Alexander: Will Rose Bowl remain special as a CFP game?

PASADENA — How valuable is tradition? We’re about to find out, I suppose.

Monday’s 106th Rose Bowl was the last of its kind. The arrangement between the Big Ten and Pac-12 – which was originally struck by their conference predecessors in 1946 and began with a UCLA-Illinois matchup on the first day of 1947 – will go away when the Rose becomes a regular part of a 12-team playoff system after the 2024 season. In the meantime, Pasadena will be the site of a semifinal game following next season, the final year of the four-team playoff.

So this was it, this 35-21 Penn State victory over Utah, and we’ll set aside the fact that both programs are additions to these conferences through expansion. And let’s stipulate that Monday’s full house, announced as 94,873 and predominantly Utes fans but with a good (and good and loud) representation of the Penn State faithful, indicates this game still matters as a non-CFP attraction.

Another indication? Walking the Rose Bowl grounds 2½ hours or so before the game and seeing so many folks in Utes red and Nittany Lions blue and white, rubbernecking and just enjoying being here. That in itself was a message. And this was even though – or maybe because – the game time temperature was a crisp 54 degrees. For them, this was balmy.

But the overcast afternoon eliminated the possibility of that traditionally brilliant sunset reflecting off the mountains. And the rain that started coming down after dark seemed to confirm that Mother Nature had her own objection to the end of tradition.

But it’s not worth arguing about or bemoaning progress. The Rose Bowl people had to adapt – or, if you prefer, accept the terms of surrender – or be left behind. We don’t have to like it, but folks elsewhere in College Football Nation don’t have to care. Rest assured, they don’t.

So one tradition – Pac-12 vs. Big Ten – is all but gone. But who knows? Maybe the playoff pairings will someday give us Oregon from the Pac-12 against USC of the Big Ten in a Rose Bowl playoff game. How wacky would that be?

Even after the Bowl Championship Series and CFP created true national championship games, the Rose Bowl tried to hold on to the Big Ten-Pac-12 heritage as long as possible. In fact, then-Tournament of Roses president CL Keedy was blunt about it back in 2008, when the Rose used its at-large pick on three-loss Illinois to face USC:

“We hear from our fans, we hear from the Big Ten fans, we hear from the general public that’s not even associated with the (conferences) about how important it is to have the Big Ten and the Pac-10 show up every year on New Year’s Day in Pasadena,” he said. “Based on the BCS rules, if we can pick a Pac-10 and a Big Ten conference team, we will pick those two conferences whenever we have that opportunity. That is our heritage, that’s our history and that’s how we want to go forward.”

It was fun while it lasted.

The more pertinent concern in Pasadena now is a move away from that hallowed 2 p.m. kickoff on Jan. 1 (or, because of the “never on Sunday” rule, Jan. 2) to another date and/or time. Maybe it’ll be New Year’s Eve. Maybe even a date way afield of Jan. 1, depending on whether bowls will host quarterfinals and, if so, which slot the Rose fits into. That was the sticking point on which the Rose Bowl negotiators finally conceded, to allow the playoff organizers and their TV partners more flexibility.

Still, keep this in mind: Two Rose Bowl games already have been played at night a few days after New Year’s, both BCS championship matchups. The first, Jan. 3, 2002, was a coronation of Miami, which finished off a 12-0 season by spanking Nebraska. The second, Jan. 4, 2006, was arguably the best Rose Bowl ever and maybe the best college football game, period: Texas 41, USC 38 for the national championship, with LenDale White coming up a half-yard short on fourth down and Vince Young then scampering to the end zone with the national championship tucked under his arm.

(Any complaints were from USC fans who second-guessed Pete Carroll for (a) going for it with fourth-and-2 at the Texas 45 and 2:13 left in the game and (b) not making sure Reggie Bush got the ball instead of White. Nobody griped about the game starting after sunset, as far as I can recall.)

This was Penn State’s first victory in Pasadena since 1995 and its second in five trips. And Coach James Franklin noted that this year is the centennial of the school’s first visit – a 14-3 loss to USC in 1923.

“So much tradition and history with this bowl, and then obviously specific to Penn State,” he said. “And then playing Utah (for the first time). There’s not too many things in 2023 where you can say it’s never happened before.”

Meanwhile, Utah became the seventh team to lose back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances.

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“We just have to keep coming back to this game until we get it right,” Whittingham said. “It took us three times in the Pac-12 Championship before we got the win, so we’ve got to make sure that we try to continue to get better.”

But should the Utes get back to Pasadena, the stakes will be much higher next time.

“I know the landscape is changing,” Whittingham said. “The Rose Bowl is not going to be in the traditional spot. But whatever New Year’s Six bowl we can get back to, we’ve got to figure that out, or the CFP, one of the two.”

And while the game’s future suddenly is the great unknown, we know this for certain: The Pac-12 and its predecessors won 37 of the head-to-head meetings, the Big Ten 34.

Hopefully, at least the parade won’t change.

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