College football fans have a love/hate relationship with democracy; no where is this more obvious than when talk turns to the sport’s postseason. Most fans like that starting next year the national champion will be crowned through a playoff system instead of through final BCS rankings. Some think the tourney should include eight teams instead of four, but on the whole they agree that a playoff system is more egalitarian and just than the current format which has left a few undefeated teams out of the title game.
So, yes, widening the path to the national title game = good. But widening the path to any postseason bowl? Not so cool. In 2006, the NCAA opened the floodgates on the number of programs eligible for the postseason by allowing programs with .500 records in. A winning record was no longer required to go bowling. This change was necessary. Otherwise, the openings reserved for the surging number of bowl games – now 35 – could not have been filled.
The result, of course, has been the lampooning of a profusion of horrendously mediocre football neither you, me nor Aunt Wilma have the time to care about. Competitions like the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, played ten days ago between Colorado State and Washington State, are supposed to count for something. But, in reality, they are not so much sporting events to pay serious attention to as soothing background television during the sometimes heated holiday season. When the turkey’s burning, or the dog just bit off baby doll’s head, a Gildan New Mexico Bowl functions as the visual equivalent of Muzak.
The current bowl system gets flak for giving afterlives to scores of 6-6 teams. But the field wasn’t necessarily more selective in previous decades. Indeed, on December 31, 1963, a team with a record-low four wins played in the Sun Bowl. That would be SMU, which was invited to play Oregon in the El Paso, Texas bowl despite a 4-6 record. “I’ll admit we did feel funny about it at first,” former SMU head coach Hayden Fry told the Dallas Morning News. “But we got to thinking, there’s no rules and regulations about records of bowl teams.” It also helped that SMU had earlier in the 1963 season knocked off fourth-ranked Navy and had an athletic director, Matty Bell, who was close friends with Mike Brumbelow, an influential El Paso businessman and leading figure in Sun Bowl operations.
This SMU team was the second of at least five major college football teams which have been invited to a bowl game despite having a losing regular season record. Not that the Mustangs were ashamed. “From the players’ standpoint, this is about the best bowl trip in the country,” Fry said in Dallas on December, 1963. “They have horse racing, bullfights, a nice luncheon, and a New Year’s Eve party in Jaurez, and we fly them back here New Year’s Day early enough that they can see the other bowl games if they want to. The players get watches, and SMU gets money in the bank. What could be better than that?”
Hold it right there, Hayden. I’ll tell you what could be better than that. How about a list of the worst major college football teams to be invited to a bowl game?
Record after regular season:
National Rank*: 46
Result: Lost 21-14
As far as four-win teams go, SMU was pretty good. The 1963 season followed a two-win season in which SMU’s first-year head coach, Hayden Fry, had won conference coach of the year honors simply by improving the team atmosphere so much from the previous year. The good times really got rolling in October, 1963 when SMU upset a Roger Staubach-led Navy team that would play for the national championship. Although SMU lost five conference games, four were by seven or fewer points – including a 12-17 loss to #1-ranked Texas, the eventual national champion. “There’s a moral to this story,” Fry told the Dallas Morning News. “If you hustle, you’ll get repaid. We’re repaying our kids for hustling. They lost some heartbreakers.”
* This is an historical rating computed by poll expert Richard Billingsley. The higher the rating, the better. The lower, the worse.
4) UCLA (2011)
Record after regular season: 6-7
National Rank: 61
Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Result: Lost 14-20
Rick Neuheisal’s final season as Bruins head coach was not pretty. Blowout losses plagued UCLA all fall, climaxing in a bench-clearing brawl during a 12-48 loss to Arizona. There were only a couple bright spots: a 29-28 win over #20 Arizona State and the fact that a sanctioned USC (two games ahead in the standings) was ineligible for the postseason. This allowed UCLA to play in the Pac-12 championship game and get into a bowl by receiving a waiver for a losing record. These Bruins became the only team in NCAA history to play in a bowl and lose at least eight games.
3) North Texas (2001)
Record after regular season: 5-6
National Rank: 102
Bowl: New Orleans
Opponent: Colorado State
North Texas hadn’t played in a bowl game since 1959 and after five losses to start 2001 season it sure didn’t seem like they would be returning any time soon. But then the Mean Green reeled off five wins in a row, including a tie-breaker against eventual Sun Belt co-champ Middle Tennessee State. On the strength of a 5-1 conference record, the Mean Green became the first team to take advantage of an NCAA waiver allowing conference champions to play in bowl games without the mandated six victories.
2) South Carolina (1945)
Record after regular season: 2-3-3
National Rank: 45
Opponent: Wake Forest
Result: Lost 14-26
As a general rule of thumb, it’s never a good sign to start a season by losing 60-0 to Duke. Nor should there be much hope when the last win of a season comes in the first week of October. But these Gamecocks could tie like nobody’s business, and they managed to only lose two out of their regular season’s last five games. It’s a pretty sure bet this is – and will remain – the only team to go bowling after not winning a conference game.
1) The University of Mexico (1945)
National Rank: 1 (in Mexico)
Opponent: Southwestern University (Texas)
Result: Lost 35-0
Don’t blame the Sun Bowl executives for trying. Before they contacted the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in December 1945 , nobody had ever extended an American bowl invitation to a foreign team. And nobody has ever tried since, not after what went down here.
On paper, the Mexican university students looked competitive. They were coached by Americans with high major experience and had won four of five regular season contests, outscoring their opponents 182 to 24 with a brand of football sportswriters referred to as “the razzle-dazzle.” You know, the kind of “thrill a minute” ball featuring “tricky passes and speedy backs.” The major problem, though, was two-fold. First, the University of Mexico (UNAM) only played other Mexican teams and hadn’t played a team anywhere nearly as a good as a quality American program like Southwestern. And its 30 players averaged 165 pounds, which meant each player gave up 18 pounds on average to their Southwestern counterparts. “I wouldn’t say it is impossible for Mexico to win,” UNAM head coach Bernard Hoban crowed a few days before kickoff.
The results were downright Quasimodo-ian. For the thoroughly outmatched Mexicans, it was much worse than a simple shutout. According to the Sun Bowl Website, Southwestern set a few NCAA bowl records that still stand today, including fewest total yards allowed (-21) and fewest passing yards allowed (-50).
N.B. The 2012 Georgia Tech squad was the fifth team to get into a bowl game with a losing record. It won its bowl, though, and wasn’t as bad as any of the above mentioned teams.