Zemek: No More Conference Tie-Ins To Bowls

Posted Dec 3, 2012

Matt Zemek Bowl Thought: No More Conference Tie-Ins To Bowls

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Imagine, everyone, a college football world without conference lock-ins or strict limits on the number of teams from one conference that can play in BCS bowl games. At the very least, imagine a world without lock-ins except for the Rose Bowl, which covets its relationship with the Big Ten and Pac-12. No other bowl game has endured to the same extent the Rose Bowl has; this is partly true because of the glorious setting. It's partly true due to the constancy of the time slot – always 5 p.m. Eastern, always on Jan. 1, always following the Capital One Bowl and preceding the nighttime bowl that rotates each year. However, the fact that Big Ten fans relish the chance to escape the Midwest and catch some California rays also plays into the Rose Bowl's popularity. Let's allow the Granddaddy to be shielded from a no-more-lock-ins provision.

In exchange for that one small concession, let's make the other 33 non-championship bowl games free-for-alls. Let's try to realize what it would mean for college football to set up bowl games free of long-term commitments to conferences. Let's try to realize what it would mean for the sport to arrange each bowl game on open terms each year, arriving at payouts and TV figures in a more fluid manner.

At the bottom end of a 35-bowl roster, some of the lousy matchups wouldn't change… and wouldn't need to be changed. Rice and Air Force? Dump them together. Nevada and Arizona? Same thing. USC and Georgia Tech? Stay away from teams that deserve better matchups.

However, for all of the unappealing bowl games that exist in any December-January stretch, you could create an equal if not greater amount of fresh matchups in a world free of lock-ins (the Rose Bowl excepted).

What would a better bowl menu look like, once the chains of lock-ins are removed from every non-championship bowl except one?

Oregon-Kansas State wouldn't need to be altered, but that's the exception, the game the BCS got right. The Orange Bowl could be Florida State-Georgia; the Bulldogs would not be victimized by the limit on teams from one conference in a BCS bowl rotation. The Sugar could be Florida-Oklahoma. The Cotton could become the landing ground for Northern Illinois, giving the Huskies a great game and stage worthy of their achievements. Putting NIU against Texas A&M in Dallas would create an intriguing matchup while not encroaching on BCS territory. NIU could win its way into a higher tier of respectability, laying the groundwork for a move to a BCS bowl in a future season. Giving the NIUs of the world elite tests, but one tier below a BCS game, is the sweet spot that college football so rarely finds.

Continuing with this notion of giving high-reward non-BCS bowl bids to achieving non-AQs, let's have Kent State play Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A. Let's have Arkansas State play Wisconsin in the Russell Athletic Bowl, dragging the Badgers out of the BCS and not rewarding them for losing five games. Let's enable WAC champion Utah State to get a crack at South Carolina in the Capital One. Let's enable Conference USA champion Tulsa to get a look at Michigan in the Liberty Bowl. Let's give 10-2 San Jose State a crack at Big East champion Louisville in an intriguing Holiday Bowl.

Let's actually create a framework within which the SEC and Pac-12 can play in a bowl games. Ripping Wisconsin out of Pasadena, let's have LSU play Stanford and watch the ratings for the Granddaddy go through the roof, compared to what we're going to have when Stanford and Wisconsin bore the country to tears.

Oregon State versus Texas in the Alamo, the matchup we have now, is fine. No need to mess with that one. However, let's match UCLA and Cincinnati in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (formerly the Insight, played in Tempe, Ariz.). Let's pit Nebraska against one of the Mountain West co-champions (take your pick) in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Then, imagine that this would be the bowl process every year. Imagine all conference matchups being in play. Imagine these bowls becoming a laboratory for creating the 35 best pairings – inevitably with several 6-6 teams clogging things up at the bottom of the barrel (we should do away with 6-6 bowl teams, but if they're going to be here, let's just shovel them into the same games against each other), but with at least a dozen truly fresh matchups if not 20.

Imagine the Pac-12 being able to play the SEC. Imagine the Big Ten being able to play the Mountain West. Imagine the WAC playing the Big East and the ACC playing the Big 12. Imagine a bowl environment in which almost all things are possible.

This is the bowl system we should have in college football, if we're going to keep bowls around. This is also the principle that should animate discussions about regular-season non-conference scheduling. Everyone should want to play everyone else, and the sport should affirm this inclination (you could even say "enthusiasm") at every turn.

The bowls can be done so much better than they are right now. Go ahead, television executives and bowl committee members. Play each year by feel. Live in the moment. Embrace the excitement. Dream of the fun involved when all matchups are on the table. It all makes too much sense.