When conference partisans say their league has X amount of bowl games — as though that’s something to trumpet from the highest scenic overlook, rolling into the valley — I always like to do something in response at this time of year.
The bowl lineup is set. All the bowl teams — 80 of them, a new record — are known.
Now more than ever, it’s worth identifying the bowl teams which gained a postseason berth through the back door in one way or another.
Teams that won nine or more games — even with two FCS opponents or four non-conference cupcakes — still had to get a lot of work done in conference play to reach that level of performance. What about the teams which struggled in their conferences but won four non-conference cupcakes? What about all the teams which made bowl games without winning records? Which teams fit into both categories?
Let’s look under the hood of some of these bowl teams, shall we?
Cincinnati went 7-5 with a 4-4 conference record. The Bearcats played relatively close games against Temple and especially the Memphis-Houston combo, but came up short in all three instances. Cincinnati’s best win was against Miami (Florida). In conference, the Bearcats didn’t beat a single winning team. They defeated 6-6 Tulsa and 6-6 Connecticut.
Speaking of those teams…
Connecticut went 4-4 in the AAC, Tulsa 3-5. Connecticut did pull off the huge upset of Houston, so that in many ways makes the Huskies’ 6-6 better than Cincinnati’s 7-5. Tulsa’s 6-6 contains five wins over teams that didn’t win more than three games, and a win over 7-5 New Mexico. That’s thin soup, but at least the Golden Hurricane beat New Mexico to shore up their strength of schedule. (How’s that for a sentence one doesn’t expect to write?)
Louisville went 7-5, 5-3 in the conference, so the Cardinals won’t be included on the list of bowl teams with .500 or worse league records. That said, they did not beat a single team which finished above them in the ACC (0-3 against Clemson, Florida State, and Pittsburgh; the Cards did not play North Carolina). Louisville lost to Houston (a better team) and beat Kentucky (an inferior one). See a trend?
North Carolina State is the classic example of a bowl team from a power conference which forged a winning record… and yet did absolutely NOTHING. The Wolfpack went 3-5 in the conference, defeating three weak teams below them (Boston College, Syracuse, and Wake Forest) and collecting four non-conference wins against cream puffs. North Carolina State did not defeat a single FBS team with a winning record. The Pack didn’t even defeat an FBS team with a .500 record.
This is why “LOOK! WE HAVE ALL THESE BOWL TEAMS!” doesn’t mean everything you think it means.
Duke went 7-5, but the Blue Devils essentially defeated Miami, so we’re treating them as an 8-4 team.
Virginia Tech, at 6-6, didn’t defeat a single team with a better ACC record. The Hokies did beat 7-5 N.C. State.
Texas Tech finished 7-5 overall with a 4-5 conference record, losing to all the teams above the Red Raiders in the league and beating four teams below them. West Virginia, like Tech, finished 7-5 and 4-5, following a similar pattern. The only differences: WVU lost to Kansas State (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) and defeated Tech head-to-head. The best non-conference win out of all these teams: Texas Tech won at Arkansas.
Penn State went 7-5, 4-4 in the league. The Nittany Lions didn’t beat any team which finished above them in the Big Ten. Their one non-conference victory against a winning team was a decent scalp, against Mountain West champion San Diego State.
Indiana pulled off a season similar to North Carolina State, but actually better if adjusted for quality wins. The Hoosiers won five games against nobodies: an FCS team, Florida International, Wake Forest, Maryland, and Purdue, but unlike N.C. State, they beat a good team, Western Kentucky. Still, a 6-6 bowl team with a 2-6 league record is another representative example of the bloated bowl system getting a marginal team into the party.
(That said, it would still be pretty cool if the Hoosiers snapped a 24-year bowl win drought in a few weeks.)
Nebraska and Minnesota are 5-7 bowl teams. Nebraska at least picked off Michigan State. Still: 5-7 bowl teams. It gives one pause.
Middle Tennessee managed to go 7-5. The Blue Raiders did beat 9-3 Marshall, the one win in which MTSU beat an opponent with an equal or better resume.
Western Michigan finished 7-5 but took down Toledo, knocking the Rockets out of the MAC West winner’s circle and the MAC Championship Game.
Akron, at 7-5 and 5-3 in its conference, did not collect a single win over a winning FBS team.
Central Michigan, at 7-5 and 5-3 in the league, defeated Northern Illinois, a significant notch on the Chippewas’ resume.
New Mexico beat Boise State in Boise, on the blue turf, at night. That and a 7-5 record makes this a season truly worthy of a bowl in Albuquerque for Bob Davie.
Utah State went 6-6 but crushed Boise State, legitimizing its season and its bowl bid.
Colorado State went 7-5, beating New Mexico and Mountain West Mountain Division champion Air Force. That’s respectable.
Nevada went 6-6. Its best win came against New Mexico.
San Jose State got in as a 5-7 bowl team. Improbably, the Spartans did not finish below .500 in their league (4-4).
California produced a 7-5 record with wins over Texas (road), Washington State, Arizona State, and Washington. One could do a lot worse. Yet, Cal did finish 4-5 in the conference.
Arizona State finished 6-6, beating UCLA on the road and beating New Mexico as well. It’s not great, but it’s better than Arizona, which went 6-6 with a 3-6 Pac-12 record. The Wildcats defeated Utah, and that’s it in terms of noteworthy victories.
Washington‘s 6-6 was earned by a young team learning the ropes under Chris Petersen. The Huskies won at USC and beat both Washington State and Arizona. They also grabbed a win over Utah State out of conference.
Arkansas made a bowl last year with a 2-6 league record and a cupcake-rich non-conference diet, plus a win at Texas Tech. This year, the Hogs lost to Texas Tech, but they did win at LSU and Ole Miss to finish 7-5.
Auburn did what Arkansas did last year. The Tigers finished 6-6, going 2-6 in the SEC. They did beat Louisville out of conference. Their best SEC win: Texas A&M.
Georgia State, once 2-6, rallied to win its last four games, the final one being the Panthers’ only victory over an opponent with a winning record, 8-4 Georgia Southern.
Some final tallies:
Number of 5-7 bowl teams: 3
Number of 6-6 bowl teams: 12
Number of 7-5 bowl teams: 15
Number of bowl teams which went .500 in their conference: 7
Number of bowl teams which finished below. 500 in their conference: 13.
Those teams: Nebraska and Minnesota (two of the three “5-7” teams), followed by California, Washington, Arizona State, Arizona, Indiana, Auburn, Tulsa, North Carolina State, Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Kansas State.