The Orange Bowl was a lemon, and college football continues grimacing from the bitter aftertaste.
A historic bowl game that showcases college football instead served as a scathing indictment of what’s wrong with this incarnation of the sport. Only the ethically colorblind couldn’t see the red flag raised by Georgia’s 63-3 embarrassment of Florida State, missing more than a dozen key players who either opted out of this non-playoff game or were in the transfer portal.
“People need to see what happened tonight, and they need to fix this,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said in the carnage’s immediate wake.
So what’s the fix? The solutions range from the subtle to the sweeping. No singular tweak will do the job; this requires extensive modifications. Here are our ideas, from most feasible to most radical:
Seven years before most of the NFL-bound Seminoles opted out, Michigan’s Jake Butt tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl against FSU. He has called his insurance payout “meaningful” but not enough to cover what he would have made without the injury. So give every draft-eligible player a full, actionable insurance policy to mitigate the injury risk and minimize one reason to opt out.
Bowl games have been compensating players since before the name, image and likeness (NIL) era through free gear like headphones and watches. We can expand this idea. What if Orange Bowl sponsor Capital One offered name, image and likeness packages for top players? Capital One gets more exposure because more people will watch a better game, and players are incentivized to play. The payday might not be enough for a future top-five pick like USC’s Caleb Williams, but it could sway a mid-round talent.
Move non-playoff bowls to the spring …
If bowl games are going to be glorified exhibitions, then let’s use them to replace another glorified exhibition, the spring game. Spread them out in April after March Madness ends, and use them as springboards for the next season. Attendance might suffer, but bowls morphed from tourism boosts to television properties a long time ago.
... or Week Zero
Radical as it seems, this measure likely would eliminate the opt-out issue and lend greater meaning than ever to the Mayo, Military and Myrtle Beach bowls of the world. Non-playoff matchups would be based on teams’ finishes from the previous year. All games would count as non-conference contests and almost certainly would draw far larger audiences than we witness in lower-tier bowls. Moreover, the bowl committees still could dole out their bell-and-whistle amenities to each team, making it a unique experience. With higher ratings and relevance, everyone wins.
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Adjust the transfer portal calendar
The opening of the transfer-portal window coincides with bowl selections (this year, it opened Dec. 4). As a result, many bowl-eligible teams like FSU are shorthanded, presenting an unintended showcase of second- and third-string quarterbacks. Open the portal window on Jan. 1, and bowl rosters might remain mostly intact. Detractors say a pushed-back portal calendar won’t work because college semesters commence in early January (USF starts Jan. 8, for example). We say a kid who enters the portal on Jan. 1 and chooses a new school Jan. 12 can make up that initial classwork. It’s why God created academic counselors. Coaches and transfers would be rushed into decisions with this timeline. Is that worth it for a better Fiesta Bowl?
Coaches and administrators often get bonuses for bowls. Has the time come for players to get them, too? One option — promoted by USF’s Fowler Ave Collective director Corey Staniscia — is revenue sharing, where players get a cut of the bowl money. This slides down the slippery slope from name, image and likeness deals into more of a pay-for-play model. But the payouts could persuade some athletes to stick around, if that’s the goal.
Give players contracts
If academics trump the transfer calendar, contracts are another way to slow the portal. When a player signs with a school, he’s there for a fixed, mutually agreed upon period of time; the school can’t cut him (as long as he stays out of trouble), and he can’t transfer (unless the coach leaves). But this adds its own legal issues and complexities in the player-school relationship, which leads to….
Eliminate the college part
Before the Orange Bowl, Smart said the sport must “decide if they’re student-athletes or not.” That’s because name, image and likeness deals and the portal often clash with academics. The most radical solution is to lessen or end the “student” part. If athletes are employees or independent contractors, opt-outs won’t be an issue, and the portal timeline can be pushed back easily. This proposal removes decades of tradition and the “college” part of college football. But if preserving the sanctity of bowl season is the goal, this is the only idea that can address everything — while opening up new issues of its own.
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