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The Most Absurd College Football Bowls, Ranked (Using Math!)

As I’ve written before, I love college football’s bowl season. Sure, there are probably too many of these goofy exhibition games, and nowadays star players sometimes skip them entirely. But there’s still something nostalgic and fun about sitting down around the holidays and binge-watching football games between obscure teams you wouldn’t have watched otherwise. It wouldn’t be the week between Christmas and New Year’s without going from zero knowledge about, say, Memphis’s offense to becoming a full-fledged expert in a matter of hours.

And, of course, there’s also the ridiculousness of bowl-game names. If you want a hilarious trip down college-football memory lane, read Jason Kirk’s excellent SB Nation story ranking the silliest bowl names of all time. For me, nothing beats the fact that there have been actual bowls named after weed eaters and tart cherry drinks.

In honor of the bowl season’s sheer absurdity, I decided to put a FiveThirtyEight spin on lists like the one Kirk assembled. For each game going back to 1985 — the dark days right before the dawn of rampant corporate bowl-naming rights — I developed a scoring system that awards “Absurdity Points” based on the following criteria:

  • Name length. All else being equal, longer bowl names are more ridiculous. So while short, snappy names like the unsponsored 1995 Sun Bowl (eight characters) earn zero Absurdity Points, mouthfuls such as the “Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl presented by Bridgestone” (55 characters) get you near the 4-point maximum.
  • Bad teams. Bowls were originally reserved for the best teams in the country, as a reward for an outstanding season (on top of being a way for warm-weather towns to drum up winter tourism from Northern fans). But the expansion of the bowls has significantly lowered the bar for how good a team needs to be to go bowling. So for our purposes,1 the national title game earns zero Absurdity Points as a rule, while a game like the 2017 Cure Bowl — between 6-5 Georgia State and 6-6 Western Kentucky — roughly gets the maximum of 4 Absurdity Points.
  • High scoring. Another element of bowl ridiculousness is the sheer lack of defense being played. Although there is an argument that fewer points in a bowl between two bad teams is also absurd, we’re sticking to the idea that insane shootouts such as the 2001 GMAC Bowl (Marshall 64, East Carolina 61, in double-OT) are worthy of 4 Absurdity Points based on the total points scored. (Note that for 2018 bowls, I used the projected over/under on the game via Jeff Sagarin’s predictions.)
  • Frequent sponsorship changes. Few things make a bowl look less prestigious than switching sponsors on a near-yearly basis. So I tracked how many different companies sponsored a bowl over the previous five years (including the year in question) and handed out Absurdity Points accordingly. Stable bowls like the Orange Bowl — sponsored by Capital One since 2014 — get zero points, while the Cactus, er, Cheez-it Bowl gets nearly the maximum of 4 points for going through four different sponsorship situations2 in five years.
  • Sponsorship industry. We’re getting into even more subjective territory at this stage, but some industries are simply more absurd as bowl sponsors than others. Insurance companies are boring. So are other financial institutions (with the exception of housing loan companies before 2009). Those all get low marks. Restaurants get more points, particularly if they involve fast food and/or fried chicken, and so do weird retailers. And a multi-level marketing firm that sells dietary supplements and is sometimes accused of being a “pyramid scheme”? That’s worthy of 4 Absurdity Points.
  • Bonus points. There are also a few specific ways to gain bonus Absurdity Points on the field. Any bowl whose name (or sponsoring company) contained “.com,” “.net,” etc. received the dot-com bubble bonus of 3 points. Faux-classy bowls that are “presented by” a sponsor (or tack on the word “Classic”) get an extra bonus of 1 point. For historical bowls, now-defunct sponsoring companies are worth a bonus of 3 points.3 And finally, a bonus of up to 2 points can be awarded for any sponsor that is niche or regional for a nationally televised bowl game (think the San Diego County Credit Union, which sponsors the Holiday Bowl4 despite being applicable only to persons living or working in San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties in California).5

Adding all of those up for each game, we can arrive at a total Absurdity Score that reflects just how silly a game is. Here’s an example from 2009 — the St. Petersburg Bowl presented by Beef O’Brady’s — one of the most absurd bowls in history:

An archetype in absurdity

Itemized Absurdity Points for the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl presented by Beef O’Brady’s (Rutgers 45, UCF 24)

Category Entry Points (0-4)
Name length 48 characters 4
Bad teams 1589 combined Elo 2
High scoring 69 total points 3
Many sponsors 2 in 5 years 2
Sponsor industry Restaurants 2
Base total 13
Bonuses Points (0-4)
Dot-com bubble 0
“Presented by” +1
Defunct company 0
Obscure/local company +2
Total absurdity score: 16

Points are awarded on a 0-4 scale where 0 is least absurd and 4 is most.

Source: Sports-Reference.com/CFB

That bowl had a lot going for it. First, it gets the maximum of 4 points for the 48-character name — one of the longest in our database — plus 3 points for the 69 total points scored in the game. It also picks up solid grades for its mediocre teams, sponsorship turnover and company industry. (At base, restaurants are worth 2 Absurdity Points — not the most, but not the least either.) Plus, it gets a 1-point bonus for using the “presented by” tag and 2 more for being sponsored by the relatively obscure Beef O’Brady’s — a chain of sports pubs in the Southeastern U.S. with locations in only 19 states. Add it up, and the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl presented by Beef O’Brady’s earned a total of 16 Absurdity Points.

That’s pretty high — but this season has a bowl that scores even higher. Before we get there, though, let’s run down the entire 2018 field in reverse order of silliness, grouped by total Absurdity Points:

5 points
  • Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
  • Capital One Orange Bowl
  • Allstate Sugar Bowl
  • Hyundai Sun Bowl

These games earn marks about as low as you’ll see in the modern bowlscape. They all boast relatively short, catchy names; they generally feature good teams; and they don’t project for crazy scoring totals. Not even the pretentious “Classic” tacked on to the Cotton Bowl can boost its absurdity quotient by much. It’s like these bowls aren’t even trying to be ridiculous.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Nokia Sugar Bowl

6 points
  • New Era Pinstripe Bowl
  • Valero Alamo Bowl
  • Outback Bowl
  • Belk Bowl

The 6-pointers have potential but also flaws. “Belk Bowl” sounds kinda funny — and gets a bonus for the local nature of its department-store sponsor (Belk is in only 16 states) — but is undone by its alliterative plainness. The Outback Bowl has an anthropomorphic bloomin’ onion mascot, but it actually features decent, defensive-minded teams. (Ew.) And nothing about the Pinstripe Bowl really stands out in any category. I may as well just watch this old Alamo Bowl from 1998 with Drew Brees.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Jeep-Eagle Aloha Bowl

7 points
  • R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
  • AutoZone Liberty Bowl
  • Quick Lane Bowl
  • Redbox Bowl

At a glance, “R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl” has the makings of a promising candidate. Its name is relatively long — nothing that a stray “presented by” couldn’t draw out even further — and its teams (Appalachian State and Middle Tennessee State) are appropriately mediocre. But the shipping industry isn’t absurd at all, and like most of the other 7-pointers, it fails to pick up any bonuses. Up your game, New Orleans Bowl, and try again next year.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Insight.com Bowl

8 points
  • Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual
  • Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
  • Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
  • AutoNation Cure Bowl

The Rose Bowl’s name is ridiculously long (47 characters) and it gets a “presented by” bonus, too. But sadly, Ohio State and Washington are too good to help the Granddaddy of Them All rack up too many Absurdity Points. (The Music City Bowl also gets big points on length — 42 characters — though not much else.) Likewise, the Peach Bowl squanders its 3-point fast-food-chicken industry score6 with a good matchup (Florida vs. Michigan), and the Cure Bowl’s punchy name ruins any advantages drawn from its industry (a car dealership!) and crappy teams (sorry, Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulane). Ultimately, this is the last of the relatively normal bowl-name groupings.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Micron PC Bowl

9 points
  • Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
  • Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
  • Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
  • TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
  • VRBO Citrus Bowl
  • SoFi Hawaii Bowl
  • DXL Frisco Bowl
  • New Mexico Bowl

Some highlights from the 9-pointers: The Frisco Bowl is sponsored by DXL, a men’s big and tall apparel retailer (which is definitely worth 3 Absurdity Points). The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl gets a residual dot-com bubble bonus for being sponsored by TaxSlayer.com. The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl is an overly long name, while Raycom Media is a very local Southern broadcasting company. VRBO is an absurd-looking acronym for a vacation-rental marketplace (and is the Citrus Bowl’s third sponsor in five years). The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is a huge mismatch (and is named for a potato-farming advocacy group). Still, none of these games really pulls together high marks in multiple categories, and that’s what keeps them from moving up the list.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Culligan Holiday Bowl

10 points
  • Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman
  • Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
  • Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl
  • Servpro First Responder Bowl
  • PlayStation Fiesta Bowl

After the 19 consecutive seasons it spent as the “Tostitos Fiesta Bowl” (which had a great ring to it) ended in 2014, the Fiesta Bowl is once again getting back to some measure of stability with Sony’s PlayStation as title sponsor for the third year in a row. That’s bad news for its Absurdity Score: Back in the heady days of fly-by-night obstacle-race BattleFrog’s 2016 sponsorship, the Fiesta graded out as a 16, a ridiculously high score for a prestige bowl. Now it simply ranks among a solid group that also includes the Las Vegas Bowl — now on its fourth different sponsorship situation in five years — and the Servpro First Responder Bowl, which used to be the perennial 16-point candidate (fast-food chicken!) Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl

11 points
  • Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl
  • Jared Birmingham Bowl
  • Dollar General Bowl
  • Camping World Bowl
  • Cheez-It Bowl

Now this set of bowl names is nice and silly. There are points for funny products (Cheez-It snacks!), bad matchups (hello, Troy vs. Buffalo) and plenty of recent sponsor-switching. The Dollar General Bowl is somehow an upgrade on its former incarnation, the GoDaddy.com Bowl — which stopped existing in 2016 — but that should not obscure the fact that there is a Dollar General Bowl. (And Troy always seems to be in it.) Throw in a bunch of “who is Jared Birmingham?” jokes, and we’ve got a good tier right beneath the Top 5.

Old-school favorite from this tier: galleryfurniture.com Bowl

12 points: San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl

Itemized Absurdity Points for Northwestern vs. Utah (Dec. 31)

Category Entry Points (0-4)
Name length 42 characters 3
Bad teams 1766 combined Elo 2
High scoring 46.24 total points 2
Many sponsors 3 in 5 years 3
Sponsor industry Financial services 0
Base total 10
Bonuses Points (0-4)
Dot-com bubble 0
“Presented by” 0
Defunct company 0
Obscure/local company +2
Total Absurdity Score 12

Points are awarded on a 0-4 scale where 0 is least absurd and 4 is most.

Source: Sports-Reference.com/CFB

As mentioned earlier, this bowl’s absurdity calling-card is a sponsorship that applies to an extremely small slice of the people who will be watching it on TV. But the name is also really long (42 characters), and the Holiday Bowl isn’t too far removed from having a for-profit college as its primary sponsor, either.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Crucial.com Humanitarian Bowl

13 points: Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl

Itemized Absurdity Points for Marshall vs. South Florida (Dec. 20)

Category Entry Points (0-4)
Name length 30 characters 3
Bad teams 1430 combined Elo 3
High scoring 51.61 total points 2
Many sponsors 3 in 5 years 3
Sponsor industry Heavy equipment 2
Base total 13
Bonuses Points (0-4)
Dot-com bubble 0
“Presented by” 0
Defunct company 0
Obscure/local company 0
Total Absurdity Score 13

Points are awarded on a 0-4 scale where 0 is least absurd and 4 is most.

Source: Sports-Reference.com/CFB

Somehow, this bowl changed its name from the “St. Petersburg Bowl presented by Beef O’Brady’s” and got even more absurd. In fact, in his story at SB Nation, Kirk makes a very compelling case that “Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl” is the single most ridiculous name in bowl history. In our accounting, it also ranks highly, if not No. 1, thanks to a strong combination of almost all of the factors we hand out credit for. The only reason it doesn’t rise further is a lack of bonuses; I debated listing Bad Boy Mowers as an “obscure company,” since they don’t have a Wikipedia page, but they’ve been around since 1998 and have about 500 employees. Either way, the bigger fix for a future version of our model might be a better way to quantify the inherent absurdity of the word “Gasparilla.”

13 points: Walk-On’s Independence Bowl

Itemized Absurdity Points for Temple vs. Duke (Dec. 27)

Category Entry Points (0-4)
Name length 27 characters 2
Bad teams 1609 combined Elo 2
High scoring 56.48 total points 2
Many sponsors 3 in 5 years 3
Sponsor industry Restaurants 2
Base total 11
Bonuses Points (0-4)
Dot-com bubble 0
“Presented by” 0
Defunct company 0
Obscure/local company +2
Total Absurdity Score 13

Points are awarded on a 0-4 scale where 0 is least absurd and 4 is most.

Source: Sports-Reference.com/CFB

As for the Independence Bowl, the current “Walk-On’s” variation is just the latest in a fine tradition of ludicrous names. For instance, this is also the game that brought us the “AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl,” the “Duck Commander Independence Bowl” and the fabled “Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl” — still probably the ur-example of a laughable bowl sponsorship from the 1990s. For its part, Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar is a local Louisiana-based sports bar chain co-owned by Brees, who long since left his Builders Square Alamo Bowl days behind to quarterback the New Orleans Saints.

Old-school favorite from this tier: Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl

14 points: Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl

Itemized Absurdity Points for UAB vs. Northern Illinois (Dec. 18)

Category Entry Points (0-4)
Name length 26 characters 2
Bad teams 1485 combined Elo 3
High scoring 41.43 total points 2
Many sponsors 3 in 5 years 3
Sponsor industry Foods 2
Base total 12
Bonuses Points (0-4)
Dot-com bubble 0
“Presented by” 0
Defunct company 0
Obscure/local company +2
Total Absurdity Score 14

Points are awarded on a 0-4 scale where 0 is least absurd and 4 is most.

Source: Sports-Reference.com/CFB

The Boca Raton Bowl is a relatively new entry on the list of postseason games and is in its second year of sponsorship with Cheribundi. What is Cheribundi, you ask? According to Wikipedia, it is a “company which sells a functional brand of cherry juice beverages,” and it used to be called CherryPharm. The “CherryPharm Boca Raton Bowl” might have been even more absurd than the actual name, but in either case, we have a game with truly bad teams (UAB and Northern Illinois), sponsored by a weird sector of the food industry, in a nonprestigious bowl played a full week before Christmas. That’s basically the kind of bowl our rating system was made for.

Old-school favorite from this tier: California Raisin Bowl

17 points: Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl

Itemized Absurdity Points for Toledo vs. FIU (Dec. 21)

Category Entry Points (0-4)
Name length 26 characters 2
Bad teams 1409 combined Elo 3
High scoring 68.77 total points 3
Many sponsors 3 in 5 years 3
Sponsor industry Local marketing 4
Base total 15
Bonuses Points (0-4)
Dot-com bubble 0
“Presented by” 0
Defunct company 0
Obscure/local company +2
Total Absurdity Score 17

Points are awarded on a 0-4 scale where 0 is least absurd and 4 is most.

Source: Sports-Reference.com/CFB

Finally, we arrive at No. 1 in our ranking, the first 17-point bowl in our sample — the brand-new Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. What it lacks in length (only 26 characters), it makes up for with bad teams (neither Toledo nor Florida International cracks a 1450 Elo rating), a nearly 70-point over/under according to Jeff Sagarin’s projections, a former sponsor list that includes Popeye’s (fast-food chicken!!!) and a ridiculous backstory that involves a town in Illinois spending taxpayer money to sponsor a college football game staged in the Bahamas in order to drum up business for the largest contiguous industrial park in North America. (“Makers Wanted” is a slogan that, this press release informs us, “serves as a call-to-action for Elk Grove Village’s thriving community and the thousands of businesses that are based there.”)

It’s a fittingly absurd way to end our list of the most absurd bowl games of 2018. Enjoy the holidays and the bowl season, and don’t forget to spend time with friends and family between the football-watching. I look forward to what even greater absurdities next year’s bowls can bring to us in 2019.

Old-School favorite from this tier:7 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl

Footnotes

  1. Using the harmonic mean of the two teams’ Elo ratings as gauge of matchup quality.

  2. Including not having an official sponsor in 2017.

  3. Partial credit is available here, since sometimes a brand like Jeep-Eagle can be discontinued while its parent company lives on.

  4. Held at their eponymous stadium.

  5. This is mainly based on national reach — for instance, if a company has a presence in 20 or fewer states, it will probably generate this bonus. Other factors to consider include a company’s annual revenue and its total number of employees.

  6. Why 4 points out of a possible 4 for fast-food chicken, specifically? Um, why not?

  7. Choosing from among 16-pointers, since the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl is the only 17-pointer in our data.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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