Football NCAA

Five days. Three Bowl Games!

After being "grounded" from games last year, we capped off 2021 with a stretch of three bowl games in five days! What a way to end the year!

Bowl games have become a hot topic lately. From the “there are too many bowl games” crowd to the “these Opt-Out kids don’t love football anymore” crowd, there are plenty of opinions flying around this time of year. Like that’s something new…

I used to be in the “there are too many bowls” crowd, but consider it from your average player standpoint – of which are the vast majority of the players in college football. The image below estimates that just 1.6% of NCAA players will make it to the NFL! That means, for 98.4%, a Bowl Game may be the last time a kid gets to suit up with his buddies. For very few, the last chance to make a huge impression for scouts. The last chance his parents, siblings, or grandparents get to see him play – and he indeed may play given all of the “star power” opt-outs. Bowl games give players, staff, families, and in some cases, even the band, an opportunity to create an experience that lasts a lifetime. In an age when everyone is complaining that the college game is changing, the Bowl Games are an opportunity to hang onto the past.

Ironic given the grammatical error

Opt-Outs are also becoming more and more of a concern for armchair QBs. Some players decide to forgo their final game to avoid any risk of injury before they enter the NFL Draft. Heck, this year a player gave up his senior year of high school ball to join Ohio State early so he could “capture the bag” as they say. In this case, the “bag” meant a payday of “Name, Image & Likeness” money just for entering college. That player has already entered the transfer portal from the Buckeyes. There’s no doubt the college football world is changing.

There’s no question that fan interest is what allows all of these games to happen. But do the fans actually have the right to call the shots of who must play and in which games? No. As a Penn State fan, I was crushed when the team had five opt-outs on defense alone! Throw in a coach who some may argue also opted-out as he left for a head coaching job at Virginia Tech, and you had the recipe for a disaster in their bowl game. Being a fan has its ups and downs. And clearly, opt-outs that have an impact on your teams’ ability to effectively compete, is a downer.

The argument over opt-outs will continue to grow. This year, Ole Miss lost their NFL prospect QB, Matt Corral, to injury during the bowl game. Unfortunately, he’ll be the poster child for opt-outs next year. Some argue that the bowls are meaningless, so why play them and risk injury? But again, for 98.6% of the players, it doesn’t matter. If you’re worried about injury, then don’t play the game at all. For those that are “thisclose” to “grabbing the bag”, I can see their point. Maybe sign an insurance policy for the game – protecting your projected earnings if you get a career-ending or limiting injury. Or, just sit out. I really don’t care. As much as I’d love to see my team bolster their record and win a Bowl game, if it’s not the National Championship, it’s just another game. And, as we saw in the Penn State game, it was an opportunity to allow several new players to get valuable reps and playing time that will set them up well for next year.

The thing that I love about Bowl Games is that it gives you an opportunity to see another game against a rare opponent. For example, in Penn State’s case, it was the first-ever matchup with Arkansas. Having the chance to see a new team, in a new stadium, in a new city, and experience the opponent’s traditions is what makes Bowl Games unique for fans.

After all the Bowls were announced, we would have loved to have traveled to Tampa, but we decided to “opt-out” of the Penn State game this year. But we had a plan for a great week of College Football!

First up? The Guaranteed Rate Bowl, formerly known as the Cactus Bowl. This bowl is run and managed by the Fiesta Bowl and takes place in Downtown Phoenix in the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chase Field.

The matchup was B10 vs B12 with Minnesota and West Virginia representing their conferences respectively. Kickoff set for an abysmal 8:15pm local time on Tuesday, December 28. Not the best option, but that’s what you get when you have so many bowls that want to be played during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

They had the roof open to start the festivities, including parachutists and fireworks. Unfortunately, the skies opened up just as the festivities got underway and the crowd was drenched before they could close the roof before kickoff.

We had our “season” seats in the upper deck, first row. It was obvious that tonight was one of the more “made for TV” games. Minnesota fans dominated the stands – likely because so many Minnesotans call the Valley of the Sun home.

View from the seats

The game itself was pretty boring. Minnesota came in as a 5 point favorite and their defense was in control all night – with the final just 18-6. The one bright spot was a “big man” touchdown by one of the biggest men in the game. Daniel Faalele, listed as 6-9′ and a post-game meal shy of 400 pounds lined up at fullback and plowed in for the first TD of the game for the Gophers.

One of the biggest highlights, however, had nothing to do with the game. Our daughter became a seasonal associate for the Fiesta Bowl and would be tasked with working both games. We were able to catch a glimpse of her as she made her way around the field in almost a “Where’s Waldo” type of game.

After the game, it was home to bed to get ready for our next adventure – a road trip to Las Vegas for game number two – Wisconsin vs Arizona State!

The ride from Phoenix to Vegas is getting easier. With new freeway construction along parts of the trip, the drive time from our home to the Strip is down to 4-1/2 hours of relatively painless driving – through some incredible natural scenery.

As we made our way up US93 just short of I-40, we witnessed a fighter jet ripping across the sky in front of us. You could hear the sound off in the distance. Before long, another screamed what felt dangerously low directly over our heads as if passing us on the highway, then banked hard left just in front of us. That sound scared the crap out of me and oh how I wished I had a dashcam rolling. Ahhh. The sound of freedom!

Coming into town, we passed by Allegiant Stadium – the site for the game tomorrow night. The Giant Roomba, or Death Star as many call it, was lit up to honor the life of John Madden. The Hall of Fame Coach had just passed away – three days after a very touching tribute to his life aired on Christmas Day.

We were just in time to catch the Pep Rally at the Virgin Hotel, featuring the two bands and spirit lines. The same cold front that was hovering over Phoenix was also in Vegas. Temps were in the low 50s just as the sun went down. For Wisconsinites, that’s still shorts weather, as evidenced by the guy in the photo below.

But for Sun Devils, it was an Under Armour Heat Gear kinda night. By the Pep Rally alone, you could tell the Badgers were a well-represented crowd.

If you know me, you know that I’m a pizza lover. I continue to experiment by making different styles of pizza. One of the best pizzaiolos in the world is Tony Gemignani. Tony’s book, The Pizza Bible, has been an inspiration to me. Tony has several businesses in Northern California, but he is also a part of the “Pizza Rock” chain in Las Vegas. So, how could we not stop in to check out his pizza?

His downtown location is just steps off of Fremont Street. Pizza Rock’s claim to fame is that they serve several different styles of pizza – all based around the style of dough. Why is this different? Well, each dough style requires a slightly different oven setup – think wood-fired brick oven, electric oven, gas-fired oven, higher temps with shorter cook times, lower temps with longer cook times, etc.. Tony makes sure each style gets the oven and temperature it needs to ensure the perfect crust.

We tried his Coccoli appetizer with prosciutto, arugula, and burrata. This is a dish that’s a common street food in Florence. The small pillowy-soft dough balls are the perfect vessel for the accompaniments.

Tuscan Coccoli

With a menu so expansive, it was hard to choose a pizza. One criterion is the serving size. Many of his creations serve 4-6 people. With just the two of us – we opted for the Classical Italian style and picked the Cal-Italian – his Gold Medal Winner from the Food Network Pizza Champions Challenge. This pie was a white, no-sauce creation that included asiago, gorgonzola, mozzarella, fig preserve, prosciutto, Parmigiano, and a balsamic reduction. Both dishes were fantastic and highlighted the dough.

Cal-Italian

The next morning, we took the time to tour around the Strip. Each visit back reveals a new set of shops, restaurants, bars, and attractions. Of my dozens of trips to Vegas, this might be the only time I’ve visited during the Christmas season, so a stop at Bellagio’s Conservatory was mandatory – and didn’t disappoint.

We also popped into Eataly, the marketplace for all things Italian. If you haven’t experienced an Eataly, search one out as there are now more than 40 worldwide including seven here in the US! The New York Times described it as “a megastore that combines elements of a bustling European open market, a Whole-Foods-style supermarket, a high-end food court and a New Age learning center.”

I’ve been searching for wines from my Great Grandfather’s homeland, the Campania region outside of Naples. I’ve been lucky to find a couple of reasonably priced wines from around the region in stock at Total Wine, but the one winery that’s closest to his hometown is Montevetrano. This wine has been described as the “Campania Superstar” and it reached cult status virtually overnight. It is now said to be one of the most sought-after wines in Italy. Bottles are available online but, let’s just say, I’m not that committed to trying it. I wondered if Eataly would have wines from the region and sure enough… The Holy Grail of Campania wines was available for a mere $316.

It’s about 6x the price vs online – and interesting it’s next to the “Paternoster”!

Back to football. While we had hoped that Penn State would play ASU in Vegas, we still figured it would be a great opportunity to experience another Bowl Game and just as important, Allegiant Stadium. We had planned on visiting the stadium last year when the Bills played the Raiders, but COVID destroyed those plans.

Allegiant Stadium sits just across the freeway from Mandalay Bay. From our hotel, New York-New York, we walked to the Excaliber, then boarded the tram to Mandalay. You exit the casino and walk across I15 via a bridge that was closed to traffic.

Before you know it, you’re in the parking lot of the stadium.

Glass wall looking into the stadium

Around the outside concourse, the Raiders fans can purchase bricks – with all of the money going to charity. We just happened to come across Jacoby Ford’s $1,500 donation. Ford played for the Raiders from 2010-2013. He still holds the club record for most kickoffs returned for TDs. Glad to see he contributed long after his playing days!

We allowed plenty of time to tour the inside of the stadium. Of course, the food and bev options are top-notch with wide concourses allowing you to roam freely through the options.

The Torch Bar on the 200 Level in the North Endzone is definitely a gathering place. It has great views of the field and the Vegas skyline.

But one of my favorite aspects of the stadium is the mini-museum they have set up in the hallways on the 200 level. Not only do they pay homage to the Raiders “Hall of Fame”, including many players from my early days of fandom, but they also include Vegas legends like Frank Sinatra. We had to get a photo of Old Blue Eyes as we actually got to see him perform in concert at the Desert Inn on our very first trip to Vegas in 1993.

Amazingly, a guy on YouTube has a video of Frank during that run at the Desert Inn during the time we got to see him! And yes, John Pinette, the overweight boyish-looking comedian was his warm-up act. RIP to both.

With several local Raider fans in attendance – and sporting the Silver and Black, many were spotted just standing and staring at the mural that included the larger-than-life Madden who had just passed away two days earlier.

Then came the game! The Badgers entered the contest as a 7 point favorite against the Devils – with both teams sporting an 8-4 record. It was clear once again that the Badger fans outnumbered the Devils. We ended up grabbing seats earlier in the day for just $50 for first-row, 200-level club seats.

Wisconsin jumped out to an early 7-0 lead after a Sun Devil interception set them up with a short field. It was fairly loud for how few fans were in attendance. I can’t imagine how loud it is during a Raiders game.

From there, the Badgers never trailed. The game was uneventful with Wisconsin and the B1G pulling out a 20-13 win. The B1G would eventually finish 6-4 in Bowl Games while the PAC12 would be winless at 0-5. Ouch!

As I mentioned, the food options at Allegiant were pretty impressive. We were thrilled to see that Pizza Rock had a location inside that served up just their Sicilian version with plain, pepperoni, or veggie options. I can honestly say, you’ve never had pizza this good at a stadium before.

After the game, it was a short, 30-minute walk back to NYNY to rest up before the drive back home on New Year’s Eve.

The next morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the Bad Owl coffee shop before considering our dinner plans when we got home.

View from the room

We joked about picking up another Pizza Rock Pizza but didn’t want to double-back an hour out of the way. Then it hit me. There’s another Pizza Rock at the Green Valley Resort – which just happened to be about 20 minutes away from where we were having breakfast – and was just off the highway on our way back to Arizona!

This time we opted for the Sweet Grandma and the Diavolo Detroit. Again, two solid pizzas – even reheated once we got home.

A quick stop at the Lake Mead overlook at Hoover Dam was all we stopped for the entire way. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the Lake is dangerously low and in desperate need of the moisture the low-hanging clouds were about to deposit.

The wind was whipping and the temps were low!

We didn’t have a lot of time to recover before waking up on New Years Day for the final game. The Fiesta Bowl had Notre Dame and Oklahoma State – two top 10 teams with the Irish ranked just outside the playoff at #5, but with a new coach, 36-year-old Marcus Freeman. The game also had a crappy kickoff at 11:00am. Did I mention it was New Year’s Day?

That meant an early wakeup to be on the road by 7:30am so we could get there in time to somewhat enjoy the Caesar’s Stadium Club Tailgate Party that we purchased. I have to say, I don’t know how the Fiesta Bowl does it, but getting any fans into the stadium that early on New Year’s Day is quite a feat.

And this morning, temperatures during tailgating were in the high 40s and low 50s. We passed many fans in the lots bundled up, but grilling and enjoying their final collegiate tailgate party of the year. At the Stadium Club, fans huddled beneath heaters spread out on the outdoor concourse on the east side of the stadium. Thankfully, the sun did provide some warmth on that side of the stadium. The pregame party included seven drink tickets and an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.

We tried to get as close to the sun as possible to stay warm. Thankfully, Spirit, the Fiesta Bowl mascot was there to warm everyone up.

Before long, it was time to enter the game. While our seats were in the Ring of Honor at the 40 yard-line, we chose to sit with our daughter in the Fiesta Bowl Guest Suite on the 300-level in the corner just below the ROH – courtesy of our other daughter who was working the game.

View from 300 Level

The view from the seat was very much like those that we were in just two days earlier in Vegas.

We thought, based on the number of fans we saw at the Stadium Club, that this would be a largely Notre Dame crowd. Once inside it seemed to have balanced out with plenty of Cowboy fans decked out in orange throughout the stadium.

One thing that jumped out at me was how few people there were in attendance in general. Some sections were completely empty. Others sparsely populated. With COVID cases soaring, it’s no wonder attendance was down. Heck, Notre Dame’s band didn’t even make the trip. Their halftime performance was recorded and shown on the video boards.

I will say, this was definitely one of the better bowl games of the year. The Irish came out blazing to take the lead 28-7 in a game that looked like it was going to be total domination. In fact, ESPN had the Irish with a 93.4% chance of winning after that score with just 1:16 left to play in the half.

But the Pokes didn’t cave. They rattled off 30 unanswered points to take the lead 37-28 with just over 2 minutes to play. The Irish finally answered with a late TD but couldn’t secure the onsides kick and Oklahoma State held on to win 37-35.

What a great way to cap off the week. After two boring games, the Fiesta Bowl and State Farm Stadium came through once again. This stadium and this Bowl game both have a long history of exciting games.

The 2021 College Football season just came to a close on Monday night with Georgia finally taking down Alabama to earn their first National Championship in over 40 years. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost that long for Penn State. The game has certainly changed over the years but I’m left to wonder every year – is this the year that Penn State breaks through? Can they break the cycle of SEC domination?

As I look back to 2021, I’m thrilled to be able to say that I attended nine college football games this year. Three ASU home games, three Penn State games, and three Bowl games. After being “sidelined” last year, every game this year was extra special – with plenty of highlights.

New Stadiums – Wisconsin, Maryland, Allegiant

Best Game – Fiesta Bowl

Best Atmosphere – Whiteout – Penn State vs Auburn

Best Stadium – Allegiant

Favorite City visited – Madison

Most surprising campus – Maryland

Most Unique Stadium – Chase Field

Best Stadium Intro – ASU

I can’t wait to add to the list next year!

Stop Wondering. Start Wandering!

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