Nutmeg near an open fire. Fruitcake from Aunt Myrtle. Teams with 6-6 records playing in college football bowl games. All grand holiday traditions.
Just as trophies are awarded to every little leaguer who would rather play in the sand than chase a fly ball from his right field position, so too are bowl invitations extended to every college football program that adeptly schedules a handful – and one for the other thumb – of wins each season.
A record 17 teams with 6-6 records will participate in the 40 bowl games this holiday season. That number will grow to 18 if a 6-5 Army team loses a 15th consecutive game to rival Navy on Saturday. The Cadets are headed to the Heart of Dallas Bowl to play a North Texas club. North Texas joins Mississippi State – bound for the St. Petersburg Bowl – as the two clubs with 5-7 records in bowl games.
All totaled, 82 of the 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision will play in a bowl game, or 64 percent of the membership. Good grief, even the NBA (53 percent) and NHL (47 percent) slot a lower percentage of teams into their bloated playoffs.
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This practice of rewarding teams for merely participating began for the 2006 season when regular-season schedules expanded from 11 to 12 games. The NCAA kept in place its rule that six wins were necessary for bowl participation, meaning 6-6 teams were now eligible.
At about the same time, ESPN began purchasing bowl games for holiday TV programing purposes and cities around the country began to recognize the value of hosting a bowl game to better promote their city on national TV.
By 2015, there were 41 bowl games and not enough six-win teams to fill all the participatory slots. So the NCAA allowed three 5-7 teams – Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State – to accept bowl bids. Perhaps realizing that this was getting out of hand, the NCAA also put a moratorium on additional bowl games.
The schedule factor
Suffice it to say, no 6-6 college football team deserves to play in a bowl game. Even so, some 6-6 teams are more “deserving” than others.
Scheduling is the biggest factor in landing a bowl bid. Every FBS team schedules one game – or win – against a Football Championship Series (formerly called Division I-AA) opponent. The Power Five Conference teams also schedule two or three additional games – or wins – against teams from the other six FBS conferences.
These scheduled games generally come with a “guarantee” payment to the opposing guinea pig. Power Five programs pay anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million to the visiting team. So, in effect, the Power Five team is shelling out big bucks to play in a bowl game.
Let’s use Maryland as an example. The Terps won six games this season and will play in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit against another 6-6 club, Boston College. Let’s say Maryland paid an average of $500,000 per game to notch wins against Howard, Florida International and Central Florida. That’s $1.5 million for three wins, or halfway to bowl eligibility. The Terps other three wins came against Big Ten opponents Purdue, Michigan State and Rutgers.
The combined record of Maryland’s six victims was 20-51, or a percentage of .282, the worst among all the 6-6 teams playing in bowl games. Central Florida had the best record at 6-6 among the six teams Maryland defeated.
At the other end of the spectrum, Vanderbilt and N.C. State at least produced six victories each against clubs with a combined winning percentage above .500, the only two such records among the 6-6 bowl teams. Vanderbilt’s win total is actually impressive with decisions over Western Kentucky (9-3), Tennessee (8-4), Middle Tennessee (8-4) and Georgia (7-5).
N.C. State defeated Old Dominion (9-3), UNC (8-4) and Wake Forest (6-6), and could also boast of a victory over Notre Dame, even though the Fighting Irish finished at 4-8. It still was not enough to make me believe the Wolfpack deserved a bowl invitation, but it was among the best ledgers among the 6-6 clubs.
N.C. State also took a 6-6 team to the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl. UNC joined the 6-6 bowl parade in 2013 and 2014, and Duke did so in 2012. No program has better celebrated the college football holiday tradition quite like Pittsburgh, which took 6-6 clubs to bowl games following the 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons.
As for all those grand holiday traditions, well, I never much liked eggnog, and have never met anyone with a taste for fruitcake. Also, no one is going to force me to watch any 6-6 team in a bowl game.
Rating the 6-6 Clubs
Following are the records of the opponents each of the 6-6 bowl teams defeated during the 2016 regular season. Included are Army (6-5 record) and Hawaii (6-7) :
Team Opp. Rec. Pct.
Vanderbilt 42-39 .592
N.C. State 36-35 .507
Army 32-40 .444
Central Michigan 32-40 .444
TCU 31-42 .425
Louisiana-Lafayette 30-41 .423
UTSA 30-41 .423
South Alabama 28-43 .394
Southern Mississippi 28-43 .394
Hawaii 28-44 .389
Northwestern 27-45 .375
Miami of Ohio 26-46 .361
Boston College 25-46 .352
South Carolina 25-46 .352
Wake Forest 24-47 .338
Baylor 23-48 .324
Central Florida 23-48 .324
Indiana 22-50 .306
Maryland 20-51 .282