Before CFP expansion, Utah and Penn State will play the last ‘real’ Rose Bowl

The Rose Bowl will be a CFP semifinal next season, before acting as a CFP quarterfinal when the event expands to 12 teams in 2024

(Mark J. Terrill | AP) The Rose Bowl logo is seen during a fly over before the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game between Utah and Ohio State Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif.

Sometime near the end of the third quarter, the early January sun will set over the San Gabriel Mountains, casting its glow over the Utes, the Nittany Lions and the Rose Bowl.

Not all that long after that, the sun will set on one of college football’s most beloved traditions.

When the College Football Playoff announced on Dec. 1 that its Board of Managers had agreed to an expanded 12-team Playoff beginning with the 2024-25 season, it meant seismic changes were coming to the sport and its traditions.

The Rose Bowl is one of them. Typically played on Jan. 1, with a 5 p.m. ET kickoff, the game for five decades pitted the champions of the Big Ten and the Pac-10/12 until the aforementioned erosion started.

Changes to the CFP in 2024 will bring changes to the Rose Bowl, but those changes are being expedited. The 2024 Rose Bowl at the end of the 2023 season will act as a College Football Playoff semifinal. That means that this season’s Rose Bowl between the University of Utah and Penn State on Jan. 2 will act as the last “real” Rose Bowl, matching a Pac-12 team vs. a Big Ten team, even if the Nittany Lions did not win the Big Ten this season.

It feels right, it feels traditional to have teams from those two conferences playing each in just under three weeks in what late, legendary ABC Sports play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson once famously dubbed “The Granddaddy of them All”

The fact Jan. 2 is the last traditional Rose Bowl, and that change is coming, is not lost on the participants.

“I grew up there in the shadow of the Rose Bowl down there in Southern Cal, and what a great tradition,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team won the Pac-12 for the second straight season. “It was something I looked forward to every single year and things are changing. There’s going to be major changes, in my opinion, huge changes in college football and it’s going to be pretty much unrecognizable in the next five, six years compared to what it is now.”

What the Rose Bowl was

Through two World Wars and any number of other Global conflicts or issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rose Bowl has been played each year since 1916.

Beginning in 1947, the Big Ten and Pac-12 (formerly AAWU/Pac-8/Pac-10) began sending their respective champions to the Rose Bowl. Both conferences initially had a “no repeat rule,” meaning the same team could not play in consecutive Rose Bowls, but by the late-1970s, both conferences had abolished that rule.

By that point, the Rose Bowl had established itself among the preeminent bowl games. It was the Big Ten, it was the Pac-10, on New Year’s Day, at 5 p.m. ET. Time moved on, college football evolved, but the Rose Bowl and what it was, endured.

“It was huge,” Whittingham said. “When you grow up in the shadows of the Rose Bowl like I did, the Rose Parade and all the pageantry that comes with it, watching the Pac-12 and Big Ten go at it every single year, it was a really big deal.”

Added Penn State head coach James Franklin: “Obviously, when you talk about the college landscape, it has changed. We’re going to be looking at a very different model moving forward. Yeah, there’s some history when you talk about the traditional Big Ten, Pac-12 matchups. Specifically, when it comes to the Rose Bowl and the significance of the Rose Bowl on both of our conferences for as long as you can remember. We understand the importance of that, the magnitude of that.”

Beginning with the 1998 season, though, the Rose Bowl began loosening its grip, although slightly, with the advent of the Bowl Championship Series. Under the BCS system, the Rose Bowl agreed to surrender the Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup once every four years in order to serve as the national championship game.

The 2002 Rose Bowl was played on Jan. 3, the first time the game wasn’t played on Jan. 1 or 2, between No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Nebraska, marking the first Rose Bowl without a Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup since 1947.

The 2006 Rose Bowl, played on Jan. 4, served as the iconic national championship game between Vince Young-led Texas and USC, a game which Ventura, Calif. native Cam Rising has referenced multiple times as one of his great early football memories from his childhood.

As the BCS dissipated and the CFP took over for the 2014 season, the Rose Bowl was designated as one of the New Year’s Six bowls, which rotate in hosting CFP semifinals. The Rose Bowl has hosted CFP semifinals in 2015, 2018, and 2021, and will do so for the final time following next season. For what it’s worth, the 2021 Rose Bowl was played at AT&T Stadium in Texas after COVID-19 protocols wouldn’t allow fans, or even player families, to attend the game in Pasadena.

For whatever changes the Rose Bowl had to agree to in the BCS and CFP-eras in terms of letting go of Big Ten vs. Pac-10/12, one thing has remained a near-constant. It owns Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET. If Jan. 1 happens to be on a Sunday, the Tournament of Roses’ “Never on Sunday” rule pushes the game to the next day, in which case it instead owns Jan. 2 at 5 p.m. ET.

The initial CFP contract with ESPN was for 12 years, running from 2014-25, allowing it to broadcast the Playoff and the rest of the New Year’s Six for roughly $470 million annually and a total of $5.64 billion across the 12 years.

As expansion before the end of the 12-year deal became a realistic possibility, all of the New Year’s Six bowls had to get on board, which meant the Rose Bowl, embedded in tradition, if not stubbornness, had a decision to make.

What the Rose Bowl is about to become

Utah All-American cornerback Clark Phillips III grew up in a football-centric household, so staying in line with that, his family had a specific Christmastime tradition.

On Christmas morning, they would grab donuts before opening presents, then more or less settle in and take in whatever bowl games were being played that week. This would have been taking place when Phillips III and his siblings were on Christmas break from school, so there was of course time to watch as much college football as he wanted.

“We would watch any games that were going on during that week, and the Rose Bowl was the last one,” Phillips III said last week, before he opted out of the Rose Bowl in order to focus on preparing for the NFL Combine. “That was the one we always tuned in for. To have the opportunity to be a part of it twice, it’s something I’m happy about.”

The overarching point here is, that type of tradition, waking up on Christmas morning, settling in to watch college football for a week, and waiting for the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, is about to die.

As CFP expansion ahead of the end of the contract was agreed upon in principle by the CFP Board of Managers, the Rose Bowl acquiescing was reportedly the big holdup. It demanded that the game remain in the traditional day and time slot, going as far as reportedly proposing to host CFP quarterfinals in 2024 and 2025 in exchange for keeping its day time slot as part of the CFP’s new media rights contract starting in 2026. CFP officials balked at that, eventually giving the Rose Bowl a deadline to get on board or not.

Had the Rose Bowl refused to sign on for an amended 12-team situation for 2024 and 2025, it would have delayed expansion until the new deal kicked in in 2026, costing involved parties roughly $450 million in estimated revenue. The end result from that may have kept the Rose Bowl out of the selection process entirely once a new contract was signed.

The Rose Bowl will now host CFP quarterfinals in 2024 and 2025. How the Rose Bowl, and in fairness, the rest of the bowls will operate beyond 2025 is a mystery because a new contract has not yet been signed.

Money and leverage, of which the Rose Bowl had none in this case, took over college football a long time ago, but now, those two factors, right or wrong, have come for one of the country’s great sporting exhibitions.

To paraphrase Whittingham, who has been a vocal, public proponent of an expanded CFP for many years, be sure to take in the scene on Jan. 2 when Utah plays Penn State, because it’s never going to look that way again.

“There is something to be said for that, playing in a traditional Rose Bowl, and we’re honored to be able to do that,” Whittingham said. “Going forward, it’ll never be the same, so it’s something we’re proud and honored to be a part of.”

Added Long Beach native Micah Bernard, who will play in his second Rose Bowl: “I remember just watching it all the time, visiting all the time, just being there, it was a good time. I would run around the parking lot. The whole thing is around a golf course, so I was just a little kid running around that, going inside and being a part of it now.

“Going to the Rose Bowl is something special.”

Where does the Pac-12 go from here?

With the Rose Bowl falling in line with the newly-expanded CFP, complete with no guarantee of its preferred day and time, there is no question the Pac-12 will be losing a significant piece of its college football identity.

However, the league is trading in part of its identity for something it has coveted for a long time.

When Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff was introduced on May 13, 2021, he got everyone’s attention when he said the league was in favor of the CFP expanding. Kliavkoff repeated that stance many times publicly ahead of Dec. 1, and the reasoning was obvious.

The Pac-12 has had significant trouble in cracking a four-team Playoff. Since the event’s inception in 2014, the league has only gotten there twice, and not since 2016 when Washington was outclassed by Alabama in a semifinal at the Peach Bowl.

A 12-team Playoff offers more possibilities, beginning first and foremost with the fact that in 2024 and 2025, the six highest-ranked conference champions automatically qualify. That technically does not guarantee the Pac-12 champion a berth, but it would be almost impossible for a Power Five champion to not be among the six highest-ranked conference champions.

With the Pac-12 champion all but guaranteed a CFP spot, that alone is a win for the league based on its CFP history. Beyond the six highest-ranked conference champions, the next six highest-ranked teams get at-large bids, opening the door to another Pac-12 team or, in a good year, maybe two to get in.

Taking the 2022 CFP rankings as an example for a potential 12-team field, Utah would be the No. 4 seed with a first-round bye through to the quarterfinals, while USC would be the 10-seed with a first-round matchup at No. 7 Alabama.

A Pac-12 traditionalist is not going to be happy to see the final “real” Rose Bowl played on Jan. 2, but is the tradeoff of having at least the conference champion gain access to the national championship tournament every year worth it?

At a minimum, that is a debate worth having.

Either way, it’s happening soon enough.