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?