Wright Waters knows the strain the bowl system is under. The executive director of the Football Bowl Association tracks the number of bowl-eligible teams week to week.
Going into this last week of the regular season, there aren't enough teams to fill the 78 available bowl slots. Six short to be exact, which is the biggest shortfall going into the final week of the season in at least four years.
Concerned, Waters recently asked an acquaintance, "Can you and 10 other guys form a team?"
He was kidding. There's less humor in the bowl system trying to fill its spots. The glut of games and mediocre nature of some of the matchups is low-hanging fruit for critics.
"We have a little bit of an issue with what the playoffs have done," said Waters, the former Sun Belt commissioner. "It has created a sect of journalists who cover the playoff exclusively. To them, anything that they're not covering is a meaningless game.
"It may be meaningless to you, but if you're those kids from the Sun Belt Conference who have never been to a bowl game who are going to the New Orleans Bowl … it's a trip you'll remember for the rest of your life."
In this rivalry week, there is an alternate universe of big games featuring teams on the brink of bowl-eligibility. In addition to the 72 teams that are already bowl-eligible, there are over a dozen teams one win away from becoming bowl-eligible without a waiver.
At the same point the last three seasons, there were 81 bowl-eligible teams in 2018, 76 in 2017 and 79 in 2016. Those three seasons ended with 82 bowl-eligible teams (four more than needed), 80 (two more), and 81 (three more), respectively.
The last time the ever-growing bowl system didn't fill was 2015. The year after, in 2016, the NCAA placed a moratorium on any new bowls. That moratorium expires in 2020 when, predictably, four new bowls are launching.
As the NCAA lost control over proliferation of the bowls, bowl qualification standards lowered. In 2010, 6-6 teams were allowed. In 2012, teams with a losing record (5-7) made it in if the bowls couldn't fill.
To legitimize going to sub-.500 teams, the NCAA prioritized teams' eligibility by Academic Progress Rate (APR) score. The 5-7 teams with the highest such score got first crack.
The possibility has become so common there are APR standings should the bowls have to go to 5-7 teams. As of now, these five-win teams would be first in line according to APR number provided by the NCAA:
- Boston College
- Kent State
- Mississippi State
With the number of bowls coming dangerously close to outstripping the number of bowl teams to fill them, there was no other way to stock the ever-rising number of bowl games. Do folks care about the quality of teams they're watching?
"Good question," Waters said. "I don't know how to answer that question. I know that if it's your team [in a bowl], you don't care."
Filling those vacancies this season essentially boils down to 13 teams five- or six-win teams that can become bowl eligible this week. Six of them are favorites in their final games (TCU, Liberty, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio and Mississippi State). Liberty is 6-5 but needs to get to seven wins because it has played two FCS opponents. Same goes for Army, which is 5-6.
Pac-12 teams aren't included among 5-6 teams because the conference mandates its schools reach six wins to be in a bowl. Missouri (5-6) isn't listed because of its postseason bowl ban.
If all six favored teams win (Ohio, Mississippi State, TCU, Liberty, Michigan State, North Carolina), problem solved with exactly 78 bowl-eligible. If any more than six win, that means one or more bowl-eligible teams are staying home. In the last three seasons, the number of bowl spots has been surpassed by three (2016), two (2017) and four teams (2018).
We've come a long way since high-minded Notre Dame went 45 years between its first and second bowl games (1925-1970).
For a while, seasons are defined by postseason play -- any kind of postseason play. Coaches have thousands of dollars of bonuses written into their deals just for going to the likes of the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.
Waters referred to "The Flutie Effect," the documented impact of postseason play on a university. It is defined as the impact on enrollment at Boston College after quarterback Doug Flutie threw a last-second pass to beat Miami in 1984. In the two years after the pass, applications increased 30 percent at BC.
One of the bowl-eligibility issues is the College Football Playoff itself. Those four slots don't count against the bowl total a conference has contracted. Take the SEC, for example. It has agreements with 10 bowls. If the SEC has two in the playoff, it still has to fill 10 bowls.
Hence, there is that possible shortfall for the first time in four years. In 2015, Nebraska, San Jose State and Minnesota went bowling all at 5-7. All three won, avoiding the possible embarrassment of calling themselves 5-8 bowl teams.
Ryan Oppelt has been with the bowl that hosted Nebraska that year since 2002. In 2015, it was called the Foster Farms Bowl. Now it is the Redbox Bowl played at the 49ers Levi's Stadium.
"Nebraska has a tremendous reputation," Oppelt said. "The fans traveled out very well. The Bay Area, with a team like Nebraska, doesn't get to see them [often]. I don't know if their record impacts the game. At a certain point, it's more about the brand."
That 2015 Nebraska team at least showed promise losing six games by eight points or less. The Redbox remains contracted to Big Ten and Pac-12 teams.
After allowing 6-6 teams at the beginning of the decade, the NCAA "solved" the further shortfall problem for the time being in 2012 when it started allowing 5-7 teams to go bowling. That was the only solution. Legally, the NCAA couldn't cap the number of bowls.
Basically, in recent years, any new bowl that met application requirements was in. Since 2014, six bowls have been added.
The total grows to 42 bowls (84 slots) in 2020 with the addition of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Fenway Park (Boston) and Los Angeles (at the new SoFi Stadium).
"But what did we do [to solve the problem]?" Waters asked rhetorically. "We added three more games."
The max number of bowl-eligible teams in any given year isn't readily available, Waters said. The average number of bowl-eligible for the last for the last four seasons has been 80.
Go ahead and do the math. That portends a bunch of 5-7 teams could be needed in any given year going forward.
"They say, 'We have too many bowls,'" Waters said. "OK, which one do you eliminate? Every bowl is serving some purpose. It may not be the guy sitting in Lower Oshkosh, the game he wants to watch. But it may be somebody in Montgomery, Alabama, because their favorite team is playing in it."
While bowl attendance is down in recent years, that doesn't make much difference to the rightsholders. (ESPN televises the vast majority of bowls and outright owns many of them, too.) Ratings are consistent, certainly better than what would otherwise be available in December.
Think of esports getting a higher rating than the Boca Raton Bowl.
It simply isn't going to happen. The likes of Oppelt, that bowl executive, remains vigilant.
"We track it pretty closely," he said. "It's the nature of the business. We'll see what happens this weekend."