January 4, 2009

Should we use bowls to compare conferences?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the coverage staff for their opinion about a topic in the sport.

This week's question: Is using bowl results a fair way to gauge a conference's strength or weakness?

Terry Bowden's answer:
Settling the issue of which team is better, as well as which conference is better, always should be decided on the field. As a vocal playoff proponent, I have said for years that writers and coaches and computers should not decide a national champion; the teams themselves should decide it. Along the same line of reasoning, we should gauge the strength of particular conferences by how their top teams perform in bowls against the top teams in other conferences. We also should take into consideration the total number of teams from each conference that actually make it to a bowl. Then, at the end of the bowl season, look at the overall bowl record of each conference - in addition to the actual matchups of the bowls themselves - to get the best measure of each conference. It is the fairest, and probably the only, way to determine conference strength except for possibly having a live debate with all of the fans on the Rivals.com national message board.

Olin Buchanan's answer:
It's definitely not a perfect gauge because bowl games don't necessarily match teams of similar standing in their conferences. For example, the Holiday Bowl typically matches the No. 2 team in the Pac-10 against an opponent that is third or fourth in the Big 12. By the same token, the Cotton Bowl typically matches the second or third team in the Big 12 against a team that finished farther down in the SEC standings. Bowl results can provide fodder for arguments and it's fun to see how those conferences fare overall, but the best gauge for a conference's strength is checking to see which league has the most and highest ranked teams in the final polls. Of course, a lot of that is dependent on the outcome of bowls.

David Fox's answer:
No bowl game or bowl season on its own is an indication of the strength or weakness of any conference. There are too many variables coaching changes, motivation or coaches tweaking their styles for one game. Florida and LSU beating Ohio State in title games does not mean the SEC has been and always will be better than the Big Ten. The SEC and Big Ten split the Capital One and Outback bowls in the 2007 season and the Big Ten won both in 2006. Those results shouldn't be thrown out. Results over time make a difference. Just ask the Big East. Few thought the conference belonged in the BCS. The Big East has since won three BCS games. The ACC, on the other hand, showed it is a notch below the other automatic-qualifying conferences by losing all but one BCS game in its history until Virginia Tech beat a mistake-prone Cincinnati team in the Orange Bowl. No single bowl game will help the ACC rebuild its reputation. Winning the next three or four BCS games will.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
There is nothing like head-to-head competition to measure the leagues. It's really all we have, since the competition level within the leagues often isn't the same. Making this another good gauge of which conferences are better is that teams have several weeks to prepare for these games, giving staffs extra time to get their game plans in order. The schools with the better coaches and players usually are the ones who prevail with this additional prep time. When you get right down to it, there really is no other way to compare leagues besides postseason action.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
A lot of folks get caught up in a league's bowl record, but way too much emphasis is placed on it. There are numerous reasons they don't matter. First, the matchups play a big role in who wins or loses. If it truly were, say, the second-place ACC team against the second-place SEC team or the third-place Pac-10 team against the third-place Big 12 team, a fairer comparison could be made. Second, the travel involved hampers some teams. Finally, and most important, there is only one game that truly matters in the postseason the national title game. Frankly, it's to be expected that more than a few teams just aren't motivated to play in their bowl.

Steve Megargee's answer:
Looking at bowl results is an effective way to measure a conference's strength, but you have to be careful about reading too much into what takes place in the postseason. For instance, the Big East went undefeated in bowl games two years ago, but league teams were favored by at least 4.5 points in each of the postseason contests. Was the Big East the nation's best conference that season? No. It simply had the most favorable matchups. But you can learn a lot about a conference by the way its teams perform in the regular season. That the Pac-10 went 4-0 in its pre-New Year's Day bowls this season shows the Pac-10 wasn't nearly as bad as its dreadful regular-season performance indicated. I also was interested in seeing how those high-powered Big 12 offenses would do against defenses from other conferences. Were the Big 12 offenses that good this season, or were the league's defenses just that bad? Was the ACC the most balanced conference in the country or just a collection of mediocre teams? The bowl season can help us answer some of those questions.



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