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Nope, adding bowl games hasn’t meant less competitive bowl games

If you want to watch evenly matched football, then here’s some good news: now we have a lot more of it.

Cheez-It Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Bowls slowly proliferated throughout the 1900s, and they took off around the turn of the century. By 2016, there were 41.

Since there was just one bowl game, this sport’s stakeholders have been arguing over whether there are too many bowl games. The common knocks on bowls in the old days were that they were inconvenient and expensive, and that they over-commercialized a sport meant to be played by amateurs. (They were sort of on to something there, to be fair.)

In recent times, the upswing has prompted different criticisms, including the idea that bowls are losing competition quality.

Bids used to be reserved for teams that won power conferences or finished near the top of the national rankings. These days, Conference USA and the MAC send their non-champions to face off in pointless blowouts, or so this line of thinking goes.

Why does college football need boring bowl games people don’t care about?

The specific idea that people don’t care about bowls is easy to disprove. For one example, more people watched the upper-middle-tier Citrus Bowl in 2018 than watched any baseball game outside the World Series or any but a handful of marquee NBA games.

The players and schools care, too. Examine what a measly Arizona Bowl bid meant to 2017 New Mexico State, and try to tell the Aggies it didn’t matter.

But are bowls really worse than they used to be? That requires examining a few things.

First, bowl games don’t seem to be less competitive than they used to be. In context, they might’ve actually improved in that regard.

In 1968, the Peach Bowl came into existence, giving us five of the six games that now make up the New Year’s Six. It was the 11th bowl in total.

The scoring margins that bowl season weren’t close. The average bowl was decided by 14 points. Four were routs with margins of more than 20.

That has pretty much always been typical. As more bowls joined the schedule, the average bowl has gotten more lopsided, but by such a small amount it’d be hard to notice the difference and at less of a rate than overall scoring.

Consider these things together:

1. Since 1968, the average bowl scoring margin has gone up just slightly, a little more than one point per game:

2. At the same time, the average scoring in college football games, as a whole, has gone way up. In 1968, the average game had 42.7 points. In 2018, it had 57.5. A 15-point margin in a 60-point game is more competitive and entertaining than a 14-point margin in a 42-point game.

College football sees around 15 more points per game, but bowl margins are still within a point or two of where they were in 1968. Why?

One educated guess: bowl expansion has made the big bowls — the ones that existed long before 1968 — a lot better.

Despite the expanded system, the most prestigious bowls have gotten a boost in quality. The best teams have been matched up more consistently.

1968 is an arbitrary cutoff, but it’s when the bowl calendar first exceeded 10 games. If a strike against the current schedule is that it’s made bowls worse, then what’s become of the sacred bowls that existed back when the postseason was for an exclusive few?

Before 1968, when the schedule was small, the average scoring margin in bowls was 12 points. Since then, the average scoring margin in New Year’s Six-caliber bowls alone is 13.6. The average college game in 1901 (the year of the first bowl) had 23 total points. Overall scoring has nearly tripled, but even in the most important bowls, the margins are barely wider.

This is because the big bowls are better now. Conferences rules and selection committees make sure that the biggest games get the best teams (most of the time). It’s a far cry from the beginning, when organizers tried to bring in whoever they thought would sell tickets.

In old times, there were years when there was just one bowl (the Rose) and the final score was 49-0 or 0-0. There were numerous 7-0s, 7-6s, 7-7s, and 8-7s. The Sugar Bowl, started in 1934, also has so many boring old scores.

The addition of more bowls hasn’t lessened the bowls that already existed or appreciably dragged down the overall quality of the schedule.

Every year has blowouts, and every year has competitive games. 1970 had both Toledo destroying William & Mary in the Tangerine Bowl and Nebraska edging LSU in the Orange, the same way 2018 had several nail-biters and also Army stuffing Houston into a locker.

Before bowls were ubiquitous, playing in one was considered a huge honor, and the games were often good. For many teams, any bowl bid is still an honor. No matter how many bowls there are, in any year, about half of them will be really good.

The only difference is we get more viewing options.