Is Making a Bowl Game in College Football Even Impressive Anymore?

With the addition of three new college football bowl games in 2020, it’s time to re-evaluate what making a bowl game will mean when 65 percent of FBS schools will do so.

In two seasons, there will be additional bowl games played in Boston, L.A. and Myrtle Beach, according to Stadium College Football Insider Brett McMurphy, which will bring the number of bowl games to 43, if you include the College Football Playoff Championship.

That means 84 of the 130 FBS teams will make a bowl.

Last season, 83 teams finished the bowl season with at least six wins and 10 teams entered their bowl game with a 6-6 record.

Four bowl-eligible teams – Miami (OH), Southern Miss, UL Monroe and Wyoming – didn’t receive a bowl invite last season, which means if the three soon-to-be-added bowl games were in place in 2018, two 5-7 teams would make a bowl. Fifteen teams finished last season with a 5-7 record, so 73 percent of FBS teams would have had a case to make a bowl game.

Of course, the number of bowl-eligible teams varies from year to year. In years when there projects to be more spots available in bowl games than six-win teams, get ready for 4-7 teams to play for bowl berths in Week 13, which in some cases will lead to bowl teams that finish the year 5-8.

Just think about that for a minute.

While it’s not quite apples to apples, in NCAA Division I men’s basketball, 68 teams (19.2 percent of the sport’s 353 teams) make the NCAA Tournament and only 38.3 percent of teams make the NCAA Tournament, NIT, CBI or CIT postseason tournaments.

Compared to college basketball teams that make one of those four postseason tournaments, almost twice as many college football teams, in terms of percentage, will make a bowl game in 2020.

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More meaningful football games during the holiday season isn’t necessarily bad for the sport, prospective schools or their players, but it means it’s time that we take a more nuanced approach to how we discuss and categorize various levels of success in college football because not all bowl games are created equal.

Making a bowl game is the lowest of expectations for a school like Alabama, which hasn’t missed out on a bowl since 2003, and it can be the pinnacle achievement in a season for Power Five programs like Indiana, Illinois or Kansas.

Seven bowl games have been added in the last five years, not including the three that will debut in 2020, so what was once an exclusive ticket is now becoming a safety net, available at a general admission price.

The closest that college football comes to college basketball’s NCAA Tournament/NIT/CBI-level of tiers of postseason qualification is the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games.

Four teams get to compete for a national championship and eight others get the secondary, but still notable, prize of playing in some of college football’s most historic bowl games.

But soon, that will leave 36 other bowl games, with participants ranging from anywhere between the top-25 matchup in last season’s Alamo Bowl to the battle that featured two 6-6 teams in the Texas Bowl.

Of course, the quality of teams that participate in a given bowl can depend on factors like conference allegiances, how many teams a conference sends to the CFP and the strength of a team’s non-conference/cross-division schedule.

Bowl eligibility is a point of pride for programs (as it should be), but when there will soon be 20 more bowl teams than there are Power Five teams, that will become a lower bar to surpass, and annual tweets after schools reach bowl contention will feel watered down.

When almost twice as many college football teams will make a bowl game than miss out on bowl eligibility, it’ll arguably become harder to miss a bowl game than to make one.

If anything, this might add more focus on the extremes of college football – the teams that make the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games, and the teams that miss out on a bowl entirely – because the sport-wide threshold of success that is bowl eligibility will be easier to achieve than ever before.

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