 25 bowls get several weeks of extra practice. Teams not in bowls don't, under NCAA rules.

And the extra practice for the most part has little to do with the bowl game and everything to do with next season. Coaches have seen weaknesses in their teams and often experiment with corrections during bowl practices. Routinely they give much more attention to young players than they have all year, because now the young players are entering college football middle age and will be central to next season's success or failure.

And this may be a trifle overblown, but everyone knows that travel is broadening. It's not that the players go to a bowl game and spend time there going to local museums, art galleries, and dinosaur lectures. But they are in places many of them have not seen, and that's an element of education as surely as freshman English is.

You understandably may not care about the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, but we'd be much poorer without it on the cultural landscape.

After all, football is as much about tradition as turkey - and a lot of people don't like turkey, either.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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