The Importance of a Bowl Game: Last Game of the Season or First Game of Next Season?

As college football bowl season is upon us, college football fans around the world sing “it’s the most wonderful time of the year”.  While some teams are disappointed (cue Alabama fans), some are just happy to be there (talking to you Missouri).  In each of the coaches’ rooms for all of the bowl teams, decisions are being made about how to approach the bowl game of 2022.  The question being asked by virtually every coach is – Is this the last game of the 2022 season or the first game of 2023?

It seems like an easy question, and it is for some coaches.  For Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State the answer is clear — win and bring home a national championship for the 2022 team.  However, for other teams, it might not be so clear-cut.  How strategically important is it for Bowling Green to win the Quick Lane Bowl and finish 7 -6 versus losing and ending 6-7?  I know it is critically important to the players, especially the seniors to win, but again strategically how important is it for the overall program?

If the game is the last game of 2022, every effort will be made to win.  Each team must weigh the strategic needs of the program versus the desire to win the next game.  So, when a coach asks, “is this the last game of 2022 or the first of 2023”, the answer might be a definite “it depends”.

 

Treating the game as the first game of 2023

The biggest advantage of a bowl game invite is the extra days of practice that teams are afforded.  Those teams that are going bowling get a great deal of extra time to practice and work on team chemistry.  While the NCAA does not prescribe a specific amount of practice time a team gets, it is often thought of as 15 extra days to practice.  In truth, teams can get anywhere from 20 – 25 hours of additional practice per week depending on when the bowl game is played.  A coach that looks at the bowl as the first game of 2023, might give a few freshmen, sophomores, and returning juniors a few more reps in practice than he normally would.  Again, looking at Bowling Green, Senior Matt McDonald has had an impressive year and an impressive career.  Finishing the 2022 regular season with a 135.5 QBR.  However, Coach Loeffler knows Matt is not returning next year.  Does he use those 15 days to go all out to win or does he let Camden Orth get some extra reps in practice?  How important is 7-6 versus 6-7?  Coach Loeffler will have to answer that, and the fans will probably never know what his answer was to that question.

 

Treating the game as the last game of 2022

Obviously, for the CFP teams, winning is the one and only goal.  Next year does not matter right now.  Win and bring home the trophy, lose and be a footnote in the college football history books.  Other teams must decide what is a strategic answer to a simple question  Troy University has had a fairy tale-type season.  No one predicted they would even compete for the Sunbelt West, much less win the championship, but they did.  Now at the end of the regular season, Troy finds itself ranked.  (24 in the CFP, 23 in the AP, and 24 in the Coaches).  Troy will be playing UTSA in the Cure Bowl.  UTSA is also ranked (25, 22, and 22).  It is safe to say that the loser of the Cure Bowl will not be ranked in the final CFP, AP or Coaches poll.  On the other hand, the winner will likely be in the top 20 final polls.  Winning is critical for several reasons, but first and foremost is recruiting.  Walking into a high school player’s home and saying we were ranked at the end of the regular season and almost finished ranked does not have the same ring as “We finished in the top 25 and you can play for a ranked team.”  Win and next year’s recruiting just got a little easier and a little better.  Strategically, it is vastly different for these two teams.  Win, get better and start the season ranked next year.  The program benefits greatly by winning and finishing the season ranked in the top 25.

Some coaches might see the bowl game as a must-win game for very different reasons – win or go home.  Hot Seat coaches have a little different motivation than other coaches. (Looking at you Coach Venables).

Is the bowl game the first game of next year or the last game of this year?  It depends.  Coaches decide and make strategic decisions – strategically it makes a difference.  Every coach must look at the program as a whole and ask, how important is this one game?  How important are those 20 hours a week of practice?  How do I make this program better?  Do I prepare for next year or go all out to win this bowl game?  The clear answer is it depends on the program, the situation, and the coach.

 

Happy Bowling and let us know if your team should view the 2022 bowl season as the last of 2022 or the first of 2023.