It is almost upon us. Saturday marks the opening of an unrivalled annual feast of football,
marshalling in the beginning of a 24 day, 41 game spectacular featuring no less than 80 college teams in what we affectionately call ‘bowl season’. For all the talk surrounding the much-hyped college football committee rankings, for the purists among us and new fans alike, it is these end of season bowls that we all eagerly await. So sit back, don your very best loungewear, fluffy slippers with your snacks at hand ready for the festival of football.
What began in 1902 with the birth of America’s oldest and still to this day, most iconic of contests, the Rose Bowl ushered in a hunger to matchup the finest programs in the country for one off end of season spectaculars. Hot on the heels of Pasadena’s historic move, the likes of the Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls were to stand alongside the Rose to stage the pinnacle of footballing achievement on a par with the national championship itself. The 1930s and 40s saw another wave in the Sun, Gator and Citrus Bowls being born and ten years later in 1959 the Liberty Bowl soon followed.
Expansion was by no means limited to this period, in fact the extensive expansion of the series began to accelerate in the 1990s and at an unprecedented rate upon the ushering in of the new millennium, giving birth to no fewer than 21 new bowl games, with the number of participants strikingly increasing from 70 to 80 teams post 2011, with the Cure Bowl of Orlando, Arizona Bowl of Tuscon and Celebration Bowls bloating the event to an unprecedented 41 games. However, amid criticism in certain circles to the perceived ‘watering down’ of the end of season competition, the NCAA placed a moratorium upon further future expansion, at least until 2019. While the association pumped the brakes, let it be in no doubt that cities across the country and the world, no less, are queueing for their city and town to be awarded the prestigious accolade of host status.
There’s no question of the economic benefits and tourist draw of hosting such an event, bringing tens of thousands of fans from two schools into town for what is a weekend-long celebration and much more than just a game. The event is accompanied by a myriad of community celebrations including charity running events, pep rallies and tailgate parties, with many of the bowls run thiranthropically in aid of local charitable ventures. Interestingly, this attraction sees, domestically, Austin, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Los Angeles and Little Rock all strive to gain host status as does Melbourne, Dubai, Dublin and Toronto further afield.
While the economic lure is appealing, expansion does come with important caveats. The exponentially growing postseason event has forced the hand of the NCAA to relax its rules in recent years simply to provide enough teams to satisfy the hunger and provide 80 teams with which to compete. Today, those specific requirements stipulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association are relaxed like never before. It was in 2010 that we first saw teams without a winning record (.500 records) take part. Fast forward just six years and this season’s event will consist of 25% or 20 of its participants taking part without having achieved a winning record at all.
‘Bowl Eligibility’ is a term often used in the closing weeks of the college football season, but what does it really mean in the current environment. With the relaxing of such rules, schools are eligible if they reach 6-6, as we discussed above, post a 6-7 losing record, so long as the seventh defeat comes in that team’s conference title game. FCS or Division-IA schools who are transitioning through the process of joining the FBS ranks who hold, at a minimum a .500 record of their own are additionally bowl eligible, while outstanding achievement in the classroom, measured by a school’s average pass rate (APR) on top of a 5-7 record on the field is granted the necessary qualification to take part. The APR is also measured against rival schools bidding, in a league table format. This year, the excellence in the classroom on top of a 5-7 record is awarded to Vanderbilt, one of the finest seats of learning in the country.
Confused? The general rule, as it currently stands, is to keep in mind that all the while a team is at .500 or above they will indeed be bowl eligible and subsequently assigned a bowl berth and opponent by the committee following the announcement of the top 12 schools. Of course, with no less than 80 schools battling it out over the next 21 days, it can be more than baffling to work out how the match ups are determined.
Of course, as you are no doubt already aware, the bowl season is inclusive of the newly formed playoff system, with two semi-finals being held on a three-year rolling cycle between the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Peach and Fiesta Bowls staging the ties to find the schools who will face off for the right to be crowned 2016/17 National Champions. This year it is the turn of the Peach Bowl (Washington v Alabama) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and the Fiesta Bowl (Ohio State v Clemson) in Glendale, Arizona. The ‘New Years Six Bowls’ are the most coveted of all and each take place between December 30th and January 2nd, of which the best mid-major or as now commonly named, ’Group of Five’ school is represented. This year that honour belonging to Western Michigan, who will face Wisconsin at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
So far so good, but how are the remaining 35 bowls fixtures decided? It can certainly be a confusing and beguiling process on the face of it, but in the end it comes down to what are known as ‘tie-ins’. Bowl events up and down the country possess a contractual obligation to match up teams from a pre-set formula (see below). Once we know the identity of the twelve schools, named by the committee who will be taking part in the ‘New Years Six’ bowls, the remaining bowls can thus be arranged.
Let us look at the Holiday Bowl, hosted each year by the city of San Diego, California. The organisers of the bowl event have a contractual obligation to host a Big Ten Vs Pac-12 matchup between two schools from the pool of the aforementioned conferences who qualify as bowl eligible. The organising committee will place its own bids for which teams they want to face off against each other, largely determined by that bowl’s place in the selection hierarchy. The formula states the San Diego bowl game should pit the #2, #3 or #4 Big Ten team, largely based upon final standings, against the third best Pac-12 school and those available from the pool. With Iowa being #2 heading to the Outback Bowl to face Florida and the third best in the conference, Nebraska snapped up ahead of the Holiday Bowl’s bid by the Music City to face Tennessee, the #4 ranked Minnesota can be awarded. The process to identify a Pax-12 opponent is much simpler. With Washington named in the final four to face Ohio State and USC headed to the Rose Bowl the next best record belongs to Washington State. Our matchup is thus set, so long as the pool of teams meet bowl eligibility criteria, bids are worked through and applicable match ups arranged.
Those contractual tie-ins ensure that Bowl X will always feature, for instance an AAC Vs Big 12 fixture and select the relevant competitors from the available pool with rank of importance in the bowl events themselves as to where they come in the queue to select their participants. Other extenuating factors come into making the final choice on top of importance of the bowls themselves. Selectors make an effort in the majority of bowl games (bar the six) to limit distances fans have to embark to watch the game and avoidance where they can of repeating what are regular season fixtures. Certain bowl events have stipulations each year that their participants will not be the same as in previous years, while others expressly omit certain teams from taking part, and in the case of the Armed Forces and Poinsettia Bowls, Navy and BYU respectively are permanent competitors unless they make the committee’s top 12 teams, in which case other bowl-eligible competitors will be found to fill the vacancy.
Still confused? Fear not, if all else fails, here below we have mapped out the basic formula with which to follow (roughly) in determining the final schedule.
Fiesta (Glendale, AZ) Top 4 v Top 4
Peach (Atlanta, GA) Top 4 v Top 4
Cotton (Arlington, TX) At-large Vs At-large
Rose (Pasadena, CA) Big Ten #1 vs Pac-12 #1
Sugar (New Orleans, LA) Big 12 #1 vs SEC #1
Orange (Miami, FL) ACC vs Big Ten/SEC or Notre Dame
Outback (Tampa, FL) Big #2-4 vs SEC #3-8
Citrus (Orlando, FL) Big Ten #2-4 vs SEC #2
TaxSlayer (Jacksonville, FL) ACC #3-6/Big Ten #5-7 vs SEC #3-8
Music City (Nashville, TN) ACC #3-6/Big Ten #5-7 vs SEC #3-8
Liberty (Memphis, TN) Big 12 #5 vs SEC #3-8
Sun (El Paso, TX) ACC #3-6 vs Pac-12 #5
Arizona (Tucson, AZ) MWC vs Sun Belt
Alamo (San Antonio, CA) Big 12 #2 vs Pac-12 #2
Belk (Charlotte, NC) ACC #3-6 vs Pac-12 #5
Birmingham (Birmingham, AL) AAC vs SEC#9
Foster Farms (Santa Clara, CA) Big Ten #5-7 vs Pac-12 #4
Pinstripe (New York City) ACC #3-6 vs Big Ten #5-7
Russell Athletic (Orlando, FL) ACC #2 vs Big-12 #3
Texas (Houston, TX) Big 12 #6 vs Pac-12 #7
Cactus (Tempe, AZ) Big 12 #6 vs Pac-12 #7
Heart of Dallas (Dallas, TX) Big Ten vs CUSA
Holiday (San Diego, CA) Big Ten #2-4 vs Pac-12 #3
Military (Annapolis, MD) ACC vs AAC
Independence (Shreveport, LA) ACC vs SEC
St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg, LA) ACC vs AAC
Quick Lane (Detroit, MI) ACC vs Big-Ten
Hawaii (Honolulu, HA) CUSA vs MWC
Dollar General (Mobile, AL) MAC #1 vs Sun Belt #2
Armed Forces (Fort Worth, TX) Big 12 vs Navy
Bahamas (Nassau) AAC vs MAC
Potato (Boise, ID) MAC #2 vs MWC
Poinsettia (San Diego) BYU vs MWC
Boca Raton (Boca Raton, FL) AAC vs CUSA
Miami Beach (Miami Gardens, FL) AAC vs MAC
Las Vegas (Las Vegas, ND) MWC #1 vs Pac-12 #6
Camelia (Montgomery, AL) MAC #3 vs Sun Belt #3
Cure (Orlando, FL) AAC vs Sun Belt
New Mexico (Albuquerque, NM) CUSA vs MWC
New Orleans (New Orleans, LA) Sun Belt #1 vs CUSA
Feature image: Courtesy Seattle Times
TCU players celebrate their Alamo Bowl success last season over Oregon (47-40)
Photo: Erci Gay/AP
Houston celebrate their 38-24 Peach Bowl victory over Florida State a year ago
Photo: Craig Balog/The SkyBoat