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This Season’s Bowl Games Are Less Terrible Than Usual

As a college football fan, I love bowl season. Yes, the sheer number of bowls has exploded out of control in recent years, and yes, the economics of bowls is often problematic, and yes, some of the names have become downright ridiculous. But I’m still a bowl-game enthusiast. What can I say? It takes me back to the holidays of my childhood, when there was simple joy in consuming as much football as possible. It’s not Christmas without the CarQuest Bowl.1

As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly recently pointed out, each of these games holds similar meaning for a large group of people, easy as that is to forget sometimes. (It doesn’t hurt that even low-level bowls draw decent TV audiences, too.) And after years spent climbing toward Peak Bowl Season, this season’s crop of games might even be toning down the “participation trophy” element of going bowling — if ever so slightly. Mediocre bowls are unavoidable in today’s game, but there are also more good ones this year than usual.

Last winter gave us 41 bowl games, which tied with the previous bowl seasonyear before for the most ever. It also provided some of the worst bowl matchups in history, the byproduct of including 17 different .500 teams and three more that finished with more losses than wins. (Notably, both North Texas and Mississippi State went into their bowls with seven losses apiece!) According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, the 2016-17 bowl season had the lowest average matchup quality2 of any season since at least 1988-89, the earliest season we track Elo.

Last year’s bowl slate was the extension of a two-decade trend toward postseason games of ever-decreasing quality. But it may have also been a culmination of sorts. After zero seasons of bowl contraction from 1995 to 2016, this year’s schedule has been sliced by a game, to 40 (the Poinsettia Bowl folded in January).3 And although the current slate included Saturday’s Cure Bowl between Georgia State and Western Kentucky — the single worst bowl matchup of the last 30 years, according to Elo — the average quality of all bowl games has (slightly) increased for the first time in three years. After a period of runaway expansion, there might be signs the new-millenium bowl frenzy is finally leveling off.

Because of the College Football Playoff, this year’s semifinals — the Sugar and Rose bowls — are, unsurprisingly, far better than the long-term norms for those games. But the next several tiers of bowls also contain a large number of better-than-usual matchups, including Ohio State and USC in the Cotton Bowl and the Heart of Dallas Bowl with West Virginia and Utah. Of this year’s 25 best bowls (according to Elo), 18 are higher-quality games than the historical average for those bowls:

The 2017-18 season’s top bowls are better than usual

Elo game quality for the 25 best bowls of 2017, compared with each bowl’s overall 1988-2017 average

Game Quality
Date Bowl Favorite Underdog 2017 Game Avg. Since 1988 Diff
1/1 Sugar Clemson Alabama 2282 2080 +202
1/1 Rose Georgia Oklahoma 2267 2066 201
12/29 Cotton Ohio St. USC 2161 1960 201
1/1 Peach Auburn UCF 2041 1862 179
12/30 Orange Wisconsin Miami 2035 2049 -14
12/30 Fiesta Washington Penn St. 2018 2042 -24
1/1 Citrus Louisiana St. Notre Dame 1989 1947 42
12/28 Alamo Stanford TCU 1951 1812 139
12/30 TaxSlayer Mississippi St. Louisville 1864 1814 50
12/28 Camping World Oklahoma St. Virginia Tech 1855 1772 83
12/28 Holiday Washington St. Michigan St. 1825 1847 -22
1/1 Outback S. Carolina Michigan 1821 1851 -30
12/29 Sun NC State Arizona St. 1788 1759 29
12/29 Music City Northwestern Kentucky 1772 1704 68
12/27 Pinstripe Boston College Iowa 1762 1629 133
12/27 Texas Missouri Texas 1750 1676 74
12/16 Las Vegas Boise St. Oregon 1746 1649 97
12/29 Belk Texas A&M Wake Forest 1742 1747 -5
12/26 Cactus Kansas St. UCLA 1734 1680 54
12/30 Liberty Memphis Iowa St. 1702 1695 7
12/26 Heart of Dallas West Virginia Utah 1687 1565 122
12/27 Foster Farms Purdue Arizona 1661 1689 -28
12/23 Birmingham South Florida Texas Tech 1635 1665 -30
12/23 Armed Forces San Diego St. Army 1581 1520 61
12/24 Hawaii Fresno St. Houston 1580 1523 57

Game quality is determined by taking the harmonic mean of Elo ratings for the two teams in a game. Historical averages for bowls include previous iterations of each bowl under different names and sponsors.

Of course, the dregs of this year’s bowls are truly awful, even by the standards of games named after dollar stores, potatoes and a regional pirate festival. Aside from the guilty pleasure of binge-watching football, those exhibitions might end up making the best case yet for contracting the bottom third of all current bowls outright. But the worst of the worst mostly clear out by Dec. 22, after which we should be treated to an eminently watchable set of matchups.

In a season flush with good college football teams, the same mechanism that produced drama down the stretch of the playoff selection process will also provide some measure of redemption for the bowls. As long as there are 40 of the things, we’ll never be able to go back to a bowl season exclusively reserved for top programs — but for this year at least, we’re trending back in that direction some, once we make it past the first week or so.


  1. Which at various times has also been known as the Blockbuster Bowl, the Micron PC Bowl, the Tangerine Bowl, the Champs Sports Bowl and the Russell Athletic Bowl. Also: It’s now called the Camping World Bowl.

  2. Which I calculate by taking the harmonic mean of pregame Elo ratings for the two teams in a matchup. (I used the harmonic mean to ensure that both teams in a game were of a certain quality — in this case, a low one.)

  3. The Miami Beach Bowl also ended its run, but it was relaunched as the Frisco Bowl.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.