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No one has ever figured out exactly what bowl games are supposed to be, other than a time to hang around a crowded hotel lobby wondering where all of your room keys went, or a place to wear a big button on a badly tailored blazer that says WE'RE NO. 1 IN THE RURAL VOTE, or an occasion to explore all of the mysteriously unknown liquor brands in alumni hospitality suites, or a chance to yell across the field at thousands of underprivileged people who were forced by circumstances to settle for a lesser college education than was enjoyed by yourself and all the other good folks from God's country.
From a football viewpoint, it has never actually been decided whether bowl games constitute the emotional end to the regular season, or if they mark the beginning of the next, or, in fact, if they do not simply sit there as a sort of one-game season all their own. The men who coach the teams that get into postseason play—and there are nowadays about 22 such major teams that do—have definite opinions about this so-called reward. As Texas' Darrell Royal has expressed it, "Bowl games are no fun unless you win."
Originally bowls were just a holiday extravaganza for laughs, promotion and profit, a long trip West or South for train-loads of partygoers and a couple of good teams from different sectors; a postseason intersectional matchup, accent on the post, seeing as how in some cases there could be a delay of 40 days or more (and usually at least a month) between the conclusion of the regular season and New Year's Day.
Objectively speaking, they still are singular extravaganzas, proving nothing for the most part, except that college football is so much fun that it can be televised even in the midst of the pro playoffs and the basketball season. In the past 10 years, however, we have all been spoiled. What has happened is that the big bowl games have staggered into the stimulating position of frequently affecting that great old barroom and coffee-shop debate about who's No. 1. Thus a whole generation of college fans have come to expect one particular bowl game, or the combined results of, say, four of them, to settle the national championship. In the comfort of his own home, then, the American football fan has been able to lean back on New Year's night after all the bowl results are in, and observe, while chewing on a cold drumstick, "Hell, I knowed Alabama was the best all along."
To quickly review what spoiled us and find out where we are in our attitude toward bowls, we have to start with 1963. The Rose Bowl matched No. 1 USC against No. 2 Wisconsin that season and suddenly, for the first time in years, a bowl had something to settle. A year later the Cotton Bowl had No. 1 Texas against No. 2 Navy. In 1969 the Rose had the only game when top-ranked Ohio State met No. 2 USC and O. J. Simpson. And of course in the 1972 Orange Bowl the undefeated champion, Nebraska, went up against the undefeated challenger, Alabama, in what was supposed to be a biggie but turned out to be just another festival for Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover.
These were the years that made the bowls the nearest thing we have to an NCAA championship playoff. Even in years when there has been no direct confrontation between the top two teams, however, the national championship has sometimes been settled in the bowls. Take 1971. Texas was No. 1, but when it lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, Ohio State took over—for about three hours. When the Buckeyes lost to Stanford and Jim Plunkett in the Rose Bowl, the title moved to Nebraska, which nailed it down by beating LSU in the Orange. The point is that the public has come to accept as national champion that team which is ranked No. 1 after the bowls, and when Coach John McKay of USC says that, as he sees it, the game with Ohio State in the Rose Bowl has no bearing on who's No. 1 or No. 101, he is not kidding anyone. Should Ohio State upset USC, the Trojans would probably be voted out of the top spot even though their record. 11-1. would be as good as any in the country.
However, such an event is unlikely. If both teams play their best—and bowl teams rarely do—USC should win by at least three touchdowns. There's that much difference in the Pacific Eight and the Big Ten now. The Buckeyes are out-quicked everywhere by the Trojans, on both sides of the line.
More than one pro scout holds the opinion that USC may have up to 24 players, counting sophomores and everybody, who will make it easily in the NFL, and one of those sophomores, Linebacker Richard Wood, who is big, fast, rangy and a head-hunter, might well be one of the two or three best players in the U.S.—already.
The Trojans beat 11 teams almost laughing, and their schedule was far from an easy one. They run, throw, deceive and hit with an amazing combination of size and speed. If the Buckeyes fall into any early mistakes, a fumble or so, the result could be humiliating. Ohio State must play well with no letup to make it close, and this might happen only if all the other Trojans play as ordinarily as they did against Notre Dame when Tony Davis (or A.D., "anything but Anthony," he says)alone record-booked the Irish with six touchdowns.
Aside from all the fine people in Ohio, those who will be rooting the hardest for the Buckeyes will be the fine people in Oklahoma, provided the Sooners do what is generally expected of them the day before against Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. If USC somehow loses, the chances are that Oklahoma rather than Ohio State will become No. 1 in the post-bowl voting. If, of course, the Sooners beat Penn State.