How will the winners of Thursday’s Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl celebrate?
They’ll be bowl champions and receive the prizes that go with it. But their business will be unfinished. Another 1 1/2 weeks of practice will remain in preparation for the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game on Jan. 12.
That makes New Year’s Day and these games different than anything college football has experienced. Until now, never had winners advanced to another round, and that has required a chance in approach for the participants.
“We haven’t treated it like a normal bowl week,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Once we get the outcome of this game, we’ll focus on what comes next, whatever that is.”
For the winners, it’s more football.
The Crimson Tide faces Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon takes on Florida State in the Rose Bowl in the first national semifinals, turning the teams and games into college football test cases.
The idea has been to mix the sense of reward for tremendous seasons, which has been a purpose of bowl games since their inception, with the seriousness of a do-or-die contest.
Oddly, the losing teams will feel the bowl game in the more traditional way. Their seasons will be concluded.
But college football’s first final four are happy to be adjusting to the new college football way. They were the product of a committee vote and seeding procedure, with Alabama leading the way, followed by Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.
The first national semifinals went to the sites of two of the most traditional bowl games. Next year, the semifinals will be in the Orange and Cotton Bowls and be played on Dec. 31. For the 2016 season, the semis are in the Peach and Fiesta Bowls and also will be played on Dec. 31.
When he first heard the concept, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer wasn’t sure how a team would handle the week. Now that he’s lived it, Meyer said a bowl fun and playoff awareness for players can work together.
“It is a playoff,” Meyer said. “But I’m glad there’s still the feel of the Sugar Bowl. The staff and I have tried to do a good job making sure that our players appreciate the Sugar Bowl.
“But everybody knows there’s something left.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher’s concern is losing the bowl experience.
“I hope we don’t make to where, if you’re not in a college playoff, you’re a total failure,” Fisher said. “The bowl system itself is one of the great things about college football.”
Postseason football started with the Rose Bowl. The first game was played in 1902, and the Rose maintained its tie-in with Big Ten and Pac-12 schools after the other major conferences in college football had formed a coalition to determine a national champion in the 1990s.
The Rose Bowl signed on the Bowl Championship Series starting with the 1998 season and lost its exclusivity with its historically aligned conferences. Still, perhaps no postseason game carries the same aura as the one in Pasadena.
“It’s the granddaddy of them all,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “Waking up on New Year’s Day, you had the Rose Parade and in the early, mid-afternoon hours you had the Rose Bowl.”
Traditions were surrendered for creating a championship format, and by many measures the first playoff season has been a success. Regular season games remained important, the weekly announcement of the committee’s rankings became appointment viewing, the semifinal matchups have wide appeal, and there was even a bit of controversy — a college football staple — with the process.
We’ll see if fans respond in person. If they can afford only one trip, will they take the sure bet with this round or gamble that their team will win and advance to the title game in Arlington, Texas?
That’s also part of the unknown in college football’s new format. What seems certain, at least to Meyer, is the game’s popularity.
“I can’t imagine the interest level being any greater in any sport than college football,” Meyer said.