The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A reminder that bowl games still matter in the College Football Playoff era

Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker Coach Jimbo Fisher after their 33-32 win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — So, can these high, mighty, all-everything College Football Playoff semifinals on Saturday live up to that non-playoff, consolation-prize, supposedly lukewarm Florida State-Michigan Orange Bowl of Friday night?

They probably cannot.

If either Alabama-Washington or Clemson-Ohio State aspires to a 30-point fourth quarter in which one team trails 20-15 and then 27-15, then leads 30-27 with a stirring 30-yard run with 1:57 left, then trails 33-30 after a stirring 66-yard kickoff return and a touchdown pass with 36 seconds left, then loses 33-32 only after two points from a blocked-PAT return, all of that mixed with a 71-yard run on third and 22 from a stirring player the likes of Florida State’s Dalvin Cook . ..


Go ahead and try.

“Guys on both teams, both sides were a credit to football,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Playoff preview: How Clemson joined Alabama and Ohio State among college football royalty

As the nation nears the 10-year mark of Boise State’s famous 43-42 win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, worriers have worried legitimately about all these non-playoff bowls. Everyone agrees there are too many of them even as too many of them persist in existing. Some fret the playoff games are dwarfing the meaning of the others, but the evidence is hinting otherwise.

Even as this bowl week has had its televised shots of empty seats in upper decks, it has rollicked with scenes of curious urgency.

Hokies fan after Hokies fan on the screen certainly looked fretful in the stands in Charlotte as Arkansas built a 24-0 lead over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Then, Hokies fan after Hokies fan looked compelled as Virginia Tech mounted its massive comeback for its 35-24 win. After that, Hokies fan after Hokies fan looked positively exhilarated. It raises one of the eternal questions of life: Do people really get fretful, then compelled, then exhilarated over a Belk Bowl?

Apparently they do. They do.

Seldom does a sole defensive end demand the eyeballs for great swaths of a game, but during the excellent Sun Bowl of Friday, it grew mesmerizing watching Solomon Thomas, the Stanford defensive end. That game, of course, played with the backdrop of the absence of Stanford star Christian McCaffrey who, like Leonard Fournette of LSU, made the defensible business decision to skip the game to preserve his hard-won body for all the NFL draft evaluations.

While that decision might imperil the bowl games of the future, it did lend an odd fascination to Stanford’s bout with North Carolina. Then Thomas stole the thing, rampaging repeatedly into the North Carolina backfield like some cartoon character. Then, when he barged in with space-age speed to sack Mitch Trubisky and thwart the Tar Heels’ two-point conversion attempt in Stanford’s 25-23 victory, a peaceful, contemplative man, David Shaw, jumped up and down on the sideline.

Shaw coaches Stanford.

Should a coach jump up and down on the sideline over a Sun Bowl?

Apparently he should. He should.

When Tennessee finished beating Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, a clear comedown for Tennessee after it once had a 5-0 record and a No. 8 ranking, the embattled, overmatched, hapless, hopeless, helpless Coach Butch Jones got the same kind of Gatorade deluge that figures to go to somebody like Bill Belichick or Jason Garrett a month-and-change hence. He also got a ride on some sturdy shoulder pads.

Should coaches get Gatorade deluges and rides on shoulder pads after Music City Bowls?

Isn’t there some sort of wacko law from some state legislature against such a thing?

Apparently they should. Apparently there isn’t.

Florida State’s 33-32 win over Michigan left both teams at 10-3, including a No. 6-ranked Michigan team that came literally a millimeter or so from a playoff berth. It mattered to those playing it, always a question with non-playoff bowls, and it mattered to the point of Jabrill Peppers’s tears that the Michigan star could not play by pregame decision after tweaking a hamstring on Thursday in practice. If, as Gary Danielson of CBS noted, Stanford’s Thomas moved a few places up the draft board with a Sun Bowl, perhaps Cook moved a few places up the draft board by playing an Orange Bowl.

He gained 145 yards on 20 carries and 62 yards on three receptions, including a 45-yard long throw up the left sideline that made him look like a true receiver. With a horde of other Tallahassee and Ann Arbor residents, he showed that maybe there’s room for booming playoff games plus shouting non-playoff bowls. They made a non-playoff surely memorable.

As of Dec. 31, 2026, 20 years from Boise State and 10 from 33-32, will it remain more memorable than either of Saturday’s playoff games?

It has a shot.

More College football playoff previews:

Jalen Hurts breaks the mold for Alabama quarterbacks

How a Division II program shaped Huskies Coach Chris Petersen

One loss might be all that separates Meyer’s Ohio State from Saban’s Alabama

Clemson must stop Samuel and Ohio State’s rushing attack

Washington’s secondary is its best hope for taking down Alabama

Tide standout Allen is far removed from unconventional childhood

A freshman film junkie rises to key role on Alabama’s offensive line

Ohio State’s Durbin gets a crash source in the stresses of kicking