Conference bowl ties are great when leagues have worthy teams in the mix for big games, but other times, they can mess up a lot of things.
It’s cool that most conferences have specific games they get to aim toward, but associating these bowl ties with formal, national championship setups like the BCS and College Football Playoff’s New Year’s Six often means rewarding merely good teams with BIG BOWLS while snubbing actually great teams.
If you lose five games but win a Rose Bowl conference in a standard year, then you get to go to the Rose Bowl, which probably means a much better team that only lost a couple games has to go somewhere sad.
Another factor: several of the biggest bowls used to be able to just pick whoever they wanted, rather than having to consider rankings.
Let’s look back through the BCS/Playoff era at all the teams who lucked into top-tier showcase bowls while much better-rated teams had to go to normal bowls. I mainly looked for teams that made BCS-level bowls despite ranking in the teens, especially if those teams looked suspect in rankings that are smarter than the official ones.
We’ll cite two numbers for each: the BCS/Playoff ranking from right before bowl season began, and the Massey Composite ranking from the same time. The latter uses many more smart computer ratings than the BCS/CFP, so it’s usually a better gauge of team quality.
First, a few big-bowl teams that aren’t worth getting mad about, so let’s just leave them be
2012 Louisville (BCS #21, MC #35)
This Sugar Bowl berth against Florida could’ve gone to one of two SEC teams ... that’d already faced Florida anyway. There’s a much sillier 2012 bid we can replace instead. Read on! (Besides, Teddy Bridgewater’s Cardinals beat the Gators anyway.)
2012 Northern Illinois (BCS #15, MC #22)
2013 UCF (BCS #15, MC #23)
2014 Boise State (CFP #20, MC #22)
2015 Houston (CFP #18, MC #14)
2016 Western Michigan CFP #15, MC #12)
Due to a newer BCS/CFP rule, these non-powers made NY6 games at the expense of slightly better-graded powers, but it’s no fun to take spots from little guys. And three of these five won their bowls.
2015 Oklahoma State (CFP #16, MC #15)
2016 Auburn (CFP #14, #MC 15)
2018 Texas (CFP #15, MC #21)
The snubs were fringe top-10 teams (and 2015 OSU beat semi-snub TCU anyway), so let’s not worry about these for now. The CFP era includes more big bowls and takes some decisions out of the hands of bowl committees, so it’ll have fewer of these on this list overall.
Next, a list of teams that got in over more deserving candidates
2019 Virginia got a big bowl instead of Utah
#11 Utah went from the brink of the Playoff to the Alamo Bowl, all thanks to the ACC’s tie with the Orange Bowl. SP+ would favor the Utes to beat UVA by more than 15 points.
IRL Orange Bowl: Florida 36, Virginia (CFP #24, MC #33) 28
Better Orange Bowl: Florida (CFP #9, MC #9) vs. Utah (CFP #11, MC #12)
2007 Illinois got a big bowl instead of Missouri
Three-loss Illinois beat Ohio State, but who didn’t beat a top-two team during this season? Missouri beat Illinois in Week 1, went undefeated against everybody but Oklahoma (the catch: Mizzou played Oklahoma twice), and was one of the season’s most important teams.
IRL Rose Bowl: USC 49, Illinois (BCS #13, MC #15) 17
Better Rose Bowl: Missouri (BCS #6, MC #5) vs. USC (BCS #7, MC #10)
2006 Wake Forest got a big bowl instead of Wisconsin
The two-loss ACC champs ranked well behind a one-loss Wisconsin in computers smart (like those in the Massey Composite) and dumb (like the BCS’). In a BCS bowl, the Badgers’ excellent defense might’ve spared us all from NFL head coach Bobby Petrino.
IRL Orange Bowl: Louisville 24, Wake Forest (BCS #14, MC #20) 13
Better Orange Bowl: Wisconsin (BCS #7, MC #9) vs. Louisville (BCS #6, MC #5)
2001 LSU and Illinois got a big bowl instead of Texas
I doubt this will raise many sympathies outside Austin. Just note the Horns were a few plays away from going to the BCS Championship instead of the Holiday Bowl.
(Rankings-based protocol means dumping LSU instead of Illinois, but LSU beat Illinois IRL. Dump either, since Texas was better than both.)
IRL Sugar Bowl: LSU (BCS #13, MC #13) 47, Illinois (BCS #8, MC #9) 34
Better Sugar Bowl: Texas (BCS #7, MC #5) vs. whichever
2004 Michigan got a big bowl instead of Cal
Cal fans despise Mack Brown for trying to politic Texas ahead of the Golden Bears, but ancient bowl ties were to blame for the actually inferior team in this Rose Bowl. Aaron Rodgers’ Bears had been one touchdown away from the BCS title game, but settled for the (hello again) Holiday Bowl.
IRL Rose Bowl: Texas 38, Michigan (BCS #13, MC #18) 37
Well, maybe not a more epic Rose Bowl, but certainly one more rewarding of great teams: Cal (BCS #5, MC #4) vs. Texas (BCS #4, MC #5)
2011 Clemson and West Virginia got a big bowl instead of Arkansas
The smart computers hated this Clemson team even before it gave up 70. Let’s go with Arkansas instead of Clemson, but I guess WVU can stay. There are already billboards.
IRL Orange Bowl: West Virginia 70, Clemson 33 (BCS #15, MC #21)
Maybe a mismatch in the other direction, but at least one team would’ve deserved the spot: Arkansas (BCS #7, MC #7) vs. West Virginia (BCS #23, MC #21)
The Virginia Tech section, phase one
2000 Purdue got a big bowl instead of Virginia Tech
2005 Florida State instead of Virginia Tech
The Hokies spent this decade alternating between being limited and boosted by iffy conference quality, meaning frequent weird bids.
IRL Rose Bowl: Washington 34, Purdue 24 (unranked in 15-team BCS, MC #18)
Better Rose Bowl: Virginia Tech (BCS #5, MC #4) vs. Washington (BCS #4, MC #7)
IRL 2005 Orange Bowl: Penn State 26, Florida State (BCS #22, MC #27) 23
Fairer 2005 Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech (BCS #10, MC #5) vs. Penn State (BCS #3, MC #3)
Hokies, there is a price for these trades.
2008 Virginia Tech and Cincinnati got a big bowl instead of Texas Tech
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe we came up with a system in which a team that lost to no one but #1 Oklahoma and delivered the season’s greatest moment ...
... got a four-loss Ole Miss in bowl season.
IRL Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech (BCS #19, MC #19) 20, Cincinnati (BCS #12, MC #14) 7
Better Orange Bowl: Texas Tech (BCS #7, MC #5) vs. anyone
Also, Hokies, the debt is not yet fulfilled.
The Virginia Tech section transitions into the Boise State section
2010 Virginia Tech got a big bowl instead of Boise State
2011 Michigan and Virginia Tech instead of Boise State
Two straight snubs for one-loss Broncos. 2010’s is especially egregious because VT lost to Boise in Week 1, lost to FCS James Madison in Week 2, and beat nobody of note.
IRL 2010 Orange Bowl: Stanford 40, Virginia Tech (BCS #13, MC #13) 12
Better 2010 Orange Bowl: Boise State (BCS #10, MC #5) vs. Stanford (BCS #4, MC #4)
IRL 2011 Sugar Bowl: Michigan (BCS #13, MC #11) 23, Virginia Tech (BCS #11, MC #19) 20
Fairer 2011 Sugar Bowl: Boise State (BCS #7, MC #6) vs. whoever
2004 Pitt got a big bowl instead of Boise State
Let’s assume 2004 Cal has already been un-snubbed via our improved methods, leaving Boise State as the next snub to solve.
Boise vs. fellow non-power Utah would’ve felt like a kiddie-table Fiesta Bowl, so for maximum fun, give them both powers to face. Wanna throw a pissed-off and unbeaten Auburn (everyone was super mad this year) against either Boise or Utah? That means our friend Virginia Tech (hello again) gets the other.
IRL Fiesta Bowl: Utah 35, Pitt (BCS #21, MC #34) 7
Better situation: Boise State (BCS #9, MC #8) and Utah (BCS #6, MC #6) vs. the world
K-State got robbed so bad, the BCS made a rule to avoid it happening again, but then K-State kept getting robbed
1998 Syracuse got a big bowl instead of Kansas State
1999 Stanford instead of Kansas State
2002 Florida State instead of Kansas State
The BCS constantly tinkered with its own formula. In its first year, Kansas State had been an overtime frame away from the title game but slid to the Alamo Bowl against unranked Purdue. So the BCS adopted “the Kansas State rule,” which stipulated that all #3 and #4 teams would be guaranteed BCS bids.
Well, the next year, 1999 K-State lost only to Big 12 champ Nebraska, but tumbled to the (hello again) Holiday Bowl. And the 2002 Wildcats, who lost only to Big 12 North champ Colorado and a top-10 Texas, went back to the Holiday, a bowl whose name I’m tired of typing.
IRL 1998 Orange Bowl: Florida 31, Syracuse (BCS #15, MC #14) 10
Better 1998 Orange Bowl: Kansas State (BCS #3, MC #3) vs. Florida (BCS #8, MC #7)
IRL 1999 Rose Bowl: Wisconsin 17, Stanford (unranked in 15-team BCS, MC #22) 9
Better 1999 Rose Bowl: Kansas State (BCS #6, MC #6) vs. Wisconsin (BCS #7, MC #8)
IRL 2002 Sugar Bowl: Georgia 26, Florida State (BCS #14, MC #14) 13
Better 2002 Sugar Bowl: Kansas State (BCS #8, MC #7) vs. Georgia (BCS #3, MC #4)
And finally, the two legends of the genre
2012 Wisconsin got a big bowl instead of Texas A&M or Georgia
I love these Badgers, who barely beat FCS Northern Iowa, lost five games, got to attend the Big Ten Championship because Ohio State and Penn State were postseason-banned, and ERUPTED AGAINST NEBRASKA. The Badgers then lost their BCS bowl and parked with a glistening record of 8-6.
Still, we could’ve gotten a worthier Rose by pitting Stanford against either Johnny Manziel’s Aggies or a Georgia that’d nearly won the season’s actual title game, the one a month before Notre Dame-Alabama.
IRL Rose Bowl: Stanford 20, Wisconsin (BCS unranked, MC #24) 14
Better Rose Bowl: Texas A&M (BCS #9, MC #7) or Georgia (BCS #7, MC #8) vs. Stanford (BCS #6, MC #6)
2010 UConn: unranked in the BCS, #49 in the Massey Composite, and first in your hearts
The Huskies got shut out by Louisville, lost to a 4-8 Rutgers, and lost badly to a 7-6 Michigan and an 8-4 Temple that wasn’t invited to a bowl. Their achievement was barely beating #22 West Virginia.
And thanks to tiebreaker magic in a terrible Big East, they had to eat something like $2.7 million in unsold tickets while getting squished by Oklahoma. Rewarding!!
Changing anything about this game would deprive us of confusing memories such as this one:
So I almost want to keep it, but let’s fix it for the sake of UConn’s finances.
If we’ve already solved 2010 Boise State’s issue earlier in this list, then 2010’s remaining snub is one of these three:
- Michigan State (BCS #9, MC #18), hated by smart computers even before getting annihilated by Bama in the Capital One Bowl
- Alabama (BCS #16, MC #10), clearly one of the season’s best teams, but with three losses
- LSU (BCS #11, MC #11), a happy medium between MSU and Bama
Or! We could’ve kept messing with matchups and created a 2010 rematch of 2006’s legendary Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl.
Yeah, let’s do that.