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Quantifying the Meaninglessness of Bowl Games

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A look at who will be overrated next preseason

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville
Will we get to see another one of these?
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Show me a team that won its bowl game, and I will show you a team overrated in next season’s preseason poll.

This has been one of my handy rules of thumb over the years, but after LSU’s recent bowl win over Louisville and another deployment of said bon mot, I wondered if it was actually true. I mean, just because I can cherry pick data to fit the theory doesn’t mean teams that win their bowl games are overrated.

So I decided to take a look at this year’s preseason poll and final regular season poll to get a good handle on who was Overrated in the preseason and who was underrated. Now, teams could have over or under performed their preseason projections for lots of reasons, but by trying to take a more global look we are not going to care about each program’s excuses. You know, like ours.

There were eleven Power 5 teams that significantly underperformed their preseason expectations and eleven which significantly overperformed, giving us equal groups of Over and Under-rated.* So, how did they do in the prior year’s bowl game?

*If you are curious, here are the groups of teams, in order of their preseason rank:

Overrated: LSU, Stanford, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Michigan St, TCU, UCLA, Georgia, Baylor, and Oregon

Underrated: Washington, USC, Oklahoma St, Penn St, Wisconsin, Colorado, West Virginia, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Pitt, and Nebraska

The Overrated group went 7-4 in their 2015 bowls, and the Underrated group went 6-4 (Colorado didn’t go to a bowl last year). That’s not a huge split, but there are some caveats here.

On the Overrated side, Notre Dame lost its bowl game, but… Notre Dame. The power of Christ compels sportswriters to overrate the Irish nearly every year, and are likely immune to any such silly factor as winning a bowl game. Also, Sparty may have lost its bowl game, but it was in the playoffs, and had a preseason rank far lower than its final ranking the previous year. It’s just that they really underperformed.

The bigger issue is that in the preseason top ten, seven teams won their bowl game, and the eight was 10th ranked Notre Dame, which lost in the Fiesta. Oklahoma was a playoff team, and Florida St lost a New Years Six bowl, so no shame in that. All of the top ten was full of bowl winners or losers of big time bowls.

And six of the top ten teams lived up to their billing and are in the top ten today. Three of the four teams to drop out of the top ten were bowl winners, and the only one to have a losing season was a bowl loser. That was Notre Dame which, according to my research, went 4-8 this year.

The Underrated teams might have posted a .500 bowl record, but there were very few impressive wins. Half of those bowl wins were over Group of Six teams, and only Wisconsin ended the season ranked, begging the question as to why did we overlook the Badgers so much?

Still, the evidence points to the conclusion not that a bowl win leads a team to being overrated, but that a bowl win or loss is almost entirely irrelevant to how you will perform next season. Win or lose, bowl games are… well, meaningless.

For more confirmation, let’s look at LSU in its 17-season bowl streak. LSU has now made a bowl every year since 2000, giving us a pretty decent sample of bowl games. LSU, over the past seventeen seasons, has been fairly consistent, but we’ll call any season in which the team’s record change by either two wins or two losses as a significant move (or winning a national title).

This gives us eleven seasons again, six seasons in which LSU significantly improved and five in which it significantly declined. How did LSU do in the prior year’s bowl?

Almost entirely random. If LSU won its bowl game, the team improved significantly three times, and declined four times. If LSU lost its bowl game, it improved three times the next season, and declined just once.

LSU went 10-6 in bowl games this century prior to the current staff. Accounting for the remaining bowl games, it means LSU went 3-2 in the remaining bowl games which preceded a season in which the program did not significantly improve or decline.

Bowl wins are nice because winning is better than losing. But it does not mean good times are on the way, nor does it mean the opposite. Winning your bowl game is not a harbinger for anything. Sometimes a win is just a win. Cigars are optional.