College Sports

Think bowl games are outdated, don’t matter anymore? You’re wrong. Just ask Virginia.

Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall and his players celebrate their 28-0 shutout win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium.
Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall and his players celebrate their 28-0 shutout win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium. AP

As the College Football Playoff has risen to prominence in recent years, highlighting the elite the sport has to offer, whispers have simultaneously cropped up about... well, everyone who doesn’t make that exclusive cut:

The postseason bowl system is broken. Those games don’t matter. No one cares.

And it makes sense why that sentiment is widespread. With all the marketing dollars and year-long hype that goes into the playoff, there’s only so much attention left over for regular bowls. There’s the upper echelon, and then... available content, if you will, something to fill the remaining holiday TV slate.

Makes sense, right?

Absolutely, until you step back from the macro issue of “the postseason bowl system” and actually hone in on any particular game. Say, Saturday’s Belk Bowl in Charlotte between South Carolina and Virginia.

Because, really, that’s the perfect example why bowls do still matter.

Virginia, coming off consecutive overtime losses that kept it out of the ACC Championship, hadn’t won a bowl since 2005. That’s the ACC’s longest bowl winless streak — by eight years. Every other school in the conference had captured at least one bowl victory since 2013.

Then there’s South Carolina, with five bowl victories in the team’s past six postseason appearances, including last season over historic Michigan. Their season, compared to the SEC giants in Georgia or Alabama, wasn’t what they had hoped, but a bowl appearance is still at least a barometer of success.

Now when you compare the Belk Bowl to, say, the Cotton Bowl, featuring undefeated Clemson and undefeated Notre Dame, of course the difference in magnitude is apparent. Millions of eyes will be trained on the playoff semifinals in Dallas and Miami — not even 50,000 people were at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday.

But the thing is that you cannot compare the two.

The playoff and all other bowls serve fundamentally different purposes, for fundamentally different schools and fan bases and especially players.

Of course they’re different. That doesn’t mean both don’t have value, though.

“You know, they’re different programs,” Virginia safety Joey Blont said. “This is our little playoff right here. This is our championship. If you’ve really kept up with UVA football, you would understand that there’s no ever thought of going to a bowl game like 3 or 4 years ago.

“It just really means a lot to the program and puts us somewhere that we can really put ourselves further in the future.”

That’s it. That’s the essence. For Virginia football, which has languished through more than its share of 4-8 and 2-10 seasons, shutting South Carolina out 28-0 and snapping its bowl winless streak is as grand an accomplishment as you could imagine.

And to those who argue that bowls don’t matter?

You didn’t see the Virginia players and coaches dancing on the sideline after each big play. You couldn’t hear their roars, hear the overwhelming applause from their fans whenever the Cavaliers scored a touchdown. You didn’t see the signs with written displays of gratitude, or watch an entire half a stadium sway together in the game’s waning minutes.

“We’ve been through a lot, going from seeing 2-10, being at the bottom,” senior Cavaliers running back Jordan Ellis said. “To get a win like this, against an SEC team, it means the world to us and it’s probably something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

Does that sound like something that doesn’t matter to you?

And even on the other side, the same is true. You didn’t see the South Carolina fans, in fancy shmancy crimson-and-white suits, shaking their fists for every missed third-down conversion. You couldn’t see them crumple their beer cans in frustration, storm angrily out of the stadium as the reality of their team’s letdown sunk in. These were real people, with real emotions. Their days, and the Gamecocks players’ days, were spoiled because of this game.

But for as much as fans take possession of their teams and subsequently their games, your Uncle Sam in the 19th row isn’t the one who put in a year’s worth of 5 a.m. workouts to get to this point. He isn’t the one we should be listening to as far as whether or not bowls matter anymore.

We should listen to the players — and yeah, of course, they care.

“I feel like bowl games matter, especially for a program like us on the rise,” Ellis said. “This bowl game was very important, especially after the two losses that we had, overtime losses, close losses. It was good to get back. Just get back in the win column for the last time this year with this group of guys.

“We deserve this win. We worked hard all year. We were that close to getting nine or 10 wins, but eight wins is something that is special for this program at this point, and I feel like it’s just the start for coach (Bronco) Mendenhall and what he’s going to do at UVA.”

That’s not to say the postseason bowl system is perfect, of course. Top players, like South Carolina star receiver Deebo Samuel, will continue to sit out bowls to protect their own interests and professional futures. Coaches will leave for new jobs, skipping out on postseason games after an entire year’s worth of work.

But those small deterrents do not completely rob bowls of their shine or luster. To players, to fans, and to their schools, these are showcases of young men and pure effort. They are reminders of diligence and of hard work. And as was the case in the stands on a breezy Charlotte afternoon, they are uniting, bringing together fans and alumni at the exact right time of year.

“We had a lot to play for,” Mendenhall said, “and still have a lot to play for.”

Charlotte and the Belk Bowl will never be as hyped up as the College Football Playoff. Expecting otherwise is a waste of time. But to say that the Belk Bowl, and all other regular bowls like it, don’t matter?

If nothing else, Virginia proved this Saturday: You’re dead wrong.