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Get ready for a very weird 2020 bowl system

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Not enough teams! Canceled conference tie-ins! Money weirdness!

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Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

As the 2020 FBS season kicks off this evening, only two changes have been formally put into place for bowl games. The first came on July 15, when the NCAA announced that teams could count two wins over FCS opponents towards bowl eligibility instead of the usual one. At the time, two entire FCS conferences had canceled or postponed fall sports, and eight others have joined them since the announcement, leaving the Ohio Valley, Southland, and Southern Conferences as the only FCS leagues playing football this fall.

The second change? The cancellation of the Redbox Bowl on July 31, leaving our nation without a reliable source for horribly inaccurate bowl shirts.

Those won’t be the only alterations, mind you. 41 bowls are still theoretically happening, and they can’t all host teams since only 76 FBS schools are playing. (Air Force will host Navy and play Army on the road and that’s it, so maybe they’ll end up being the 77h for bowl purposes.) And even if three games are scrapped, leaving 76 berths for 76 teams, bowl season would still have a bunch of weird problems to solve. Let’s review them!

Bowl Eligibility Math

In the July 15th announcement, Nick Carparelli, the executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said that the basic requirement for bowl eligibility – finishing .500 or better – won’t be changing. Barring an extremely unlikely and hilarious season where everyone finishes 5-4 or 5-5 or 6-5 (picture the ACC Coastal but everywhere), the bowls won’t have enough eligible teams according to the current rules.

So just change the rules, right? Carparelli’s indicated that’s a likelihood, and the answer might be to eliminate the concept of bowl eligibility altogether for 2020, making this year “more of a celebration of the sport and a reward for everybody just getting through these difficult times.” That would solve the problem of not having enough teams for bowl season. It would also create new squabbles.

The Win-Loss Record Problem

Here’s the not-very-quiet secret of non-conference games: They’re very helpful for getting Power 5 teams with less than stellar conference records into bowls. In 2019, ten P5 schools that went below .500 in conference play got to postseason eligibility thanks to fairly easy non-conference schedules. Washington State, for example, went 3-6 against its Pac-12 opponents but still made a bowl by beating Houston, New Mexico State, and Northern Colorado.

The G5 teams that made a bowl largely did so by winning in conference play. Only three Group of Five schools (Eastern Michigan, FIU, and Toledo, which didn’t get invited to a bowl despite being eligible) got to six wins without going .500 or better in conference, and two of them had to upset a P5 team to get there.

With non-conference games drastically reduced in 2020, G5 programs will miss out on the revenue opportunities they’d get when P5 schools pay them to travel. But this season, programs that might have won five or six games overall are more likely to win seven or eight because those David vs. Goliath matchups aren’t on the calendar.

On the flip side, P5 schools that would have used non-conference wins to paper over iffy conference records get … more games in conference. Missouri, for example, was supposed to supplement its SEC schedule with Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan, BYU, and Louisiana. That wasn’t a cakewalk, but those games were certainly more winnable than the two new SEC matchups the Tigers have been assigned: Alabama and LSU.

How will the bowls determine who deserves the prime berths? Do they pick a three-win ACC school or a six-win Sun Belt team? A nine-win Conference USA team or a seven-win Big 12 team? Remember, like the Playoff Committee, the bowls will be working with very limited comparative data.

This wouldn’t normally be a major problem, since conference tie-ins limit how much choice the bowls have in selections. Bad news: that system’s broken, too.

Selection Chaos

18 of the 41 bowls have at least one guaranteed bid assigned to a conference that’s not playing this fall. Take, for example, the Alamo Bowl, which normally pits the number two team in the Big 12 against the number two team in the Pac-12. The former can be selected this season, while the latter cannot, so what happens to that spot? Does it become an at-large, with the Alamo having to wait until the other bowls are full before choosing from the teams that are left? Or would the Alamo jump ahead of someone else, getting to pick an SEC team that might otherwise go to the Outback Bowl, for instance? That’ll probably require a wholesale retooling of the selection process, which some legacy bowls really won’t enjoy.

Where the Playoff Committee’s stated job is to pick the four best teams – whether you think they’re good at it is another question – bowls aspire to a hazy combination of creating entertaining matchups, rewarding deserving teams, and making money. ESPN owns and operates over a dozen bowls, which makes this a programming decision for them. Other bowls are tourism-focused, and they might not even have fans at their games this season. Without the usual selection process to largely figure out the bowl assignments for them, there’s a decent chance this becomes fairly unpleasant.

And that’s before the money comes along!

Cranky Sponsors

Imagine for a moment that you’re Phil Cheribundi, founder of a cherry juice company bearing your surname and a person I just invented. In 2017, you decided to become the name sponsor for the Boca Raton Bowl, because you believed fans of FAU, SMU, Western Kentucky, Akron, and other schools like them represent a major growth opportunity for your brand. You know you’re not sponsoring the Rose Bowl, but every year, you get two excellent teams from the MAC, the AAC, and/or Conference USA.

Now imagine that ESPN comes to you and says “Phil, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl is full steam ahead for 2020. The bad news is we’re giving you two teams that, combined, went 9-13.” How can they do this to you! You’re Phil Freakin’ Cheribundi, the King of Tart Cherry Juice!

What do you do now? ESPN’s made it very clear that you won’t be getting the quality of G5 schools to which you are accustomed. Do you demand a favor down the line? Do you cancel the deal, or threaten to if they don’t renegotiate? Do you cut off Cheribundi shipments to Connecticut?

Now imagine a bowl lower on the postseason hierarchy. Arkansas already had a brutal schedule lined up, and now there’s a very real chance they’ll finish 0-10.

Which bowl sponsor is going to be thrilled with this assignment?

Oh, you’ve also got to sell this game to advertisers! Have fun with that. And there’s still one more problem the bowls have to think about.

Awkward Locations

Seven bowl games, if they continue as planned, will be held in venues that currently serve as the home field for an FBS school that’s not playing this fall. Boise State’s stadium will host the Potato Bowl. Hawaii’s will host the Hawaii Bowl. UCLA will watch someone else play in the Rose Bowl. (Okay, that one’s not all that weird.) Four other bowls within an hour’s drive of Pac-12 or Big Ten schools.

This will suck for the fans of those teams! Even those most supportive of cancelled seasons will be annoyed to see the only college football at these stadiums played between two teams from hundreds of miles away – and they might not even be good teams! If tickets aren’t sold, then there’s no local economic benefit. If tickets are sold, then the stadium’s full of out-of-towners who serve as physical reminders of the experience they didn’t get to enjoy. Don’t be shocked when somebody snaps and blowtorches all the grass the day before kickoff.