Broken system: 5-7 bowl team at Levi’s

Why is a 5-7 bowl team playing at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday night? You can crack that Nebraska at least is better than the 4-10 49ers, but it’s more symptomatic of a college football postseason that increasingly makes no sense.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany had four words to sum up the state of the bowl system: “Too much ice cream.”

Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson needed only one word: “Broken.”

Thompson was steamed that two of his teams — Nevada (6-6) and Colorado State (7-5) — have to face each other in the Arizona Bowl after the Foster Farms Bowl snubbed the conference in favor of Nebraska and its losing record for a Santa Clara matchup with UCLA.

That opinion is overstated, but it does reflect the industry vibe regarding a bowl system that now sends sub-.500 teams to games in cold-weather cities played before seas of empty seats.

For that, you can blame — or thank — ESPN. Keep in mind that if the demand (i.e. TV ratings) did not exist, the network wouldn’t own and operate 12 of the FBS bowls, such as the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. The Arizona-New Mexico skirmish kicked off the 40-game extravaganza — 41 if you count the Jan. 11 national championship game — last Saturday.

Weren’t bowls once about tourism, sunshine and rewarding players and coaches for a great season? That notion is about as quaint as a frosted malt.
Nebraska joins San Jose State and Minnesota as the 5-7 teams still playing. They got offered spots because their Academic Progress Rates were higher than those of other 5-7 programs.

“They had a criterion,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said, “and we’re certainly not going to apologize for being selected.”
No, but it’s also not worth bragging about.

Football is sooooo darn popular: Even some of the lamest bowls garner ratings that equate to roughly 2 million homes — equal to upper-tier regular-season college basketball games.

Are they snub-worthy? Last season Temple was among a handful of 6-6 teams left home for the holidays. Apparently that bothered some people. So two games were added — thanks, again, to ESPN — but there weren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill them. And, thus, the problem.

“To have a 6-6 team left at home,” said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association, “that is a scarlet letter for a conference.”

When people complain about 5-7 teams making the postseason, Wright counters that the number of 6-6 (or better) teams changes every season, and that total is not determined until the final week.

“As long as NCAA membership is committed to 6-6, there will be years like this,” he said.

Indeed, football subsidizes the non-revenue sports. And the Big Ten partnership is such that all bowl revenues and expenses are split.

“We cross-support,” Delany said. “If you’re at the Rose Bowl, you don’t get the Rose Bowl receipts. You get one-fourteenth. If you are going to a bowl that’s not break-even, you are supported by one-fourteenth of the cost.”

In other words, there’s no reason for Minnesota to turn down a bowl bid, even if it’s in Detroit against Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. The Gophers will not take a bath on the expenditure.

“It’s time for us to take a stance — and as soon as next season,” Phillips said. “Bowl games are supposed to be a reward for a successful season.”
But what constitutes a successful season?

The ACC says 7-5. The SEC says 6-6. Phillips and Delany, dominant voices in the Big Ten, are in between.

Indiana went 6-6 but took conference heavyweights Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan to the wire. And the Hoosiers won their final two games.

Delany said he’s happy for Indiana and views the Hoosiers’ trip to Yankee Stadium for the Pinstripe Bowl as a just reward. But he doesn’t believe 6-6 teams routinely should go to bowls.

“Maybe twice in a decade there’s a card that allows them to go when they’re building a program,” he said. “If you go every year, it wears out interest.”

Delany’s example: Rutgers going to Detroit last year at 6-6, marking its fourth consecutive appearance in a blah game. It drew 23,876 to Ford Field.
“There was not a lot of demand,” Delany said, putting it kindly.

Just say no: If 5-7 bowl teams truly offend people, they can retaliate by not watching. Then again, if you’re a college football fan at home this Saturday night, why would you not tune in to UCLA-Nebraska in Santa Clara?

We all love ice cream.

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