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I went to the Cure Bowl and found out even college football's worst bowl games are amazing

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A lot of people say bowl games like the Cure Bowl are a problem. Those people should've gone to the Cure Bowl.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The inaugural AutoNation Cure Bowl is almost designed to fit the argument that there are too many bowls.

It's the third-most prestigious of three games in its own building, behind the Citrus Bowl and the Russell Athletic Bowl. Its first edition featured a 6-6 team that routinely plays in front of 60,000 empty seats in the Georgia Dome and a 5-7 team from the other side of the country. On a nippy Orlando night, the announced attendance at the 70,000-seat stadium is 18,000, and that's probably twice as high as the actual. It is the only bowl relegated to the CBS Sports Network, a channel many fans do not get.

But wandering the largely empty stadium on game night, I found something stranger than this postseason exhibition willed into existence. I found people who cared about it.

The idea for the Cure Bowl began with television executives.

According to Cure Bowl executive director Alan Gooch, networks pitched the idea that if any city could support a third bowl, Orlando could. It's a popular tourist destination both equipped to handle incoming fans and appealing enough to attract them. It's got a huge football stadium with no NFL team tying down dates. The Orlando Sports Foundation was founded in 2007 to try and make that third bowl happen.

"What comes first?" asks Megan Dowdy, the Cure Bowl's president. "Do you align yourself with the conferences or a title sponsorship or a stadium?"

The first thing the bowl chose to align itself with was a charitable cause.

"I went to a community meeting regarding this bowl, and five ladies came over to me," says Gooch, a former UCF assistant and interim coach. "They say, 'Coach, I know you've got a lot going on, but cancer takes no holiday.' And all five had bandanas on, and no hair, because they were battling cancer for their lives. That pierced my heart. I left that meeting and said that if we made the bowl about that, we got something."

Most bowl games have a charitable element, whether legit or not. They virtually have to. The companies organizing bowl games make a ton of money, but categorize themselves as tax-exempt under tax code 501(c)(3), which provides an exemption for charitable amateur sports organizations.

The group in Orlando saw a new lane. It decided to dedicate the bowl's entire theme to charity.

"With three bowl games in one venue, we knew we had to do something different," Dowdy says. "What we're doing different is the charitable aspect."

The Foundation pledged to donate all proceeds past expenses to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. At halftime of the game, the group presents a check for $150,000. It claims this is the largest donation directly from a bowl game to a charitable organization ever.

The bowl's philanthropic nature was a dream scenario for potential sponsors. Large corporations regularly tout huge donations to charity, and large corporations regularly sponsor bowl games for branding purposes. The Cure Bowl provides a rare opportunity to do both.

"We're the only bowl game with two sponsors in our logo," Gooch says with a smile.

AutoNation made the game the AutoNation Cure Bowl. At the end of the first quarter, AutoNation presents a $1 million check to the BCRF.

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The fledgling bowl also had to hammer out an all-important television deal.

ESPN has the rights to 38 of 41 bowls, and its goal is to spread these among as many time slots as possible. This was how the Bahamas Bowl ended up on Dec. 24, when the entire nation of the Bahamas plans for its biggest annual festival.

The Cure Bowl wanted to be as early as possible, to allow for ample turnaround time before Orlando's other two games. ESPN wanted it to be sometime when nobody else would be playing, which could've been a weekday. This was how CBS Sports Network ended up broadcasting a bowl for the first time ever.

CBSSN was willing to show the game on a Saturday, Dec. 19. That's also when ESPN is airing two bowl games and the NFL Network is showing Jets-Cowboys. And it's willing to pull out all the stops. CBSSN installed a Spidercam in the stadium just for the game and debuted Field Eye, a special camera attached to the down markers.

"They're treating us like we're the Super Bowl," Gooch says.

The Cure Bowl matters to Georgia State.

The school decided to play football in 2006, when a study showed a team might be financially beneficial and perhaps attract more students. By 2013, the school was an FBS member.

The Georgia Dome served as an enormous Petri dish. Like most Petri dishes, it was largely lifeless, but the organisms inside did their best to survive, not caring that they were part of an experiment.

In the Citrus Bowl parking lot, I meet a man who tells me to call him Monkey. He's drinking outside a truck flying a Georgia State flag and Georgia's state flag. He's wearing a hat with blinking lights and a Georgia State logo, which he calls his "fuck you" hat, because if people ask him why he's wearing it, he tells them, "fuck you."

In the three years before this one, Georgia State went a combined 2-33, with both wins against FCS schools.

"We spent a lot of time at the bar," Monkey tells me.

In 2015, the Panthers trickled to a 2-6 start.

"Every one was a do-or-die," said head coach Trent Miles. "Our backs are against the wall, and we've got to come out and play because we've got to have a winning season."

But the team finished with three straight wins to set up a trip to Georgia Southern with bowl eligibility on the line.

The Panthers were 21-point underdogs in the season-ending rivalry game. Even Monkey, who seems to have more faith in Georgia State football than anybody on Earth, didn't expect much when he made the three-hour drive down to Statesboro. But the Panthers whooped the former FCS dynasty and 2014 Sun Belt champs, 34-7.

"We kicked the shit out of them," Monkey says.

Blaine Tiller, a senior, admits he's only been to two games at the Dome, but didn't pass up the opportunity to see the Panthers in a bowl.

The Cure Bowl matters to San Jose State.

The Spartans also entered their final regular season game at 5-6, hoping to end with a win over a heavily favored opponent. They got smoked by Boise State. Their season, it seemed, was over.

"I think some of the guys, particularly some of the seniors, had shut it down," said head coach Ron Caragher. "They had the feeling that the season was over and turned in their gear. Football is a body, mind, spirit game. You commit your heart and spirit to it, and they had shut down that part."

The Spartans had lost by three points to Nevada in overtime and lost 17-16 to BYU after a failed game-winning two-point conversion.

"We knew we weren't a 5-7 team." said linebacker Christian Tago, reciting the team's close calls.

College football's arbitrary rule that you need six wins to play in a bowl appeared to spoil the season. Luckily, there was a new, equally arbitrary rule. Too few teams won six games, not enough to fill the 80 spots in college football's 40 non-Championship bowl games. The NCAA adapted a rule; 5-7 teams with the best Academic Progress Rate scores would be eligible for vacant spots. SJSU clocked in at fourth among those and had to see how many spots would be available.

"We found out Monday or Tuesday that there was a slight bit of a chance," Tago said. "As soon as we found out we had a shot, things just went up from there. Everybody's morale changed around. For some reason, everybody knew we were going to get a bowl game."

There ended up being three spots. Missouri was in line to take the final, but opted not to. SJSU wasn't going to make the same decision, not after being snubbed for a bowl at 6-6 two years ago.

The news of the Cure Bowl bid came through during the team's end-of-season banquet. The team went wild.

For all the talk that a five-win team didn't belong in a bowl, SJSU brings it.

Were it not for a pair of goal line stops by the Panthers, this could've been a Spartans blowout.

It's the last game for SJSU defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who's been in coaching so long that he recruited Caragher at quarterback at UCLA in the 1980s.

Robinson didn't check out early. In fact, he installed new sets.

"I watched every single play they played this entire season. They were doing things they hadn't done all year," says Georgia State QB Nick Arbuckle. "They brought a whole new third down defense to us that was really kind of backwards to what they had done in most games before."

The game stays close, but the Spartans pull away, winning 27-16.

The Spartans don't act as if they're 6-7. They act as if they're 1-0. They're dancing and trying on their bowl champion swag.

Robinson, now in retirement, gets a Gatorade shower and dances like he's a kid again.

Arbuckle is contemplative. He's No. 6 in the country in yards passing per game this season, but SJSU's defense held him to more incompletions than completions for his first time all season. As he talks to the media, you can tell he hears the victorious Spartans chanting in the adjacent locker room. A senior with slim pro prospects, he's forced to listen to the celebrations of the team that beat him in his final game.

"Hopefully, this isn't my last football game," he says.

Objectively, the Cure Bowl was a bad game.

It's the only bowl ever to end with two teams with losing records. You could argue it was the worst bowl of all time.

These guys don't give a damn.

They flew in from California Saturday morning. They say they have family in the Orlando area.

"I'M GOING TO DISNEY WORLD," one yells.

They don't care that it's too cold to be shirtless. They don't care that some people would call them idiots for spending money to fly across the country to watch a 5-7 team. They don't care that some people think a 5-7 team shouldn't be in a bowl. They just care that they made it, and that San Jose State won.

The Cure Bowl shows why bowls will never die.

This game took two historically meh teams that had never heard of each other, plopped them in a cavernously empty stadium in not-as-warm-as-you-thought Florida, and told them they were playing for a trophy that didn't exist last year.

Yet the players and fans and coaches acted as if it meant the world.

The bowl appears financially solvent, and then some. Over a million real dollars went to charity.

If you think there are too many bowl games, feel free to call the Cure Bowl the worst bowl of all time. Some people got to be happy anyway. If you think there are too many bowl games, maybe you should try feeling happy, too.

"Every player that I interact with says, 'Thank you,'" says Dowdy. "They say, 'Thank you for allowing me to play another game.' They say, 'I'm a senior. I thought I played my last game.' They say, 'This is my first bowl experience ever.'"

Images via USA Today and CBSSN.

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