Monday, December 7, 2015

The Substandard Bowl

By Jonathan Lowe

I feel like I'm a voice dying in the wind against the growing investment known as the "College Bowl Game." Over the years, I've approached this time of the sport's calendar with varying emotions. I've embraced it, trying to go so far as project each contest's winner through some sort of research. I've shunned it, growing sick of it to the point where I've tried to avoid as many television monitors as possible for games not resulting in a national championship trophy. Now, I think I've grown bombarded to the point of being stupefied.

It wasn't the case earlier on Saturday, when I inserted myself into a ranting session against the continually bloating exhibition timeframe that spans mid-December to past entrance into the next calendar. My two radio host cohorts and I took minutes out of the day (and the actual scheduled pocket of airwaves) to rail against the fact that there are now 40 bowl games that hope to be filled on an annual basis.

Truthfully, we probably shouldn't have become so heated. For 38 of these contests, the only designation they'll truly achieve is that of "glorified exhibition." However, those that follow the sport put a lot of stock into these contests. I know that I've done it. When Missouri made it to the 1997 Holiday Bowl (as I was rooting them on while in high school), after 14 years of terrible play, it was exciting. When Iowa State earned their way to the 2000 Insight Bowl (as I followed them on campus), after 22 years lost in the wilderness, it was borderline euphoric. These exhibitions matter. Coaches get fired for extended absences from these exhibitions. But do they matter near as much now?

As Championship Saturday turned into football's version of Selection Sunday, the sport has crossed the point of critical mass. With 80 slots to fill the expanding quota of bowl matchups, the realization that accommodating so many invites might be a little much, given the prerequisite of winning six games. So, what better way to make most scratch their heads than fill three open slots with squads that couldn't even hit that mid-water mark?

Thanks to academic progress rates, Nebraska, Minnesota, and San Jose State get to take their 5-7 records into the Foster Farms, Quick Lane, and Cure Bowls, respectively. As you've probably heard many people say (including ESPN's Brett McMurphy), only four teams with losing records have earned bowl bids in the last 45 years. Three of them (2014's Fresno State, 2012's Georgia Tech, and 2011's UCLA) at least lost conference title games after going 6-6. North Texas in 2001 was the last 5-7 squad in this position.

Personally, I thought we had reached the tipping point years ago. Sure, the number of programs in FBS has expanded since 1988 (when the number of teams in this subset dropped to 104). However, the number of bowl games that year was less than half (17) of this year's total. Due to the influx of bowl games basically mirroring the numbers of added FBS teams (23 to 24) from 1988 to now, the percentage of bowl slots to fill has doubled (from 32.7% to 62.5%).

With the number of 5-7 teams going to bowls this time around, and so many places to put willing programs, what will happen next? Will bowl games have to be scrapped, realizing that the market is oversaturated? Will more teams make the jump from FCS, causing another potential round of realignment? Could the eligibility bar get lowered at a time where more conferences are trying to diminish their "cupcake" opponents and position themselves for higher glory?

Or could this just be a cycle?

We kick and scream when teams under .500 make hey in the professional ranks of postseason play. But how many teams can capitalize more than the 2010 Seattle Seahawks could (a 7-9 team that won a division and upset the Super Bowl defending champs in a playoff game)? And how many teams have flourished more than the 1980-1981 Houston Rockets (a 40-42 team that made the NBA Finals)? Yes, unlike bowl teams that can only win an exhibition, the pro squads can actually win it all. But I don't think there has been an instance where those pro teams have ended their season with a win.

So, here we are. Three teams enter a bowl game at 5-7. Three teams will be ecstatic to end their season at 6-7. You'll probably hear even more moaning and bellyaching over this in the days to come. Oh, and those conference bragging rights that helps to stoke the verbal fire of the season? Don't look for that in the inaugural Arizona Bowl (Mountain West's Colorado State vs. Mountain West's Nevada). We have reached critical mass.

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