Don’t do it.

Every year, we fall into this trap. We have a few weeks of buildup for bowl season and we convince ourselves that it’s indicative of what the regular season told us.

I hate to break it to the college football world, but we need to move past that mindset, especially in this new era of the transfer portal and bowl opt-outs. At least for the non-Playoff bowl games.

Treat the regular season for what it is — 12-13 games worth of data points.

Treat the postseason for what it is — 1 game of data with often significant roster shakeups. That’s hard for Florida fans to hear after the Gators’ listless Las Vegas Bowl dud on Saturday, but it’s true.

More significant than opt-outs is the new transfer portal window, which opened in the first week of December. Sure, it’s not like teams are losing 5 players from their starting offense, but we’re seeing teams with 1/5 of their current scholarship players in the transfer portal.

The SEC alone already has 10 teams with at least 10 players in the portal:

While the SEC might be a bit on the extreme side with portal entries, everyone is experiencing it at the Power 5 level.

So why then would it make sense for us to actually put more emphasis on bowl game performances as an indicator of conference supremacy? It doesn’t. Yet you can set your watch to those tweets about which conferences have the best bowl records in an attempt to claim the unofficial title of “best conference.”

Is it interesting? Sure. But should we use that as a data point to override what the regular season told us? No way.

The regular season told us a few things about the sport as a whole. One was that the SEC West lacked an elite team for the first time since the pre-Nick Saban era. The usual toughest division in football had a ton of parity, as shown by the fact that in the regular-season finale, we watched the worst team (A&M) convincingly beat the best team (LSU). Then LSU got walloped by Georgia in the SEC Championship, which marked just the second East title in the post-Tim Tebow era.

If the SEC West goes 5-0 in bowl season, we don’t need to double back and say “see, the division still had elite teams.” If the Big Ten West goes 5-0 in bowl season, we shouldn’t suddenly declare the division a juggernaut.

Bowl season is more random than ever. Instead of trying to make sense of that, let’s embrace it for what it is.

The regular season told us that the Pac-12 was better than it’s been at any point during this Playoff drought. The conference went into the postseason with 5 (!) teams inside the top 15 of the Playoff poll and 6 teams in the Top 25. It lacked a national championship contender, sure, but if the Pac-12 goes 2-5 in bowl season, I’m not bailing on my belief that the conference was actually formidable in 2022.

In my opinion, the regular season told us there was a massive difference between the have and the have nots in the Big Ten. Three teams inside the Playoff Top 25 told us that. If the Big Ten puts 2 teams in the national championship, that won’t suddenly mean that the league as a whole was deserving of far more love in the polls. It tells me Michigan and Ohio State were elite and others hovered closer to average, give or take a couple games.

I don’t know what bowl season will entail for the SEC East, but I thought this was perhaps the best the division has been at any point in the aforementioned post-Tebow era. That’s not just national championship favorite Georgia. That’s South Carolina and Tennessee, both of whom have a chance to finish as top-15 teams for the first time in the Playoff era.

By the way, both of those teams are going to be without their offensive coordinators and several key skill-players in their respective bowl games. Hendon Hooker (injury), Cedric Tillman (opt out) and Jalin Hyatt (opt out) won’t be playing for Tennessee in the Orange Bowl while MarShawn Lloyd (portal), Jaheim Bell (portal) and Austin Stogner (portal) won’t be playing for South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. It’s fair to say both teams will look significantly different than what we saw from them during the regular season.

That’s gonna be the case for plenty of teams playing bowl games. That’s different than using “lack of motivation” as an excuse for when a specific team doesn’t look the part in a postseason game.

Times have changed. Incentives have changed, too. Whether you like it or not, it’s never been more lucrative to enter the transfer portal because of NIL. The Early Signing Period also has the coaching carousel spinning earlier than it did before. We’ve got 9 bowl teams with interim coaches. That doesn’t include the countless assistants who already moved on to new jobs.

That’s why these non-Playoff bowl games should be treated as fun exhibition games. Do they matter? Absolutely, but they matter for some more than others. That’s fine.

On the flip side, if Alabama blows out Kansas State because it has close to its full arsenal with Bryce Young and Will Anderson both playing, let’s not use revisionist history to say it was more deserving of a Playoff berth than a team who gets blown out in the semifinal. There’s a difference between that and saying “it’s frustrating that Alabama couldn’t play like this all year.”

The postseason shouldn’t erase what 3 months of football told us, even if it feels like it should. That works both ways. Context is needed to explain bowl results, and even if that doesn’t tell the story, we should still remember it’s 1 game with a month to prepare.

It’s about to get all sorts of random this bowl season.

Don’t hurt your brain — or your Twitter fingers — trying to make sense of it.