Fixing the Bowl System


The bowl system in college football is broken. Attendance is down this year, many teams lose money when they attend, and there is a perception that there are too many games. When we look at the causes of this problem, they are very simple:

  • The 12 Game Schedule: The addition of a 12th game without increasing the requirement to play in a bowl has both increased and diluted the pool of teams.
  • The BCS: Even before the playoff, the BCS has hurt the bowl system. Only one game impacts the National Championship now. This is good, but it hurts all the other games.
  • ESPN: This may be mean, but having games drag out over 3 weeks for “Capital One Bowl Week” really hurts things. Having to take additional days off from work to attend bowl games is going to drop attendance in games that aren’t as compelling.

This can’t be fixed with just one change. Let’s look at one fix that would go a long way.

Bowl Games are for Winners

Nothing drives me more crazy than six win teams playing in a bowl game. Teams should not get rewarded for being mediocre. Aside from wanting to see a good game, people want to see winners play, especially when it isn’t their team.

So where do we draw the line? I think it should involve three criteria:

  1. Conference Champions: If you win your conference, regardless of record, you should be bowl eligible. Ties don’t count so each conference would have to have a tie-breaker.
  2. Championship Game Participants: If you play in your conference’s championship game, you are bowl eligible. You wouldn’t think that this was necessary but Georgia Tech proved otherwise in 2012. If you play in the championship, you are a winning team and should be permitted to enjoy a bowl.
  3. Winning Record: Slice it however you like, but you should have a winning record if you want to play in a bowl. This really is a two-fold requirement.
    1. Seven Wins: Simple enough. If you can’t win most of your games even when you aren’t in contention for your conference, you should stay home.
    2. .500 Conference Record: This is to help with the entire football season. It is designed to prevent a team collecting four easy wins and going 3-5 in conference play. If you can lose a non-conference game without having any impact on your bowl eligibility, that will improve matchups all year round.
    3. FCS Opponents: Only one win from an FCS (I-AA) opponent can count towards the total. The FCS schools benefit from these matchups but FBS teams shouldn’t be incented to play more than one a year.

Where does that leave us? Let’s look at the bowl eligible teams in 2012 and see how many would have missed out this year if these rules were in effect.

The New 2012 Bowl Season

Let’s look at the breakdown by conference:

Conference 2012 Count New Count Cut Teams Cut Record
ACC** 8 7 Duke 0-1
Big 12 9 4 Baylor
Iowa State
TCU
Texas Tech
West Virginia
2-3
Big East 5 4 Pittsburgh 0-1
Big Ten** 9 6 Michigan State
Minnesota
Purdue
1-2
Conf USA 5 5 N/A N/A
Independent 3 3 N/A N/A
MAC 7 6 Central Michigan 1-0
MWC 5 4 Air Force 0-1
Pac-12 8 7 Arizona 1-0
SEC 9 8 Ole Miss 1-0
Sun Belt 5 5 N/A N/A
WAC* 4 4 N/A N/A

* One team ineligible for bowls due to sanctions included

** Two teams ineligible for bowls due to sanctions included

Just like that, 14 teams gone.

The biggest thing I noticed is that the “power” conference lose more bowl teams. The SEC seems to buck the trend but when looking back to 2011, the SEC would have dropped from 8 to 5 teams so 2012’s numbers shouldn’t condemn the system.

Teams in the larger conference that were left out all failed the .500 conference record test. Many also only had six wins. Only Central Michigan and the Air Force Academy were dropped solely for only having six wins.

The Impact

This requirement moved 14 teams from the bowl mix. That is seven less games that can be supported. With a larger analysis of trends, it may show that eight may need to be cut.

The next major impact will be bowl tie-ins. Some conferences have 8-9 bowl tie-ins. If they are only going to have 6-7 teams make a bowl game, many bowls will lose their automatic participants.

The upshot of these two developments is that the bowls will have to be more financially competitive with each other to attract teams. Many bowls would have to fold, which you would presume would be those already living on the fringe.

Fans would also be a little more excited about attending. As bowls would be rarer, about 20% would be cut, fans would be a little more appreciative of earning that invite. Fans of winning teams are also more excited about extending the season as a whole.

While this wouldn’t solve everything, it would improve things. There would be some bowl chaos as some bowls folded but in the end, everyone would benefit.

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