Conference realignment changes bowl landscape

A fortune teller or psychic might want to consider getting into the bowl sponsorship business because in the land of bowl administrators, no one has a clear picture of what teams and leagues will go where in the next few seasons.

Texas A&M is headed for the SEC, and as the league grows it may need more bowl tie-ins.
(Getty Images)

As conferences take on new members, bowl organizers are trying to deal with the uncertainty of the landscape. With most non-BCS bowl contracts running concurrently with the BCS agreement through the 2013 postseason, the picture is murky for the next two seasons.

In 2012 and ’13, some conferences likely will have more bowl-eligible teams than bowl tie-ins. Others will have more tie-ins than eligible teams.

The system should be flexible enough to make the changes to match eligible teams with bowls, but the 35 bowl organizers are feeling the uncertainty until more clarity comes with a plan for 2014 and beyond.

“We’re kind of in that same mode as everyone else,” says Tina Kunzer-Murphy, chairman of the Football Bowl Association and executive director of the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. “We have to see how it shakes out.”

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The Football Bowl Subdivision will have 124 teams next season, up four from this season. There still will be 35 bowls, which means that as long as 70 teams are bowl-eligible (a record of 6-6 or better), the math checks out.

But a closer look shows that the tie-ins could get a little messy. Start with the SEC, for example

In 2012, the SEC will have 14 teams. The conference has nine bowl tie-ins this season, not including the league’s BCS spot. Only eight SEC teams are playing in the postseason this season, but the league sent 10 teams to bowls in 2009 and ’10. In a 14-team SEC, will 10 bowl tie-ins be enough?

For every expanding SEC (or ACC), there’s a league losing teams or staying stable in terms of numbers, if not membership. When Houston, SMU and UCF leave for the Big East in 2013, Conference USA will be left with nine teams (assuming the league doesn’t expand before then) to fill six bowl tie-ins.

That also sets up a potential 13-team Big East with six bowl tie-ins if Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia are held to contracts that will keep them in the league through 2013.

The system, though, is flexible enough to handle team movement. The surplus teams and surplus bowls eventually will meet up somewhere.

Some bowl contracts do contain “composition clauses,” which mean as a conference restructures – or even loses specific teams – it stands to lose bowl tie-ins.

The “vacant” C-USA and WAC tie-ins, then, likely move to leagues with growing membership, such as the ACC, Big East or SEC. Moreover, two current WAC bowl tie-ins occur on the home fields of teams no longer in the league: the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Boise State) and Hawaii Bowl (Hawaii, which moves to the Mountain West in 2012).

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The NCAA leaves the bowl/conference partnership process in the hands of the bowls and leagues themselves. The conferences should be able to determine appropriate bowl arrangements in amount and geography, but the NCAA also can provide historical data to help conferences calculate the estimated amount of bowl-eligible teams in a given league if requested.

For example, when the Mountain West lost perennial bowl teams BYU and Utah this season and replaced them with one annual bowl participant in Boise State, the league moved from five bowl tie-ins to four. The Armed Forces Bowl, a former Mountain West partner, dropped the Mountain West and picked up a tie-in with independent BYU.

Steve Hogan, executive director of the Capital One Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, is juggling four leagues – the SEC and Big Ten in the Capital One and the Big East (which includes Notre Dame for bowl purposes) and ACC in the Champs Sports – and three are in flux with their membership.

“We’ve got to wait to see how this all shakes out,” Hogan says. “The Big East has five new members. When all this happens – by all accounts, this will happen in 2013, so in that year we’re potentially looking at [a new league]. If the teams move to their new homes in 2013, we’ll have different teams than when we signed up. We’re going to let that play out.”

Bronco Mendenhall and BYU left the Mountain West and took one of the league's bowl tie-ins with them.
(US Presswire)

During the last major change in bowl tie-ins, the bowls followed suit with the structure of the conferences, as many contracts expired after the 2009 season. The 2010 and ’11 bowl lineup reflected those changes, but even portions of those lineups will be out of date by next season.

When it was a 12-team league in 2009, the Big 12 had eight tie-ins, not including the possibility of a BCS at-large bid. In anticipation of the league shrinking to 10 members with the departures of Nebraska and Colorado, the Big 12’s bowl tie-ins shrunk from eight to seven. The seven remaining Big 12 bowls also shuffled the order in which they selected teams.

But as the Big 12 lost members, the Big Ten and Pac-12 gained members and bowl bids. The Big Ten grew from seven tie-ins in 2009 to eight in 2010 and ’11. The Pac-12 grew from six bowls to seven in the same time period.

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Those are easy changes to make. A league with fewer members will have fewer bowl bids; a league with more teams will have more bowl tie-ins.

The nitty-gritty for bowl games, especially some that are less-established, will come in two seasons. Even Hogan, whose bowl games have been around for a combined 76 seasons, is watching closely. “I’m less concerned about 2013 than 2014 and beyond,” he says.

Other bowls also are watching.

“If there is realignment – and there has been constantly now – you have to adjust,” Kunzer-Murphy says. “Right now, we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

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David Fox is a college football staff writer for Follow him on Twitter.
Updated Wednesday, Dec 14, 2011