Last week, the University of Houston played in the Fort Worth Bowl. This weekend, Texas Christian University will play in the Houston Bowl. The attendance for the Fort Worth Bowl – matching up the University of Kansas with Houston – was OK (about 30,000) but hardly the numbers you might expect for a bowl game. Similar attendance is expected at the Houston Bowl, which pits TCU against Iowa State University on New Year’s Eve.
The absurdity of having TCU and U of H switch cities for relatively meaningless bowl games is just one example of how the college bowl system makes little sense these days. Despite going 10-1 (how could you guys have lost to SMU?) TCU is playing in a game in which the payout is about $1.2 million. That might sound like a lot, until you compare it to the minimum $14 million payouts waiting for the eight schools who get picked for the four spots in the Bowl Championship Series. In both cases, the teams have to share the money with other schools in their conferences, but hey, $14 million shares a lot better.
There are many who love the BCS system, especially this year, when it has resulted in the undefeated University of Texas and University of Southern California playing in the Rose Bowl for a real national championship. But the way the system works is that one bowl game counts and 26 don’t, and TCU and the Big West Conference in general are caught in a trap that is becoming nearly impossible to break out of.
In order to even be considered for a BCS bid, TCU would have had to go undefeated and find some luck along the way. The BCS bowls automatically take the champs of the six big conferences, and add two at-large bids, usually from the same big conferences. Would the great minds of BCS rather have a 10-1 TCU playing in one of the big games or a school like Notre Dame or Ohio State, both with two losses this year, but also with major national followings?
There are two ways to fix this system to make the bowl games more advantageous for teams like TCU that are rich in talent and wins but poor in political pull: Either go to a playoff system that puts the winners of all the Division 1-A football conferences into major bowl games, or open up these non-BCS bowls to allow their organizers to invite whichever teams they want.
If the NCAA had a playoff system, it could choose the winners of the 11 football conferences and add five at-large bids to provide fans with 15 bowl games matching up the best teams in college football each year. If they wanted to extend it to 32 teams, then 31 games would be needed – about the number of bowl games being played now. A system like that would mean that the Fort Worth Bowl and Houston Bowl would host playoff games that mattered, games that would draw bigger crowds and better tv ratings. And a team that won 10 games and its conference championship, like TCU, would at least get a shot at a national championship.
But the big schools in the six major BCS conferences want to keep the big money to themselves, so the playoff system is unlikely. As it works now, teams qualify for the minor bowls if they win just six games, and each of these minor bowls has contracts lined up with certain conferences. The current deal for the Fort Worth Bowl, for example, means inviting the eighth-place team in the Big-12 Conference to play the sixth-best of Conference USA – two teams with 6-5 records. Big whoop.
The old system might not have produced a match-up like this year’s UT-USC contest, but it did produce far more bowl games with meaning and tradition. The Cotton Bowl always pitted the winner of the former Southwest Conference against a highly ranked team from another conference. In the Rose Bowl, the winner of the Pac Ten always met the winner of the Big Ten. Rivalries mattered, and more games had some importance, at least in fans’ minds.
With so many post-season games being played – and the BCS skimming the cream off the top – organizers of these minor bowls need to be able to get more creative in picking teams. If the Fort Worth Bowl can create more excitement by having TCU in it, then line it up that way every year, if the Horned Frogs don’t get into the BCS mix. Why not have two Texas teams, maybe TCU facing off against Texas A&M or Texas Tech? Or maybe a rematch against SMU?
TCU has built a great program, and coach Gary Patterson has turned it into a perennial top-20 ranked team. In a year when his players have earned a 10-1 record, they deserve better than the piddly payout – in money, prestige, and national prominence -they’ll get in Houston.
And hosting two 6-5 teams in Fort Worth is just kind of dumb. TCU won its conference and should get a shot at a championship in a fair playoff system. But that ain’t going to happen, so the NCAA might as well take the shackles off the other bowl game hosts. Most fans in Cowtown would rather watch TCU face off against almost anyone here at home than a couple of out-of-state/out-of-mind schools that are mediocre at best.