Within the next 36 hours, eight bowl games will be played: the All-American, Bluebonnet (one of the few named for a margarine), Peach, Fiesta, Cotton, Rose, Sugar and Orange. These eight bowl games are not the same as the six bowl games that were played over the previous 72 hours: the Gator, Freedom, Aloha, Sun, Citrus (formerly the Tangerine, now encompassing a wider range of fruits) and Liberty. Nor are those 14 bowl games the same as the four bowl games that were played during the previous two weekends: the Holiday, Independence, Cherry and California.

Art, I'll take "Bowls" for $100.

Bowls for $100. The answer is: 18.

How many bowls does it take 'til you know that too many people have cried?

Eighteen bowls. Come on, give me a break here. The Cherry Bowl? Maryland, at 8-3, playing Syracuse, at 7-4, in Pontiac, Mich. Two often-beaten Eastern teams playing in the Midwest. Who's on the Cherry Bowl selection committee, anyway -- the same people who created New Coke? It's 30 below in Pontiac in December. So what if the game is indoors. You still have to drive there. If you want anybody to go to this game, give them something to root for other than their anti-freeze. As for attracting fans of the participating teams, Maryland's fans just started going to College Park. Why would they go to Pontiac? Having a bowl game anywhere they don't grow palm trees ought to be illegal.

How about the Independence Bowl? There's a beauty. Played in that cradle of liberty, Shreveport, La. Independence from whom, the French? This year, the bowl managed to attract a couple of teams that couldn't have broken into the top 20 with a chain saw, Minnesota and Clemson, both 6-5 on the year. What does it say for a bowl when only one team leaves with a winning record? Anyone who bought a ticket to that game is either a great patriot or a danger to the citizenry.

There are too many bowls when 6-5 teams are going. USC went to the Aloha at 6-5. Washington went to the Freedom at 6-5. (This was the Freedom Bowl's second year of existence. Maybe when it's more established it will go for a 3-8 team.) Illinois graces the Peach at 6-4-1. If all it takes to get invited to a bowl is six wins and a fancy league, why aren't the Sacramento Kings playing? So what's the next step, Columbia and Rice in the "Maybe We Can't Play Football, But What About Our College Boards Bowl?"

The explanation for this proliferation of bowls is simple: television. Take away TV, and most of these bowls swim with the fishes. Did you see the crowd at the Cherry Bowl, all 150 of them? Pretty glazed, weren't they? It's hard to believe that these bowls could make it without your Mizlous and Raycoms and triple-digit UHF channels. Let's say they lined up all 18 bowls on consecutive exits of the Garden State Parkway, and gas stations offered free seats with each fill-up. Would you pull over to see Clemson tangle with Minnesota? (That's why there's no more Garden State Bowl.)

There must have been good reasons for bowls in the old days, before TV. But whatever they were, none of them matter now. If bowls were the one way to match good teams from different areas of the country, that's being done every week on TV now. If bowls were a vehicle to acquire national recognition, TV confers that now. If winning a bowl was reward in and of itself, that's not enough now. Now you either win the national title, or you're just another empty glass in the morning. (Actually the New Year's Day bowls serve a behavioral function: By keeping millions of us entranced in a mindless stupor all day, they prevent many willful assaults on relatives who've mistaken the holiday as a license to inflict their company upon us.)

By democratizing the game, by showing us more football than we ever wanted, TV has stripped the few worthy bowls of their charm and caused the avalanche of others. With so many knock-offs to rummage through the only ones that matter at all are the ones with a bearing on the national championship. Last year, the big one -- because BYU was top ranked and committed there -- was the Holiday. You remember that one. It was on Channel 437, after the hog prices.

This year, the Fiesta and Cotton, the first two of the New Year's Day games, have no voice in the national title, a shame because Michigan-Nebraska is an attractive match; the Cotton's single allure is Bo Jackson, who's not always up to playing. The Rose has Iowa, which could be No. 1 if Penn State loses and voters realize how good the Big Ten was this year. The Sugar has a glitzy team in Miami, but a problem being opposite the Orange. Really, the only game you need to see is that one, Penn State-Oklahoma. If Penn State wins, it will be the national champion. If it doesn't, how many voters will have seen enough of Miami to choose wisely among Miami, Oklahoma and Iowa?