Bowl games are not what they used to be. Since the first Rose Bowl game in 1902, they’ve been part of America’s New Year’s celebration. Over time, though, they’ve become more and more defined by spectacle, especially for the audience at home. With so much that’s changed, ask the question today, what is the most prestigious college bowl game?
The answer is the same as it’s always been: the Rose Bowl. It was the first. It features games every year that matter. There have always been other bowl games America watches. The Rose Bowl, though, has been the model all along. Other bowl games see it as the example to follow.
The Biggest Games
Being the first matters, but it’s not everything. The biggest bowl games feature the biggest teams playing for the biggest prizes. The Rose Bowl has hosted 43 national championship teams. In one of the earliest, Alabama and Stanford played to a 7-7 tie, splitting the 1927 national championship.
As recently as 2018, the Georgia Bulldogs beat the Oklahoma Sooners in double overtime to advance to the national title game. With the world-famous parade that precedes it and one of the best venues in all of football, the Rose Bowl doesn’t just rely on being first.
The Other Bowls
As part of the current college football playoff system, the other major bowls are still always part of the playoff picture. They’ve never equaled the granddaddy of bowl games, as the Rose Bowl is called, but they’ve all been longtime pieces in the New Year’s line-up:
- Orange Bowl
- Sugar Bowl
- Fiesta Bowl
- Cotton Bowl
The Orange Bowl
It’s one of the most famous bowl games and it can also boast a long tradition, reaching back to 1926 when the city of Miami created the Palm Festival in the spirit of Pasadena’s Rose Festival. It’s also second to the Rose Bowl in number of championships hosted, with 29. The Orange Bowl has games that are timeless in the history of college football: 1983 when Miami beat favored Nebraska and 1975 when Notre Dame beat heavily favored Alabama.
The Sugar Bowl
The first Sugar Bowl was played in 1935. Since then it has hosted 28 national championships, only one less than the Orange Bowl. For much of its history it has featured the champion of the SEC as one of its two teams. The 1983 Sugar Bowl, in which number two Penn State beat number one Georgia on its way to a national championship, is remembered as one of the best college games ever.
The Fiesta Bowl
The youngest of the major bowls has also been the site of some of the most exciting recent games. The Fiesta Bowl made its biggest splash in 1987 with a game between Penn State and Miami that decided the national championship. Its rise has pushed the Cotton Bowl out of the fourth position in bowl game prominence.
The Cotton Bowl
Like many bowl games, the Cotton Bowl used to feature teams from specific conferences, first the Southwest Conference, then the Southeastern and Big12 conferences. More recently, it’s become one of the rotating hosts of playoff games.
In one of the most memorable Cotton Bowls, Ernie Davis of Syracuse ran for a touchdown, caught a pass for another and intercepted a pass, running it back for a third. Davis went on to become the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner ever.
Why Bowl Games Matter
In the heyday of the traditional bowl games, New Year’s Day had a special importance. It was the last day of the holidays, before Americans all went back to work and school, a day to celebrate with floats and football. Families would start with parades in the morning, then friends would gather to take in all the bowl games in a row.
For many, the traditional New Year’s Day was the predecessor of Super Bowl Sunday, when people who didn’t watch football all year watched it all day long, one game after another. People all over America were joined in watching. Unlike other traditions, bowl games reach across cultural divisions and provide common ground. In a world of nonstop change, bowls have always provided examples of steadiness. They’re rooted in memories of greatness that won’t ever change.
Still the One
Part of the spectacle of college football, especially on New Year’s Day, has been the announcers. The voices of Chris Schenkel, Curt Gowdy and Keith Jackson always meant the game was important. Something big was at stake.
With all that bowl games embody, all they represent, it’s only fitting that the most prestigious game is the one that persists in its purest state, the original and model for the rest. It’s also the bowl that’s provided some of the best games ever – the 2005 Rose Bowl in which Texas beat Michigan 38-37, and the 2006 game in which Vince Young and Texas beat a USC team with two Heisman Trophy winners 41-38, a game many believe is the greatest game ever, certainly the greatest playoff game.
Imitation and Flattery
Bowl games endure because they don’t let people down. They’re part of a special day, part of once-a-year festivities. They showcase the best teams and best players on the biggest stages. They give viewers a chance to watch games live that won’t be forgotten, players they’ll be talking about years later.
Bowl games share something with the Olympics, reserved for a particular time of year, reaching beyond the usual audience for their sports to include everyone in the room.
Enduring and Delivering
Bowl games deserve a lot of credit for enduring. Many things with their roots in the early 20the century have been long forgotten. They’ve survived world wars, the BCS, a pandemic and the CFP system. They’re steady, reliable, and they deliver on their promise, something lots of cultural phenomena don’t. They still give people something to look forward to, and no bowl game does it better than the original, the granddaddy, the Rose Bowl, the light that all the others have followed.