College Football’s postseason is set to expand to 12 teams, and more of the sport’s best players are opting out of bowl games every year. Many have come to view the non-CFP bowl games as meaningless exercises that need to be done away with. So, what are we doing here? I traveled to last weekend’s New Mexico Bowl to decide for myself.
A Trip to a “Meaningless” Bowl Game: Cleansing My College Football Soul in The Land of Enchantment
It’s a Saturday night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m standing near midfield at University Stadium as the very wet coach of a soon to be Big 12 football program takes pictures with strangers who walk up to him. About an hour ago I was sitting in a room at the top of the stadium with my shoes off…
“The area was governed as New Mexico Territory until 1912, when it was admitted as a state. The relatively isolated state had an economy dependent on mining. Its residents and government suffered from a reputation for corruption and extreme traditionalism. New Mexico introduced the Atomic Age in 1945, as the first nuclear weapons were developed by the federal government in the research center it established at Los Alamos.”
That’s a passage from Wikipedia’s entry on the history of New Mexico. Change some proper nouns around and swap some of the chronology in that paragraph and it could easily be about college football.
The sport was an outlier for much of its history, cared about by a relative few. The NCAA governed it as its own little territory, selling the rights for the few games that were aired on television. In the early-80’s only a single game would be shown on TV most weeks. In September of 1981 the Oklahoma Sooners and USC Trojans played a game in Los Angeles that was broadcast to 48 states on ABC’s airways. The exception was North Carolina and South Carolina, where a game between The Citadel and Appalachian State was broadcast instead. When the NCAA cut the checks from that weekend's broadcasts The Citadel, Oklahoma, Appalachian State, and USC all received the same amount of revenue. At that time colleges made a few bucks selling season tickets and a little bit of merchandise on the side. We’ll call this the mining era for the sport.
College football’s government is the NCAA. Much like the leadership of New Mexico prior to World War II, the NCAA has also long had a reputation for corruption and extreme traditionalism. They coined the term “student-athlete” in the 1950s to insulate colleges from paying for school’s medical expenses. Over the coming years it would be used to keep players from getting money.
For a while that was fine. College football wasn’t a business in any real way through much of the 1900s, so there wasn’t much money going to anyone. The sport unknowingly entered statehood when U.S. District Court Judge Juan Guerrero Burciaga of New Mexico ruled that the NCAA’s control of the sport’s television rights engaged in price-fixing and limiting the production of games. That suit was brought by the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia and it was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court where it was upheld in 1984.
The courts sided with OU and UGA instead and schools have had the ability to sell their TV rights ever since. The selling of those television rights introduced the masses to college football and the value of them has been skyrocketing ever since. The modern era of conference realignment was ushered in by schools looking for ways to maximize the value of those same television rights.
Pretty soon the schools started making so much money that more change ensued. The first change came because the amounts of money being made were so gaudy that not giving the players a chance to make some cash too began to look downright evil.
The second change came because the sport spent much of the 1990’s and 2000’s engaged in almost annual controversy over how it crowned its champion. Some shrewd businessmen saw that as an opportunity to create even more television rights to sell. The College Football Playoff, a four-team tournament to crown a national champion at the end of the season, came into existence in 2014.
A few years went by… Then the same fans and media members that had complained about the 3rd ranked team being left out of the BCS Championship started complaining about the 5th ranked team being left out of the College Football Playoff. Those shrewd businessmen saw an opportunity to create even more television rights to sell for even more money. The 12-team College Football Playoff will start in 2024.
Oppenheimer’s bomb and the World War that it was created for ushered in an Atomic Age that radically changed American society and modernized New Mexico’s economy. Two three-letter acronyms have brought forth college football’s Atomic Age- NIL & CFP.
It will be years if not decades before we understand how these changes will alter college football, but bowl games appear to be one of the things on the immediate chopping block. A lot of people deemed them meaningless when the College Football Playoff started in 2014. More joined the refrain as star players chose to opt out of them in recent years.
With the CFP expanding to 12 teams in a couple years, games like the New Mexico Bowl are appearing more and more like a pointless exercise to many college football fans.
I’ve been torn on the issue of what bowl season should look like in the future. I figured there could be no better place to go than New Mexico to sort out where I stand on it...
BYU and SMU were set to kickoff at 5:30 local time. I arrived at University Stadium a little before dusk and found crowds of people doing the same things that I normally see people doing before football games. There was cornhole being played, there were grills being lit, and kids tossed footballs around the parking lot. It was an impressive showing considering the temperature was below freezing and would continue to drop throughout the night.
The one noticeable difference? A lot of people were wearing New Mexico Lobos gear or appeared unaffiliated with either BYU or SMU. They were locals coming to watch a football game being played locally. I went into the stadium and immediately stopped to use the bathroom. A guy in line got questioned about the color of his attire. “Those are Aggies colors bro. Take that shit to Las Cruces.” Hell yeah, regional rivalries.
New Mexico and BYU played in the Mountain West with each other from 1996-2010. For most of the first quarter a crowd of guys in the end-zone seats wearing Lobos red kept up a chant. “F-U… B-Y-U…” Hell yeah, regional rivalries.
When you attend or cover a CFP game or a contest being played in the SEC you are constantly encountering red tape. On the other side of the spectrum is the New Mexico Bowl. I walked down onto the field, showed my pass to a man in uniform and spent the rest of the night going wherever I wanted. That level of access was greatly appreciated. It also afforded me the opportunity to listen to coaches and players communicate in real time on the bench.
Before the game BYU defensive back Kaleb Hayes huddled up with his team and delivered a message. “Last one, baby. All I want to do is win. Hey, compete! Love this game!” The narrative going into the game was that BYU’s defense would struggle to stop the high-flying SMU offense lead by Tanner Mordecai. The Mustangs were 13th in the FBS in points per game entering the contest. This was a chance for redemption for Hayes and his defensive teammates. They were very much invested in winning this game.
I took turns walking back and forth behind both team’s benches. What I saw were two teams who were also very much invested in winning the game. There may be teams who don’t show up for bowl games this holiday season, but BYU and SMU are not those teams. It was around 20 degrees on the field and the pads were popping like they do in any other highly competitive football game.
BYU went up 24-10 on a 22-yard Chris Brooks TD run late in the 3rd quarter, and it felt for a bit like the game might have gotten away from the Mustangs. Then Mordecai lofted a deep ball down the BYU sideline from the opposite hash to Mookie Dixon. It looked incomplete but Dixon squeezed the ball between his legs for a completion and a 35-yard gain. SMU hurried to the line to try and snap the ball before the booth could buzz for a review. They got the ball off and ran a play… And then the officials announced the booth had buzzed for a review before the last play.
“THAT’S BULLSHIT! WE RAN A PLAY. YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE RULES OF THE GAME!”
SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee was very much invested in winning this game. The play was held up after review and the Mustangs scored to cut the BYU lead to 7. Game on.
A few plays later SMU’s offense had the ball again and was making steady progress towards the end-zone when a BYU player fell down out of nowhere. SMU’s sideline erupted into calling him a lot of different things. I can confirm that they too seemed very much invested in winning the New Mexico Bowl.
The game was getting close and it just felt like an exciting ending was going to be in store. The only problem was my toes. I couldn’t feel them, which is normal for a cold night, but they were so cold that they had become painfully numb. Myself and some fellow media members had warmed up a bit when the SMU equipment managers took mercy on us by leaving their sideline heaters on during halftime, but I knew my toes weren’t going to make it through the fourth quarter and the postgame trophy ceremony. I sprinted up the bleachers to the stadium concourse and rode an elevator to the highest level and walked inside a room.
Inside the door in front of me was the stadium’s press box. In either direction were suites filled with big donors. I slipped my boots off and pulled my feet up to my hands under a tablecloth. Gaudily dressed women from Dallas and Salt Lake walked to and fro to get more glasses of wine and hit the cookie table while a woman on staff who was working the door asked me if it was a good game. She, like everyone on the New Mexico Bowl staff, was extremely nice. They were thrilled to have people come and experience their city.
My toes feeling acceptably numb again, I hustled back down to the field. Pretty soon SMU had the ball back with 3:01 left on their own 12. Quickly it was 4th & 1 on SMU’s own 21 with the clock under 2 minutes. A jet sweep and a broken tackle later and WR Austin Upshaw had a first down by a yard.
Both sides of the stadium had gotten increasingly louder all night, but by now the place was buzzing. With 1:05 to play SMU had gotten out to their own 33, but they had taken two minutes to get two first downs. The comeback bid wasn’t looking promising.
With BYU dropping more men into coverage, Mordecai started getting his most consistent protection of the night. Still, with 34 seconds to go SMU was only at the BYU 47. To make matters worse they were facing a 3rd & 6. Then it happened…
- Mordecai scrambles out of trouble, rolls left, and hits his wideout on the sideline for 14 yards.
- SMU runs a Wheel/Post combo with its two boundary WR’s on the left side and the inside receiver gets free down the sideline for 22 yards. SMU is on the BYU 12 with 20 seconds to go.
- Incomplete pass on a screen. 14 seconds to go.
- Mordecai hits Jordan Kerley on a Double Post out of a Tight Bunch formation up high in the back of the end zone… NOISE.
SMU elected to go for two and the win, and the Mustangs and BYU went back and forth showing each other formations and taking timeouts for what felt like the next fifteen minutes. Before the final two-point attempt, SMU lined up tight and then motioned out to stack four WR’s to the left and one to the right. BYU only had three down linemen and one linebacker in the box when coach Kalani Sitake took a timeout.
When SMU lined up the next time they motioned into the exact same formation. This time BYU’s linebackers shaded inside a bit further towards the box instead of aligning wide with the SMU wideouts. BYU DB Jakob Robinson had inside coverage on the right WR with another Cougar lined up over the same WR guarding against a play towards the sideline. At the snap Robinson got in position to guard against a slant. When Mordecai took off on a QB Draw he came downhill and made a tackle at the 1.
BYU SIDELINE ERUPTS.
SMU’s onside kick went out of bounds and one kneel of the football later it was all said and done. Then the BYU fans came onto the field. To say they “rushed” the field would be too aggressive of a phrase, but they didn’t mosey onto it either. Sitake’s players doused him in Gatorade and he began to dance in a pile of Cougar players and fans.
I caught glimpses of it but I was too busy watching Ethan Erickson. The 6’5” redshirt freshman TE from Laie, Hawaii stopped his celebration with his teammates when a young boy ran up to him with his father in tow. Erickson was peeling his gear off before the child could finish asking him for it. Gloves, sweatbands, and whatever else Erickson had that he could give away was given to the first kid and another one who walked up. He chatted with the child for a few moments and signed whatever he wanted. Similar scenes occurred all over the field. The BYU players and coaches were so busy mingling with fans that the New Mexico Bowl staff had to politely remind them to come over and accept their trophy.
The New Mexico Bowl trophy is created at the Zia Pueblo every year. It’s more so a piece of art than a trophy. The Zia are one of many different tribes that inhabited the state before Europeans came to the area. These tribes are referred to as Ancestral Publoans but that refers to their culture more so than their genealogy. When you drive across the Four Corners you find ruins all over. These tribes built entire cities into cliff sides, they gathered in kivas and engaged in an advanced society that spanned much of the Southwest while Europe was in the Dark Ages. Archaeologists say they can track their culture back to at least the 12th century BC, but their ancestors may have been here for as long as people have been in this part of the World.
The Zia symbol is ubiquitous in New Mexico. It can be found on the state flag and everywhere else. In their culture it represents many things. The Zia Pueblo itself sits North of Albuquerque and was first encountered by Spanish explorers in 1593. The European settlers engaged in religious suppression and violence against the Puebloan peoples and their cultures. In 1892 the population at the pueblo was reduced to only 120 people. Today 646 people call Zia their home.. For 600 years the Zia Pueblo has survived the worst that nature and humanity could inflict upon it.
The New Mexico Bowl trophy is really a hand painted water jug. The 20-inch bowl-shaped pottery is created every year by Elizabeth and Marcellus Medina. It’s cool as hell. When it comes out onto the field I do a bit of a double take. Sitake grabs it and lifts it proudly. Sitake’s wife is not in attendance on this night, but he is also awarded a squash blossom necklace by a local jeweler as a gift for her. The necklaces became part of New Mexican culture in the 1860’s as a mixing of Navajo and Spanish cultures.
After the trophy presentation, Sitake and BYU’s players stayed on the field and made themselves available. I watch as he takes pictures with different people who approach him. A couple of the people who gather around him for photos are decked in BYU gear and shout “Go Cougars” as the shots are snapped. Then there are the others.
Wave after wave of men come up to Sitake asking to take a picture with him. Some of the groups were older fathers and adult sons of the same families. When those pictures are snapped they say “Kalani Sitake” instead of “Go Cougars” or “Cheese.” I start paying closer attention and I realize that these men and women aren’t wearing any BYU gear. These are locals who attended the game because it was happening in their town.
New Mexico is one of six “majority-minority” states. As of the 2020 census, 47.7% of the state is of Hispanic or Latino descent. 10% of New Mexico’s population is of Native American descent, which is the second highest amount in the country. This is the only state besides Alaska where indingenous people have maintained a stable percentage of the population over the last century.
The men approaching Sitake look like normal New Mexicans. While he is Tongan, I do wonder if it crosses his mind that some of these people may be excited to take a picture with an FBS head coach who is also a minority. As this goes on more BYU players visit with fans on the field.
As I’ve digested the New Mexico Bowl over the last few days I’ve come to some conclusions.
The first is that BYU and SMU played hard. I have watched a lot of football games in my life. That game mattered just as much to those kids as Georgia’s opener against Oregon mattered to them or as any other regular season college football game this season. It may have been meaningless in the national title race, but it mattered to the players. There are precious few times in a football player’s life where they get to suit up in their game uniforms and compete against another team. SMU and BYU appeared determined to take advantage of this opportunity to compete.
I pass Kaleb Hayes again on the field and he’s all smiles in his New Mexico Bowl Champions hat after getting the win. BYU wanted to play hard for their seniors, and freshman starting QB Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters sported a grin after winning in his first career start. When the press conference finally happened he laughingly admitted to saying a “genuine prayer” before SMU’s two-point conversion attempt. “Come on, Heavenly Father…” Regardless of where you stand on bringing God into sports, one must admit that you rarely see God’s help asked for in meaningless events. This game mattered to those who played in it.
You will certainly see teams who don’t show the best version of themselves this bowl season. My trip to New Mexico has led to me thinking of that as more of a reflection on the culture at that specific program than a referendum on the bowls themselves. If Florida doesn’t want to show up and play hard against Oregon State for 60 minutes then that tells me more about Florida than it does about bowl games.
SMU and BYU are not blue blood powerhouses, but both are storied programs with unique spots in college football’s past and present. If the New Mexico Bowl is a big enough prize for them then it should be good enough for the average college football fan to be entertained by as well.
Before the game Sitake talked about how much he enjoyed the New Mexican food and how much the team had enjoyed their time in the Land of Enchantment up to that point. After that he said something that is probably more important, “It’s the people who matter the most. I get to meet people from all different parts of the country.”
I have always viewed bowl games through a mostly football lens. I was aware of the outings the teams get to go on, but I am someone who looks at football games and wants to analyze matchups and decide who to bet on.
BYU is a private university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and 98 percent of the student population is Mormon. Most young Mormon men go on long mission trips after graduating high-school. By the time many of BYU’s players come to Provo to play football they are in their twenties. SMU QB Tanner Mordecai commented on how different it was to see so many players with their wives during the pregame festivities. Twenty-five BYU players made the trip to New Mexico with their wives. Many of them brought children along too.
BYU brought their way of life to New Mexico last week. New Mexico’s people showed them their way of life in return. Those types of experiences often demystify other cultures and religions. If bowl games can create more of those experiences then I’m all for bowls.
People have been in New Mexico for a long time. When you drive across the Land of Enchantment the landscapes stun. There are peaks that reach over 13,000 feet in the northeastern quadrant of the state. As you move south those mountains turn into large plateaus that are intermittently broken up by jarring features like the 800-foot deep Rio Grande gorge. Then you hit the desert landscapes. Fish-filled rivers with vibrant green banks cut through giant red rock formations forming the type of steep cliffs that Ancestral Puebloans built their homes into for protection.
It is easy to see why people have made this place their home for 15,000 years. The dry climate and hard ground can make it a difficult place to scratch a life out in, but it’s too damn beautiful not to try.
On this cold night in Albuquerque I was reminded that the game itself will always have an enchanting beauty that is uniquely its own. For all of its complicated issues and politics, the game itself is really quite simple- an oblong ball, a green field, twenty-two young men hurling themselves at one another between whistles, and the crowd making noises as the players move the ball in front of them.
The sport continues to have the ability to bring people together in unexpected and wonderful ways. I think about this as I watch Sitake happily skip around the field between pictures with his wife’s squash blossom necklace in tow. BYU’s players and coaches took the joy from the win and then shared it with all those who came looking for a little piece of it. They particularly focused on giving their time and attention to the kids. I was unaware that my college football soul felt dirty, but this was cleansing in a way.
Like New Mexico, college football has gone through its own eras of change. Large forces are sweeping across a landscape that was once defined by hyper regionalized traditions. Those changes are leaving many worried that a thing they love will be altered forever. They are fearful over what will be lost as the sport becomes less localized and more outsiders stamp their influence onto it.
On some days I wonder if we are losing the best regular season in sports. On those days I too am among the fearful ones. The New Mexico Bowl is a reminder that no matter what changes come there will still be an oblong ball, a green field, the twenty-two players, and the crowd. Somehow those four ingredients are capable of producing damn near every human emotion. Knowing that, how can the game not be meaningful whenever it is played?
College football can be a confusing, corrupt, morally compromised land to try and make a home in. Then you get up close to it and realize it’s too damn beautiful not to try.