SALT LAKE CITY — The Pac-12 Conference announced this week that it will not allow member football teams with 5-7 records to participate in bowl games even though NCAA rules allow it.
This seems so sensible that you wonder how it could happen in college football — and why it isn’t the rule for every conference since the NCAA hasn’t put a stop to it.
Then you wonder if the Pac-12’s rule goes far enough. Why not also ban schools with .500 records (6-6) from bowl games?
Remember when bowls matched up only the best teams in the country and they were real events? Those days are long gone. Now it's marked by mediocrity, or worse.
In the last four years, 62 teams with .500 records have played in bowls, plus seven more teams with losing records.
The qualifications for a bowl game have been dumbed down and the reason is simple: The proliferation of silly bowl games — the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, etc. — means there simply aren’t enough teams with winning records to go around. There were 15 bowl games in 1978 and 25 by the turn of the century. By 2014 there were 40, which meant there were 78 slots to fill, not counting the national championship game.
For some reason, no one had thought this through to its logical conclusion: Statistically, what were the odds that 61 percent of the teams each year would have winning records, as once required by rule?
In 2002 when the number of bowl games jumped from 25 to 28 — or from 50 teams to 56 — three teams with 6-6 records had to be invited to fill the schedule. The NCAA changed its rules in 2006 to officially allow teams with 6-6 records to play in bowl games. In the 12 seasons since then, bowl games have included teams with .500 records — a total of 144 teams, or an average of 11.5 per year. In 2016-17, 20 teams — or 25 percent of the 2016-17 bowl field — had .500 records.
With the continued proliferation of bowl games, the NCAA was forced to change its rules again in 2015 to allow teams with 5-7 records to play in bowls if there weren’t enough six-win teams to fill the schedule (actually, teams with losing records had appeared in bowl games on rare occasions — 4-6 SMU in 1963, 5-6 North Texas in 2001, 2-3-3 South Carolina in 1945).
In 2011, 5-7 UCLA — of the Pac-12 — was invited to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco while 7-5 Western Kentucky and 6-6 Ball State were shut out of bowls. UCLA lost to Illinois, finishing with a 5-8 record, hardly the mark of a team that deserved to be in a bowl. In the six seasons since then, seven more teams with losing records (6-7, 5-7) “earned” bowl berths — six in just the last three years.
“The members are going to have to figure out, what’s the purpose of bowl games?” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in 2015 at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. “Is it a reward for a successful season or is it just another game that we’re going to provide an opportunity for? … We need to look hard at that.”
Actually, there is a third reason to consider: Is it to match the best teams in the country that season? (The answer is yes.)
In both 2011 and 2016, the NCAA placed a three-year moratorium on bowl expansion to study the issue, but in 2020 it is almost certain more cities will seek certification for new bowls. Three cities were planning to add bowl games in 2016 before the moratorium was established.105 comments on this story
Well, the Pac-12 acted preemptively recently to stop five-win teams from accepting bowl invitations, but it might not have been as altruistic as it was pragmatic. The league was 1-8 in bowl games last season — the worst record ever by a Power 5 conference — so maybe this is a case of self-preservation.
Anyway, maybe you’re a purist who wishes a return to the days when bowl games meant something and featured only the best teams. Then again, when 20,000 people show up for the unveiling of the Tennessee Titans uniforms, when sellout crowds show up for spring football games, when the media is writing about next year’s draft prospects the day after this year’s draft is finished, maybe all anyone wants is more football, as in more bowl games, regardless of how deserving the teams are.