The bowl selection process demands improvement.
It demands improvement for reasons that go far beyond the reality of seeing Georgia State play 5-7 San Jose State in Orlando on CBS Sports Network before Christmas.
Yes, bowl matchups can and should be better, but it’s about so much more than that. I have long believed bowl tie-ins constitute a terrible limitation on the process, but I must also acknowledge that the conferences naturally provide a framework within which deals get done and money is both distributed and shared. For this reason, a list of desired reforms to the bowl selection process should not exclude tie-ins… at least not in all circumstances.
I’ll offer a tie-in-free plan, but also a path with tie-ins as well.
Here are my selections… for the most important bowl reforms. This isn’t one basket of five reforms which all work together, but two baskets with different effects on the way the system is organized and operated:
FIRST BASKET OF REFORMS: TIE-INS INCLUDED
5 – GEOGRAPHICALLY APPROPRIATE TIE-INS WHERE POSSIBLE
If we care about the people (and sporting events) we love, we will criticize them when they do something not in their best interests. Such is the case with me and the Sun Bowl.
I love the Sun Bowl. This game is special, and in many ways remarkable. How did a bowl game in El Paso start in 1936 and endure to the present day, with a lengthy network-television contract on CBS? It’s an amazing story, a story of an original bowl game. This is not part of the extra fluff which has been added to the bowl structure over the past 10 years. This is a bowl game which has paid its dues. The Sun Bowl deserves to thrive.
Yet, it has a tie-in with the Atlantic Coast Conference. This year, it could not have a worse pairing of teams in terms of selling tickets.
Washington State, in the northwest corner of the country, and Miami, in the extreme southeastern corner of the country, will both go to El Paso. The logistics and travel are as inconvenient as possible. What’s also bad is that Washington State’s game will improbably occupy the same time window as the University of Washington’s bowl game on Dec. 26 (in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on a network other than CBS, which is the Sun Bowl’s home).
This is a mess.
It brings up a very simple issue: Lend some basic common sense to bowl tie-ins.
Maybe, just maybe, a bowl in El Paso should have a Big 12 tie-in instead of an ACC tie-in. It’s so simple, yet no one has seen fit to create it.
If teams are going to travel long distances for a bowl game, the destination should be a prized one. Think of Midwestern fans going to California or Arizona on a weekend or New Year’s Day. The Pinstripe Bowl — in New York — happens to be an exciting postseason event. A trip to the Big Apple gives players a lot of fun things to do the week before the game.
In most cases, though, this expanded bowl roster needs shorter commutes, not longer ones. Reforms along these lines are needed.
4 – PAC-12 VERSUS SEC
Having just talked about geographically sensible tie-ins, one concession must be made to conference matchups. It cuts against geography, but it’s necessary.
Since the start of the BCS era in the 1998 season, only one BCS or New Year’s Six bowl has matched the Pac-12 and the SEC, the 2011 BCS National Championship Game between Oregon and Auburn. That’s it.
The segregation of these conferences represents one of the most profound deficits in modern college football — not just in the bowl season, but in the sport itself.
The ideal solution would be to create a big-hitter bowl game matching the Pac-12 No. 2 selection and the SEC’s No. 3. A more realistic solution would be to secure a new arrangement with a Texas-based bowl — or create a new bowl — with an SEC No. 5 and the Pac-12’s No. 4 pick. The relative novelty of this conference matchup would drive interest for a number of years. If it led the two conferences to play each other more often, it could bear long-term fruit in a regular season context, not just a postseason context.
Speaking of fruit, it’s time to move from the first basket to the second basket of reforms…
SECOND BASKET OF REFORMS: TIE-INS NOT INCLUDED
3 – THE TOP PLAYOFF SEED GETS TO PICK ITS SEMIFINAL OPPONENT
I don’t care for tie-ins, so this basket of reforms is what I’d choose to personally emphasize. Let’s start with a solution to the problem of the College Football Playoff semifinals being arranged for television.
Even if you think the committee got it right with Clemson-Oklahoma in the 1-4 semifinal, and Alabama-Michigan State in the 2-3 semifinal, it is so easy to wonder if these seedings are adjusted to satisfy the needs of ESPN. Alabama and Oklahoma were noticeably kept apart, in order to ensure that they can meet in the national title game. Perhaps the seedings were appropriate, but this process will almost always encounter questions about the purity of the seedings.
Therefore, let’s work around this problem: Give the No. 1 seed the choice of semifinal opponent, essentially forcing the No. 2 seed to play the other team in the final four.
Giving extra incentive to the No. 1 seed would often (though not always) make unbeaten seasons more valuable than one-loss seasons. It would also create great television in the form of a hat-choosing ceremony involving the head coach of the top team. Imagine Dabo Swinney picking one of three hats — Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan State — and putting it on his head.
Heck yes, you know you want to see this. Laughter aside, it removes the possibility of the committee engineering the matchups to suit television.
2 – THE THREE-LOSS RULE
It has to be very, very annoying for TCU — which crushed Ole Miss a season ago in the Peach Bowl — to go 10-2 with a cartload of injuries and see the 9-3 Rebels vulture a Sugar Bowl appearance. TCU has gotten the short end of the stick in each of the first two years of the New Year’s Six-College Football Playoff superstructure. Some schools have been jobbed in one of the two seasons; TCU’s been shafted twice.
In order to address this problem, let’s make it clear that three-loss teams do not get conference-based priority. Make the bowl system more democratic by broadly applying a three-loss rule. If other teams with one or two losses have reasonably similar profiles (in other words, many teams in The American or a Power 5 league), they go to the head of the line.
Basic. Common. Sense.
1 – RATINGS- AND ATTENDANCE-BASED BOWL SCHEDULES
The bowls obviously want to be watched, and they want to generate brisk ticket sales.
Want to make the bowls better on television and at the gate? Make them work harder for your dollar and every other dollar out there.
Let’s say for the sake of discussion that this reform could be approved in the coming offseason. The bowls would be scheduled as normal, but in the 2017 offseason, the ratings and attendance figures for each bowl would be dissected. Rankings of the 2016 bowls according to their TV numbers and at the ticket booth would enable the bowls to get their first pick of teams for 2017. If the Russell Athletic bowl got better ratings than any other non-New Year’s Six bowl, it would get to pick any time slot not already occupied by the New Year’s Six.
Order of choice would flow through the rest of the bowls. Certain tiers or categories of bowls could be devised to make sure that two Power 5 teams aren’t playing in the Camellia Bowl. The process would need to be exhaustively examined and refined over a few months… but it would make the bowl selection process so much smoother, fairer, and more open.