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The Well-Functioning Bowl System


The college football bowl system, a cabal controlling the sport, sure does function effectively. Take the Hawaii Bowl, played on Christmas Eve and this year featuring Nevada and Southern Mississippi:

As of Thursday afternoon, Nevada had sold just 10 tickets through phone sales, but had distributed about 600 because pass-list tickets count in tickets distributed. The Hawaii Bowl, mostly because of its annual Christmas Eve date, has historically not been a well-attended game by fans of mainland teams. In 2009, there were about 150-200 Wolf Pack fans at the Hawaii Bowl.

10 tickets sold!!!!!!!!!!!

Surely fans of the Golden Eagles are ready to fly to paradise to see their team play the Wolfpack:

Brandon’s Rick Deaton said he had at least 16 friends ready to make the trip had the Golden Eagles been headed to bowl games in Dallas or Memphis.

“I think it was the wrong choice with all the positive momentum the program had going. Twenty thousand-plus (fans) would have gone to Dallas, but only a couple hundred are going to Hawaii,” he said.

Teresa Smith of Pro Travel Agency in Hattiesburg said last week that only a handful of flights have been booked through her agency.

“We’ve been receiving a lot of phone calls from people interested in going,” she said. “We’ve made reservations for a handful because the price of an airline flight ranges from $1,500 to $2,000 alone.”

Only $1500 before the game ticket and hotel and food. What a great deal!

Remind me why this game exists again. Teams going to the big bowl games make some money on it. Mid-tier bowl teams more or less break even. At this level though, the schools usually lose money on the game. I think it’s important to reward teams with winning records, but sending them 5,000 miles away and ensuring that no one watches the game and the schools get fleeced for their trouble, well, why?

I’m a huge proponent of the playoff system. In fact, I’d like to see a 32 team playoff. That is a lot of extra games for the winning teams, but you could make up for some of that by returning to the 11 game season. Seed the teams 1-32 and higher seed gets the home game until the final. Imagine the excitement this would create. It would be as big as March Madness.

Of course, teams like Nevada and Southern Mississippi aren’t often going to get to the final 32 unless they win their conference. Though this year, Southern Miss might have edged in. But it’s better for all involved to get these teams a reward that makes sense for the school and its fans. Maybe some sort of NIT-like tournament involving 8 or 12 teams that couldn’t quite make the cut. Maybe keep some sort of bowl game but ensure that it is close enough to the school so fans can attend.

The system as it stands though is completely ridiculous.

Via SB Nation

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  • Murc

    I’m a huge proponent of the playoff system. In fact, I’d like to see a 32 team playoff.

    Dear god, why? Single-elimination tournaments are just about the worst method possible for determining team quality. And starting with a round of 32? Insanity.

    • R Johnston

      Absolutely agreed. Playoffs are highly overrated as a tool for determining the best teams and are particularly poorly suited for college football. The bowl system, however, with a bit of reform, can at least do a very good job of providing interesting and high quality games.

      • Tybalt

        Not, though, as interesting or high-quality as a playoff system.

        • R Johnston

          More interesting and better quality, actually. If you match a bunch of teams in bowl games based on rankings and rivalries you can maximize the chances that each game is of interest and pairs teams likely to produce a good game.

          Playoff tournaments only work if your regular season allows a sensible and fair way to determine entry to and seeding in the playoffs.

          People who want a college football playoff system have failed to resign themselves to the fact that any way of crowning a college football champion is arbitrary and unfair. They’ve been conditioned to believe that postseason tournaments are how you crown a champion and assume without evidence that it’s a fair and sensible way to do so in college football, but beyond that conditioning there’s no there there to a college football playoff.

          • Craigo

            More interesting and better quality, actually.

            Exactly. Witness the paucity of interest in college basketball’s single-elimination tournament as compared to the overwhelming popularity of the bowls.

        • mpowell

          The only virtue of large single-elimination tournaments is the excitement that randomness brings. And in college football, the first round of 32 would be terrible. 4 or 8 teams would be fine.

          And the rest of the bowl system is fine. The solution to the problem mentioned is just to stop going to bowls like Hawaii. The school has the choice.

          • Njorl

            I’d limit it to 4 teams. With 4 teams you get any team that can make a reasonable claim to be the best. You might leave out a team with a reasonable claim to be second best, but who cares?

            32 is nuts. Five weeks of football at 1 game per week is much more demanding than the basketball tournament, even including the conference tourneys. That would be on top of the regular season, which is already more demanding for football than basketball.

      • Scott Lemieux

        The bowl system, however, with a bit of reform, can at least do a very good job of providing interesting and high quality games.

        Where, exactly, are the interesting or high-quality games this year?

    • Craigo

      Dear god, why? Single-elimination tournaments are just about the worst method possible for determining team quality.

      Point being?

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    $1500 to $2000 for a flight to HI? That’s insane!

    Okay, okay, Christmas weekend, last minute booking, but STILL. To HI there’s all these air/hotel bundles; if you’re paying full airfare, you’re being ripped off.

    I guess even the die-hard fans exhibit occasional flashes of sanity…

  • R Johnston

    Meh. Regular seasons followed by postseason tournaments are how we organize sports leagues because that’s how things are done. There’s nothing inherent about it, and it’s frankly a terrible way to determine a “best” team, in the case of college football quite a bit worse than the current system.

    College football is uniquely poorly suited to having a meaningful postseason playoff. You have 119 bowl division teams playing short 11-13 game schedules of wildly divergent difficulty. Any system for determining playoff entrants and seeding is going to be highly arbitrary and unfair. Even more so than in other sports league playoff scenarios, a college football playoff system wouldn’t be about determining the best team or providing a means for matching up the best teams to produce the best and most interesting games; it would be just another random tournament with no real meaning beyond crowning a tournament champion.

    I’ve never really gotten why so many people feel such a need for a college football playoff system. Beyond “that’s the way things are done” it really doesn’t make much sense at all.

    • Murc

      Ideally, you’d do for a lot of sports what baseball does, where you play SERIES, not high-stakes single matches in a single-elimination format.

      Sadly, this is football we’re talking about, where every second they’re out on the field they’re basically killing themselves for our amusement. To make them play extremely long extended series in order to determine actual quality and have a reasonable chance that the actual best team is honored as such would be even more inhumane than the sport currently is.

      • firefall

        So you’re saying, there’s no downside?

    • Ben

      I don’t understand this. Are you against crowning a champion at all? If so, more power to you, but why even play the games then, if not to figure out which team is the best?

      And if you’re down with a champion, playoffs are the most fair way to do it in college football. Having a 1 vs 2 game is more unfair, and for the reasons you cite. Series don’t work, as Murc pointed out.

      While you have a point that having a tournament is in effect having a second season whose outcome may not match the play of the regular season, a) it’s still the best method we got and b) tournament success would correlate pretty well with regular season success.

      Finally, a tournament would be entertaining. as. fuck. NFL playoffs are entertaining, March Madness is entertaining. Games where the two teams are meeting because they earned it on the field are much more entertaining than because their fan bases travel well, or because “these two conferences have always faced off in the Poinsetta Bowl.”

      . . . also can’t help put point out a tournament is the only way Boise State, TCU and other good teams outside power conferences get to actually play somebody.

    • Scott Lemieux

      To state the obvious, sports aren’t just about identifying the “best team,” they’re about determining a champion. A league in which the best team was always the champion would be of no interest. The college system fails because it doesn’t have anything resembling a legitimate process for determining a champion.

      • R Johnston

        The winner of a tournament is just the winner of a tournament. What differentiates a championship tournament from the preseason NIT is having a process for qualifying for the tournament that meaningfully and fairly establishes a standard of entry into the tournament and a standard of seeding in the tournament. College football has too many teams and far too short a schedule relative to the number of teams for the regular season to be anything other than a highly arbitrary, unfair, and controversial tool for determining entry into and seeding in a postseason tournament.

        A college football playoff would crown a tournament champion but in no sense any more meaningful than the current system would it crown a college football champion. It’s actually quite a bit worse than the current system for determining a meaningful champion of anything other than the tournament itself. NCAA rankings tend to be reasonable at identifying outlying teams at the very top, but absolutely terrible at ordering the teams after the first few.

        The college football schedule is just far too short for team record to meaningfully order the number of teams involved. The college basketball schedule is much longer and even that’s pushing it, and in football a tournament as large as the basketball tournament is simply not feasible. A tournament based on conference championships could work–the regular season would be like the round-robin round of the World Cup, with the playoffs like the elimination round–but you’d have to break up the current conferences and centralize control over conference membership, which is never going to happen.

        • John

          Nobody seems to feel that the I-AA championship is illegitimate, even though it has all the same drawbacks you associate with a I-A championship.

          • Bill Murray

            I feel that way, so you are incorrect

            • kth

              also no one cares one way or the other about the D2 champ, unless you actually go to Harvard or Sam Houston State

              • John

                I thought we were talking about whether it was fair, not whether anybody cared about it. At any rate, it’s Division I-FCS, not Division II, and the Ivy League, for some reason, doesn’t participate, so a pretty bad post on the merits.

                • kth

                  Your observation was that there seem to be few objections to the Championship Subdivision playoff format. From that, you inferred tacit approval, when in fact utter indifference is an equally valid inference. All I was saying.

            • John

              Really? Why?

        • Craigo

          You don’t seem to recognize that your criticism of the regular season as an unreliable way to determine the best teams is only amplified by subjectively selecting two, and only two, teams to play for the title.

        • Dirk Gently

          I fail to see how anything you say there negates the utility of a tournament, especially if the gold standard is the March Madness tournament: every single year there are a handful of bubble teams “screwed” out of a 16 or play-in seed, and just as in big time football, the “esteemed” conferences always get the most invites.

          You have to start somewhere!

    • McAllen

      Determining the best team is not the point of playoffs. If that’s all you want in a post-season, why don’t we just look a records combined with some kind of statistical analysis to determine the best team? The point of playoffs is to provide an entertaining and relatively fair way of crowning a champion.

      • kth

        That’s pretty completely wrong: the reason college sports ought to have a playoff is that there really isn’t a statistically or experimentally unambiguous way of comparing 100-odd teams with wildly disparate schedules. That’s less the case with pro football, which could easily be reformed so that (say) all AFC teams played identical schedules, and then only the team with the most wins would go to the Super Bowl, with a playoff only if there were a tie in the standings. And extended second-season playoffs in baseball and (especially) basketball, when performance is already well-established and many of the included teams are not legitimate claimants to be the best overall, are for boobs and completely deplorable.

        • Joshua

          I thought McAllen’s post was satire, considering we already have a system where “records are combined with some sort of statistical analysis.” It’s called the BCS and it’s terrible and everybody hates it.

          • Bill Murray

            a poorly designed system does not invalidate a well designed system.

            Well BCS is well designed for its purpose of directing most of the money in college football to the big conferences.

        • Njorl

          I can’t remember a season in which there were more than 3 teams which had a legitimate argument for being the best. The records and statistical analysis do a pretty good job at narrowing the field dramatically. It’s rare that more than two teams can make a claim to be best, and frequently, like this year, one team is certainly the best.

          There are a lot more teams in college basketball, a lot more variation in schedule strength, and a lot more uncertainty as to who the best team is.

    • mpowell

      You’re just wrong about a college playoff not working. There will be arbitrary inclusions and exclusions, but certainly nobody with a legitimate claim to #1 will be excluded from an 8 team tournament. And winning 3 games to win a title is not so unreasonable. Also, seeding is not that huge of a problem. All sports competitions have competitive unfairness issues. Long story short, a 4 or 8 team playoff would be about as fair as any method we have in sports of establishing a champion.

      • kth

        Indeed, if they got rid of those silly conference championship games, you’d only be net one extra post-season game with an 8-team playoff.

  • Fighting Words

    Ok, I will disclose that I’m very anti-playoff. I actually liked the old system for the Pac 10 and Big 10 – conference winners go to the Rose Bowl.

    However, regarding the Hawai’i Bowl and/or the Aloha Bowl, I was always under the impression that one of the Bowl games in Hawai’i was automatic for the University of Hawai’i because of the amount of travelling that university does during the regular season. The additional bowl game was to offset the cost of all the travelling.

    • Fighting Words

      Or, I could have just checked Wikipedia:

      The Hawaiʻi Bowl is a post-season National Collegiate Athletic Association Football Bowl Subdivision college football bowl game that has been played annually at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii since 2002. Typically played on either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, the game matches teams from either Conference USA or the Pac-10 vs. WAC member schools. As part of the agreement with the WAC, a “Hawaiʻi guarantee” allows the University of Hawaiʻi the Hawaiʻi Bowl bid, regardless of its standings in the WAC, provided it is bowl eligible and doesn’t qualify for the BCS (as it did in 2007). If Hawaiʻi is not eligible then another WAC member is chosen.

      Hawai’i is 6-7 this season, I thought having 6 wins qualifies a team as being bowl elgible (of course, the fact that Hawai’i has a losing record probably disqualifies it).

      • Having a losing record hasn’t disqualified UCLA, which lost 50-0 to USC and still got to play (and lose) to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game.

        But the reason Hawai’i needed to be at least 7-6 this season to get into the Hawai’i Bowl is that it played 13 games this year, one more than most teams’ 12, so a mere .500 record wouldn’t suffice.

        That game was originally created to guarantee UH a bowl game if it qualified after it was left completely out of all bowls despite a 9-3 record back in 2001, including defeating BYU 72-45 in the season final after beating SMU, UTEP and Air Force earlier in the year.

        • Thlayli

          UCLA … lost 50-0 to USC and still got to play (and lose) to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game.

          Only because USC is on probation.

        • Bill Murray

          The PAC-12 Championship is not a bowl game. As Thayli said, UCLA made the championship game because their division champion USC is ineligible.

        • elm

          6 wins (at least 5 of which are against I-A teams) and a not having a losing record are the requirements for bowl eligibility.

          UCLA applied for a waiver to this even before playing the PAC-whatever championship game, and the NCAA granted it, which struck me as reasonable.

          The thing I don’t get, is why did Hawaii have a 13 game regular season?

          • Fighting Words


            Hawai’i gets a 13 game regular schedule because of travel costs. It just costs more money to travel for Hawai’i because of distance. I think they are allowed an extra home game to cover the costs.

            • Actually, it’s teams that play in Hawai’i which get what’s called the Hawai’i Exemption.

              The Hawaii Exemption is a rule enacted by the NCAA that allows Division I football teams that play at Hawaii to schedule a 13th regular-season game. The rule also allows the Warriors to play an extra game.

  • Joshua

    Plus, the level of play in these bowls is quite often appallingly bad. These teams are away from home, weeks away from their last regular season game, and spend the week visiting the Chamber of Commerces’ favorite spots and volunteering at the soup kitchen and the like. These are not serious games and they are not played for football reasons. A functioning sport would be embarrassed to have this junk out on display for the whole country to see.

    • KadeKo

      Soup kitchen?

      I always added in as a play factor the almost-certainty of all the players visiting the Communicable Diseases Childrens’ Ward several days before the game. Just enough time to let the germs incubate.

  • MAJeff

    At it’s most basic level, the bowl system is a scam to enrich the organizers of the bowls. Period.

    • Bill Murray

      and for how much of our current society is this not true? well, after removing the “of the bowls”

    • mpowell

      This is an important point because it is very true. The amazing thing is that colleges are still willing to participate.

  • Fighting Words

    Slightly off topic…

    I watched the inaugural “Pac-12 Championship” between Oregon and UCLA. For some stupid reason, probably so someone can make more money, the Pac-12 has a championship now. Anyway, I found it amusing that Oregon had Boy Scouts as the color guard during the national anthem. Yeah, I know the Boy Scouts are anti-gay, but it seemed strange given the normal jingoism associated with the national anthem at football games.

    Also, if UCLA won that game, would they have gone to the Rose Bowl? Because that would be so wrong if they did.

    • ADM

      Conferences with 12 or more teams typically have conference championship games because playing every team in one’s conference wouldn’t leave much room for non-conference opponents.

      That the SEC has a championship game (and the Big 12, and now the pac-12 and big “10”) means a program like Alabama can play its six sub-divisional games and still play 5-6 fillers, and maybe play one big non-conference game for buzz, tv revenue, strength of schedule, whatever. (Alabama played 8 conference games, but only 5 of those teams were SEC west teams. of those three east SEC games, one was perennially bad Vanderbilt, the other was bottom dwelling Tennessee. The point being, large conferences are where the (TV) money/prestige is at, and breaking large conferences into divisions is a way for programs to still get 3+ easy games.)

      And yes, had UCLA won the Pac-12, they’d be playing in the Rose Bowl. That might’ve been enough for the powers-that-be in college football to up and change the bowl-eligibility rules between the regular season and bowl season!

      • Fighting Words

        Oh, I understand why the Pac-10 became the Pac-12. I know that’s where the money/prestige is. I know that conference championship games bring additional revenue. And I know the Pac-10 REALLY wanted to become the Pac-16 Superconference with the Texas/Oklahoma teams/money. I should have made this more clear in my earlier post.

        But I really liked the old Pac-10 conference (and yes, I am aware that it was the Pac-8 until the late 1980’s). Each team had a designated rival that was in the conference. All the teams made sense geographically and culturally. The conference was managable for all the non-football sports. And most important, all teams got to play each team in the conference (although I think that was recent). The old Pac-10 was how a conference should be – especially on the Western U.S.

        I mean no disrespect to the folks in the universities of Colorado and Utah (neither of which are to blame, and I understand why Utah changed conferences), but everything that made the Pac-10 great is gone now. And in it’s place is something that is just much worse.

  • Mr. Blandings

    A more extensive treatment of the subject can be found here.

  • LosGatosCA

    Remind me why this game exists again.

    Saturday, December 24, 8pm ESPN

    Content must be available, attention must be paid. The live gate is strictly a bonus.

    Forget all you know or think you know about bowl games. This year ESPN will broadcast 19 bowl games before any bowl game is broadcast by another network.


    ESPN is to bowl games as HBO has been to boxing.

  • LosGatosCA

    According to that Fox Sports site, only 4 of over 30 bowl games are broadcast on a network other than the ESPN family of networks.

    I assume that’s accurate, but I can’t confirm it because I don’t watch college bowl games in December for the same reasons I don’t watch NFL preseason games (best described by Brent Jones as a bunch of guys who won’t make our team playing a bunch of guys that won’t make the other team), early college basketball tournaments in Alaska or Hawaii, the baseball all-star game, the Pro Bowl, or the NBA before the conference finals. I’m happy to leave that to others to complete the program demographics and ensure that the sport will have quality funding and preparation to perform at the level I expect when the circumstances finally seem worthwhile.

  • Lee

    Considering Erik’s previously mentioned interest in historical toilets, I misread the title to be “The Well-Functioning Bowel System.” I was hoping for a fascinating discussion on the bowels of famous labour leaders.

  • fsm

    I’m always happy when my bowels are functioning properly too.


  • fsm

    dangit. should have read the comments first

  • Craigo

    This is one of the few teams I’ll ever agree with Gregg Easterbrook – a major and often overlooked reason for bowls is so that a couple dozen coaches and administrators who have won bowl games can plausibly claim that they had “successful” seasons, whereas nobody likes being one of the 31 or 15 playoff contenders who didn’t walk away with the championship.

  • Njorl

    One solution would be to put USC in the SEC, rename the SEC “division I” (without an “a”) and name the winner of that division national champion. Maybe kick out Kentucky and Ole Miss, and add a couple of other teams.

    On a more serious note, why are so many teams which try to be #1 playing so many games against teams which are not trying to be #1? With all of the conference hopping going on, and geography being ignored, why not just have 3-4 conferences with all of the best teams?

    • mpowell

      That is what is happening. The Big East is going to stop being a major conference and you’re going to have the PAC-x, Big-12ish, Big 10, ACC and SEC. Or that is the direction things were headed. You might even lose the Big 12 altogether. And all of the good teams will be in the remaining major conferences.

  • sparks

    To me, college football is the minor leagues at major league prices. I do not buy bullshit about the “sport” being more pure at the college level. It’s the same damn game with the same damn injuries, just more creativity and less great players. So any bowl game or college national championship means just as much to me as who won the PCL championship this year. The difference being I can often go to the PCL championships and not kill my bank account. I won’t watch a single bowl game, and I’m glad they’re on ESPN so they don’t interrupt something else more important, like the umpteenth rerun of It’s A Wonderful Life.

    For basketball, a tournament makes a bit of sense. For football, it’s insane.

  • Dirk Gently

    My humble proposition:

    Eight team playoff, determined by BCS rankings (in which they are required to disclose their formula–which is more fully weighted to strength of schedule). Each playoff game is played at a bowl, and they rotate accordingly, e.g. the semi-final games are at the Rose and Orange bowls, and the Fiesta bowl hosts the final.

    The bowl cabal maintains their operations, the public gets an exciting and (somewhat) fair playoff, the championship seems less arbitrary, and most folks are happy.

    And let’s remember: the goals here are to provide entertainment and increase the fairness of it. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently, absolutely fair, and it doesn’t guarantee entertainment. But it’s a fair sight better than what we have.

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