MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A bowl game is supposed to be a reward for a good season. Now, with the glut of post-season contests, a team with a losing record might get an invitation.
"I think it stinks," former Nebraska player Aaron Taylor said Wednesday in a text message. The CBS college football analyst said the sport "is becoming perilously close to losing the purity and amateurism that separates it from its pro counterpart."
Finding enough winning teams to fill bowl slots is a fairly recent concern. The number of bowl games has nearly doubled from the 18 held in 1996.
The NCAA recently licensed the Dallas Football Classic and the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, pushing the number of bowls to 35. The International Bowl didn't apply for a license, so there will only be one more bowl than last season.
That still means 70 of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams will get to go bowling, even if one or two happen to be 5-7.
"I'm not one of those guys that's like, well, that's too many bowls," said Tony Barnhart, who covers college football for CBS Sports and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But everything can have its excess, and to me, I think that's kind of where we need to draw the line is having 5-7 teams playing in the bowl games."
Based on recent history, the NCAA's margin of error is two.
In the past three years, 72 FBS teams were at least 6-6. FBS programs switched to 12-game schedules in 2006, when 73 of 119 teams had .500 records or better.
Though the NCAA doesn't think a losing team will get in a bowl game, especially with wins over Football Championship Subdivision teams counting toward bowl eligibility, it is still coming up with a contingency plan — just in case.
"That's what's being discussed at this point, if you can't fill the spots," said Mark Womack, associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and a member of the NCAA's Football Issues committee that approved the new bowls. "But historical data will tell you can, so I think the odds of that happening are probably pretty good to fill all those games based on the historical data that we have.
"A what-if case, that's certainly something that's currently being discussed: That if you only had 69 teams, what would you do? Those are things that will be discussed over the summer."
The NCAA experimented with 12-game seasons in 2002 and 2003, and 68 and 69 teams, respectively, had six wins or more (out of 117 teams).
Nick Carparelli, chairman of the NCAA committee, cited television ratings and attendance last season as evidence that there isn't a bloated bowl system. The NCAA said bowls generated more than $237 million in revenue and drew nearly 1.59 million fans.
"If you ask the student-athletes, specifically football players, what the best experience or greatest memory of their career is, it's almost always the experience they had participating in bowl games," said Carparelli, who is senior associate commissioner of the Big East Conference.
"The people that matter — the student-athletes and the fans — enjoy going to bowl games. I'm not quite sure there are too many."
Plenty of bowl teams have been close to having losing records.
Last season, there were eight 6-6 teams in bowl games, including six from BCS conferences, which have the most bowl slots to fill.
John Junker, president and CEO of the Fiesta and Insight bowls, said not all teams with so-so records are created equally. He noted that things like strong finishes and overcoming adversity can make for compelling post-season teams.
In last season's Insight Bowl, Iowa State defeated Minnesota 14-13 in matchup of 6-6 teams. Visits to the teams' locker rooms didn't leave the impression that the game was meaningless.
"When I went to the Iowa State locker room, you would have thought they had won the national championship," Junker said. "When I went to the Minnesota locker room, you had at least a dozen guys in tears."
Bowl trips, he noted, are rewards for the guys who "enable athletic departments to pay their bills."
Womack said the NCAA committee looks at interest from within the communities vying to host a game and historical data from the potential conference tie-ins.
"If you can meet that historical data, you try to have as many bowl games as possible," he said.
Two other bowl game applications were turned down, the Cure Bowl in Orlando and the Christmas Bowl in Los Angeles.
Taylor says the increasing number of bowl games is one of the issues facing the NCAA. Others include coaches salaries and offering recruits scholarships at younger ages.
"All of that is taking the pure game of college football in a direction that scares me," the former Husker said. "Do I understand it? Yes. Do I like it? No."