College football conference bowl records don’t mean squat

By MIKE HERNDON

It’s the first week of January, when we all come up with resolutions to better ourselves, knowing all the while we will break them by the end of the month, if not sooner. Here’s a resolution, however, that should be relatively easy to keep and will make us all smarter and more at peace with the (college football) world.

Repeat after me: “College football conference bowl records mean nothing and I will no longer pay any attention to them.”

Year in and year out, dozens of sports content producers tally up each conference’s record after bowl season and post them on social media, angling for shares from fans who will use them as “proof” for irrelevant arguments about conference strength. The Big 12 is back, they say, as they share its 5-0 bowl record this year. The ACC is overrated, they crow, and point to its 0-6 mark.

Some conferences are stronger than others, and while we in the South generally hold the SEC’s dominance as verified fact, that strength varies year to year. But bowl records are not the way to measure it.

Laugh if you want, but one reason is motivation.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “The SEC is still undefeated in games they care about.” It was a little funny the first 1,000 times I heard it, and like most jokes there’s a little truth to it. Motivation, or the lack of it, is too often used as an excuse when favored teams lose bowl games – particularly favored SEC teams.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a factor in bowl results.

If you’ve ever watched a college football team go through a week of bowl practice, you know there are differing levels of excitement for the task at hand. For some, it’s a business trip. For others, it’s a reward, a vacation. For a few, it’s just something to get through until you can start the offseason.

When I covered Oklahoma’s preparations for the Sugar Bowl against Alabama in 2013, it was clear the Sooners had something to prove. They clearly felt disrespected by all the attention being placed on Alabama and the certainty many had that the Tide was the better team. They practiced with purpose all week, and dismantled Alabama 45-31 in the game.

I didn’t cover the week of practice leading up to Alabama’s appearance in the 1998 Music City Bowl – I was on my honeymoon – but when I landed in a frigid Nashville for the game, I heard from my colleagues that the consistent theme out of Alabama’ practices was complaining about the cold weather. And it was bitterly cold – we’d honeymooned in Connecticut, Vermont and New York and it felt colder in Nashville that week. I shrugged it off at the time, but I should have listened – Alabama got blown out by Virginia Tech 38-7.

I don’t mean to bring up only bad memories for Alabama fans, but these were the two most obvious examples from personal experience. For a happier example, see the Capital One Bowl after the 2010 season, when Alabama talked all week about wanting to end the season on a high note after blowing a 24-point lead to Cam Newton and Auburn and steamrolled Michigan State 49-7.

In recent years, and particularly this year, there is also the question of who’s missing. Players with injuries routinely and understandably sit out bowl games when their teams have no shot at a championship. Christian McCaffery and Leonard Fournette were then at the forefront of a growing trend of top NFL prospects sitting out non-playoff bowl games to avoid the threat of potential injury and begin preparations for the draft process.

This year, that trend hit critical mass as scores of players “opted out” of bowl games. Perhaps no team was hit so hard as Florida, which saw practically its entire receiver corps and several key starters on defense skip the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma, which the Gators then predictably lost 55-20.

“The last game the 2020 team played was 11 days ago,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said afterward. He was widely ripped for using his circumstances as an excuse, and rightfully so – the classy thing to do is take your losses as they are and give credit to your opponent.

But while overstated, there was still a kernel of truth there: This was not the same Florida team that traded blows with top-ranked Alabama in an entertaining 52-46 loss in the SEC championship game. The Gators still might have lost to Oklahoma at full strength, but there is no question that they were majorly short-handed.

Practically every other team playing in a bowl game not included in the College Football Playoff dealt with a few opt-outs as well. We can debate whether the term “opting out” is simply a handy euphemism for quitting on your team — I would caution, however, against ripping players as quitters unless you’re also ripping coaches who leave for other jobs before bowl games as such.

But one thing is clear: The numbers of players missing from bowl rosters leave us with an inaccurate picture of how good their teams actually were in 2020. Therefore, we’re left with an inaccurate picture of conference strength as well.

Look, I get it: Part of the fun of sports fandom is arguing about which teams and players and conferences are the best. But we still need to be honest with ourselves about the tools we use to make those arguments.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that conference bowl records don’t mean squat.

So let us resolve to enjoy the non-playoff bowls for what they are – an influx of tourist dollars (although not quite as much this year) and free advertising for the cities that host them and over a month of entertainment for us while we wait on the game that really matters – the College Football Championship between Alabama and Ohio State on Jan. 11.



Categories: College football

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