history of college bowl games

History of College Football Bowl Games

As the 2016-17 college football season nears its end, talk of what teams will play in what bowl game has started. But where did the bowl games start? Here’s a brief look at the history of bowl games in college football.

The Beginning of College Bowl Games

The term “bowl” is taken from the earliest of all bowl games, the “granddaddy of them all,” the Rose Bowl, which is also the name of the stadium in which the game is played. In 1902, the Tournament of Roses Association sponsored the East-West football game pitting teams from opposite ends of the country in an end of season event. The first game was played by Michigan and Stanford, a game that Michigan won, 49-0. Beginning in 1916, the game was played annually and was renamed the Rose Bowl in 1923 when the newly finished Rose Bowl stadium became the host.

2009 Rose Bowl #8 Penn State at #5 USC Highlights.

Other cities throughout the country began to see the promotional value of such games, promoting tourism and industry in their areas. By 1940 there were five major college bowl games: the Sugar Bowl (1935), the Orange Bowl (1935), the Sun Bowl (1935), and the Cotton Bowl Classic (1937). Traditionally, bowl games were played in warm climates such as those in Southern California, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana. When the bowls originated, commercial air travel was non-existent so enough time had to be given for fans and family to travel to the games. Therefore, when football seasons ended in late November and early December, several weeks were given for travel and bowl games were played on or near New Year’s Day.

Bowl Games Increase

Up until the 1950s, all bowl games were played on New Year’s Day. At the time, there were only eight games. By the late 1950s, some of the games began playing in late December. More games began being played in December as more bowl games came into the mix. By 1990 there were 19 different bowl games and only the major bowl games were played on New Year’s Day.

Prior to 1992, bowl games had strict agreements with conferences. For example, the Rose Bowl traditionally had the champions of the Big Ten and the Pac-10 play each other. The Sugar Bowl always had the SEC champion playing the Big 8 winner. The problem with that format was that the top-ranked teams in the country may never meet at the end of the season to determine a champion.

Bowl System Now

Traditionally, committees representing each bowl game would select the teams that would compete in their bowl game. This practice still exists however, it is a little different since the inception of the College Football National Championship Game in 1998. Committees still exist but selecting teams is based upon conference affiliations with the different bowl games. Because of the bowl system and the vested economic interests related to the bowl games and also the longer regular season in Division I compared to lower divisions, there has never been a playoff system instituted to determine a national champion.

There are now 35 bowl games which begin play in mid-December and continue through early January. Teams must win six games during its regular season to be invited to play in a bowl game. The BCS system consists of five games, four “traditional” bowl games (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta) plus the national championship game. The two top-ranked teams in the final BCS poll play in the title game. Opponents for the four other games come first from the six major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC), Notre Dame (if they qualify), and then other highly ranked teams.

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The University of Alabama Crimson Tide has played in the most bowl games, 57, and has won 33 of those games. Nebraska holds the record for the longest consecutive streak of bowl game appearances with 35 straight from 1969 to 2005. Currently, Florida State has appeared in 30 straight bowls and will most likely make it 31 this season. Oklahoma is the only team that has appeared in all five of the BCS bowl games. The Sun Bowl, one of the original bowl games, along with the Cotton Bowl, are the only bowl games that are not televised on the ESPN family of networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ABC). CBS broadcasts the Sun Bowl while the Cotton Bowl is televised by Fox Sports Network.

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3 thoughts on “History of College Football Bowl Games

  1. Bowl game committee members wear colored sports coats — for example, red for Rose Bowl, green for Cotton, blue for Sugar, yellow for Fiesta. Where did the tradition of color coding men’s sports coats for bowls begin?

  2. How were the bowls originally named….for example, Cotton, Rose, Orange, and Sugar are commodities, is that why they were named in the Bowl? (not sure roses are a commodity though) – thanks!

  3. As of December 30th, 2017, the Big Ten is 7 – 0. If Michigan wins on January 1, the Big Ten teams will have won every bowl game they played this year. Has any conference ever achieved an undefeated record in their bowl games before? Not including decades ago when there were only six bowl games and a conference may have only one or two teams playing in the bowl games. Thank you.

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