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Dispatches: Burnt Orange Nation, Part Four

Dispatching from the lavish confines of Gene Chizik's farewell party in Austin, proprietor Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation initiated a week of deep, thoughtful e-mail exchange of important ideas he promised would include at least one appropriate photo of chap-clad Texas cheerleaders As if there were ever an inappropriate time for chap-clad cheerleaders.

In his opening salvo, Peter questioned the sudden rise and fall of "Rematch Fever," and how, exactly, to meaningfully distinguish from one another this pack of deeply flawed contenders for the mythical championship game. SMQ's deranged response virtually ignored this question in favor of semantics. Unfazed, Peter plays devil's advocate while breaking open the playoff "can of worms," which he should know is always of the prank, mutant-worms-in-the-face variety. SMQ, again, dodged and weaved at the fundamental level as best he could. Shifting gears, Peter shunned SMQ's traditional bowl-based queries in favor of confronting his fears about Texas' rather lightweight 2007 schedule with meta scheduling strategy. In his fourth volley, Peter wonders how the dramatic shift the last two decades towards "hyper-marketed big money games" has affected the postseason as we once knew it.

Nostalgia is a good word for what I was going for in second-guessing my own second-guessing of today's bowl structure, though you went all the way back to the eighties and the early days of the Bowl Coalition. Maybe because I'm a few years younger, my understanding of the system didn't start to develop until probably around 1993, when I remember voting Notre Dame number one over AP and CNN/USA Today champion Florida State in the last of the three-man polls discreetly passed around my homeroom, because Notre Dame beat Florida State in November, after all. And both of our definitions of nostalgia probably differ significantly from, say, Beano Cook's.

Still wonders what happened to the always-classic Raisin Bowl

I think it's a human tendency to cement your perception of the world as you first began to be aware of it outside of your own direct experience as the way "it should be," but I would generally give the BCS its marks for consistently getting as close as possible within a bowl structure to an end-all 1-2 game. This has its trickle-down effects, though. New Year's Day remains a football-centric holiday, but it doesn't have the really electric feel it once did - it's more now like the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament, which is great, but I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer a day like Football Nirvana back in September, or even the unexpected drama of Nov. 11, for that matter (sore subject in Austin, I know).  There's been a drain there, and elsewhere.

Way back, I remember being intereseted in any bowl game, indiscriminately, and the first game every year was the Las Vegas Bowl, between the champions of the MAC and the Big West. I liked that pairing, thought it gave the game some distinction, the championship of the minor leagues. It was the equivalent of watching the Division II or I-AA championship, which I still catch most seasons if I'm not busy (which, of course, I never am). There were no other bowls before the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day. A few years later, the Liberty Bowl would do the same thing with the Mountain West and Conference USA champions, and that, to me, made that game a worthwhile destination and event, even when Southern Miss fell short, the fact that two champions were competing in it, usually at least one of them for a poll position. It's not the Rose Bowl, and nobody treated it that way, but it was still a compelling game between teams that had emerged at the top of their respective level of competition, and developed its own tradition. The Liberty's been around, it's not some thrown-together corporate thing for the sake of painting a company's name on the field. And when Conference USA played its first season in 1996, the Liberty Bowl was the only tie-in the league had. It was Liberty or, well, not death, exactly, but obscurity and disappointment, even for a team like USM, which went 8-3 that first year and shared the league title, but didn't make a bowl because it lost the head-to-head with Houston. That was just ten years ago.

The Liberty Bowl still is the desired destination, but only symbolically now, because it signifies having won a conference championship, rather than as a destination in itself. Four other C-USA teams were in generic pre-New Year's games last year, and the Liberty is hardly distinguishable this year from any of those because it lost the Mountain West tie-in and is going to take a third-tier SEC team instead, like the Music City Bowl or something. Southern Miss is playing to go to Memphis Friday night, but the only real incentive to beat Houston is to print the "Conference USA Champion" t-shirts. Well, and the trophy. But there's no reason this year going to Memphis will be any different than being met with indifference in Birmingham, Mobile or any other mediocre city.

In one sense, the glut of games - 32 this year, meaning more than half the teams in the nation will be in the postseason - is responsible for this, by spreading the number of deserving teams out among a greater and greater number of games than in the past, pulling them away from each other and filling the gaps with whatever random rabble can qualify with a I-AA win counting as its sixth victory (helloooo, Iowa, 2-6 in the Big Ten, and proud future participant in the venerable Alamo Bowl). There are so many games now, and so many acronym-heavy title sponsors, I can't even name them all or their respective locations. I could once, easily. A lot of the ones I remember have changed names - the Carquest Bowl, for example, I think is still around in some form or another. That game one year featured West Virginia and South Carolina, which was not bad, right? In 1998, when it was no longer the Carquest Bowl, I believe it was NC State and Miami, because Edgerrin James vaulted himself into the top five of the next year's draft (ahead of Ricky Williams, which you as a Texas fan and I as a Saints fan well remem...[blackout at oncoming thought of Ditka Era Saints]). Er, anyway, which game is that now? One of the ones with a sponsor-only title, I'm sure. I find it hard to forgive the Peach Chick-Fil-A and Citrus Capital One bowls for following this route, though they're entrenched enough it seems everyone still insists on calling them the Peach and Citrus bowls for the time being.

The most annoying current trend is the little start-up bowls that seem designed solely for the hometown school - this year we have the New Mexico Bowl, featuring - surprise! - barely eligible New Mexico! The Fort Worth Bowl for TCU, the Hawaii Bowl for Hawaii, the New Orleans Bowl for Tulane, if it was good enough. There's also something called the "International Bowl" this year (Western Michigan has accepted an invitation, likely against Cincinnati, from the projections), which would be a fine gimmick if it were played in Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur or some place they would have no idea what was happening, or that Western Michigan is, you know, Western Michigan. But it's in Toronto. Is Toronto in another country? American football doesn't exactly need exporting to Toronto, where they already play a football-like game, especially given the ambassadors in this case. The old Bacardi Bowl, in pre-revolutionary Cuba, made more sense, and was more accessible to unscrupulous gambling elements (as well as, according to the linked article, near-cancellation "because Batista's picture was not in the game program"). Think the American-backed dictatador wouldn't do some shill-y sideline interview?

Fulgencio: ruthless and corrupt; gridiron marketing visionary

Is it this expansion, set to bring us such exciting collisions this season as Rice vs. Troy, Utah vs. Tulsa, San Jose State vs. New Mexico and Middle Tennessee vs. Central Michigan, that's diminished the luster of December games, or bowls in general? Or is it the BCS, which has roped itself off at the expense of the perceived quality of other matchups? I'd argue the expansion within the BCS is hurting its own, because there is less controversy this year over who will or won't make the final cut, and no one is excited to be paired against Boise State, for reasons laid out on your site before. I'd say the same thing about Wake Forest or Georgia Tech, or Rutgers if it knocks off West Virginia, but nothing can really be done about that. Could a shake-up, or complete elimination, of conference tie-ins assist that effort? Or are we just jaded? The closer you are to something, you know, the more readily apparent its flaws.