Bowl Game Momentum: Fact or Fiction?

There were a lot of great nuggets of information in that recent interview Adam Rittenberg of conducted with Pat Fitzgerald. The focus as Northwestern heads into the bowl game is on winning the bowl game. There is no stuffed monkey or gimmicks to represent some hill to overcome. Fitzgerald is treating this as a business trip with some business to take care of. Everything else is left to the fans to debate on.

There is one thing though… momentum.

Yes, it is the next day’s pitcher, so to speak. Then again, it might be something more. It is one less thing Northwestern has to deal with as a program trying to gain legitimacy — or to change perception and help the program grow in the ways that fans like us care. Winning, of course, is the ultimate cure for whatever problems the fan base feels the program has or needs to correct.

Fitzgerald brushed aside the question saying that he does not think a bowl win carries over into the offseason. Of course, as Adam Rittenberg pointed out when he talked to LTP, Fitz has never experienced a Northwestern bowl win. Many of us haven’t. To us, it would seem, winning a bowl game could have great importance. An importance that we may not quite understand yet.

It is hard to say what kind of impact a bowl win for Northwestern would have. In fact, it is nearly impossible. Northwestern has just never won a bowl game and so the program cannot say what it would do for the program as a whole — the general feelings around it, the spirit in offseason workouts, ticket sales, recruiting, everything. NU has gained some benefits even in close losses — recruits were still talking about the 70-plus pass attempts from the Outback Bowl even the year after!

Bowl performance and results do leave a taste in everyone’s mouth for the offseason. That has to count for something, right?

So since Northwestern has never experienced a bowl win — at least not in this modern age of over saturation of bowl games — what does a bowl win actually get you? Does it build momentum or is that a media-created myth?

Take a look at last year’s bowl winners and their record this year — yes, all 30-some odd of them.

Team (2011 Record) Bowl 2012 Record 12-13 Bowl Team (2011 Record) Bowl 2012 Record 12-13 Bowl
Alabama (12-1) BCS National Championship 12-1 BCS National Championship Temple (9-4) New Mexico Bowl 2-5 No Bowl
Ohio (10-4) Potato Bowl 8-4 Independence Bowl UL-Lafayette (9-4) New Orleans Bowl 8-4 New Orleans Bowl
Marshall (7-6) Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl 5-7 No Bowl TCU (11-2) Poinsetta Bowl 7-5 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Boise State (12-1) Las Vegas Bowl 10-2 Las Vegas Bowl Southern Miss (12-2) Hawai’i Bowl 0-12 No Bowl
Missouri (8-5) Independence Bowl 5-7 No Bowl Purdue (7-6) Little Caesars Bowl 6-6 Heart of Dallas Bowl
NC State (8-5) Belk Bowl 7-5 Music City Bowl Toledo (9-4) Military Bowl 9-3 Potato Bowl
Texas (8-5) Holiday Bowl 8-4 Alamo Bowl Florida State (9-4) Champs Sports Bowl 10-2 Orange Bowl
Baylor (10-3) Alamo Bowl 7-5 Holiday Bowl BYU (10-3) Armed Forces Bowl 7-5 Poinsettia Bowl
Rutgers (9-4) Pinstripe Bowl 9-3 Russell Athletic Bowl Mississippi State (7-6) Music City Bowl 8-4 Gator Bowl
Oklahoma (10-3) Insight Bowl 10-2 Cotton Bowl Texas A&M (7-6) Meineke Car Care Bowl 10-2 Cotton Bowl
Utah (8-5) Sun Bowl 5-7 No Bowl Cincinnati (10-3) Liberty Bowl 9-3 Belk Bowl
Illinois (7-6) Fight Hunger Bowl 2-10 No Bowl Auburn (8-5) Chick-Fil-A Bowl 3-9 No Bowl
Houston (13-1) TicketCity Bowl 5-7 No Bowl Michigan State (11-3) Outback Bowl 6-6 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
South Carolina (11-2) Capital One Bowl 10-2 Outback Bowl Florida (7-6) Gator Bowl 11-1 Sugar Bowl
Oregon (12-2) Rose Bowl 11-1 Fiesta Bowl Oklahoma State (12-1) Fiesta Bowl 7-5 Heart of Dallas Bowl
Michigan (11-2) Sugar Bowl 8-4 Outback Bowl West Virginia (10-3) Orange Bowl 7-5 Pinstripe Bowl
Arkansas (11-2) Cotton Bowl 4-8 No Bowl SMU (8-5) BBVA Compass Bowl 6-6 Hawai’i Bowl
Northern Illinois (11-3) Bowl 12-1 Orange Bowl

So of the bowl winners last year, only nine failed to make a bowl game this year. And, further, and more telling, 24 bowl winners had a worse record this year than they did last. It seems that bowl momentum is more myth than fact.

There are of course plenty of other reasons for this — coaching changes like the one that happened at Houston and Illinois, seniors graduating like what happened with Southern Miss or a new conference like what happened with Missouri, West Virginia and TCU. One team’s success the previous year really has little effect on the next season.

So how about the BCS top 25? What were there bowl results?

Team 2011 Bowl Result Team 2011 Bowl Result
1. Notre Dame L 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl 13. Oregon State No Bowl
2. Alabama W 21-0 BCS National Championship 14. Clemson L 70-33 Orange Bowl
3. Florida W 24-17 Gator Bowl 15. Northern Illinois W 38-20 Bowl
4. Oregon W 45-38 Rose Bowl 16. Nebraska L 30-13 Capital One Bowl
5. Kansas State L 29-16 Cotton Bowl 17. UCLA L 20-14 Fight Hunger Bowl
6. Stanford L 41-38 Fiesta Bowl 18. Michigan W 23-20 Sugar Bowl
7. Georgia L 33-30 Outback Bowl 19. Boise State W 56-24 Las Vegas Bowl
8. LSU L 21-0 BCS National Championship 20. Northwestern L 33-22 Meineke Car Care Bowl
9. Texas A&M W 33-22 Meineke Car Care Bowl 21. Louisville L 31-24 Belk Bowl
10. South Carolina W 30-13 Capital One Bowl 22. Utah State L 24-23 Potato Bowl
11. Oklahoma W 31-14 Insight Bowl 23. Texas W 21-10 Holiday Bowl
12. Florida State W 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl 24. San Jose State No Bowl
25. Kent State No Bowl

Looking at the top-25, it seems clear making a bowl game is pretty important just to stay in the discussion for the top-25. That seems to be the most important thing to take away. Northwestern has accomplished that feat already.

But the other thing to notice is that only five of the top-10 teams in this year’s BCS standings won their bowl game last year. It seems Fitz is right, bowl wins mean nothing during the course of the season. Each team is different.

Of course, there is one place bowl wins do matter. And the one place it matters is probably the place where the coaching staff and the team cares the least.

The preseason top-25. Take a look at the preseason AP top 25:

Team 2011 Bowl Team 2011 Bowl
1. USC No Bowl 13. Michigan State W 33-30 Outback Bowl
2. Alabama W 21-0 BCS National Championship 14. Clemson L 70-33 Orange Bowl
3. LSU L 21-0 BCS National Championship 15. Texas W 21-10 Holiday Bowl
4. Oklahoma W 31-14 Insight Bowl 16. Virginia Tech L 23-20 Sugar Bowl
5. Oregon W 45-38 Rose Bowl 17. Nebraska L 30-13 Capital One Bowl
6. Georgia L 33-30 Outback Bowl 18. Ohio State L 24-17 Gator Bowl
7. Florida State W 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl 19. Oklahoma State W 41-38 Fiesta Bowl
8. Michigan W 23-20 Sugar Bowl 20. TCU W 31-24 Poinsettia Bowl
9. South Carolina W 30-13 Capital One Bowl 21. Stanford L 41-38 Fiesta Bowl
10. Arkansas W 29-16 Cotton Bowl 22. Kansas State L 29-16 Cotton Bowl
11. West Virginia W 70-33 Orange Bowl 23. Florida W 24-17 Gator Bowl
12. Wisconsin L 45-38 Rose Bowl 24. Boise State W 56-24 Las Vegas Bowl
25. Louisville L 31-24 Belk Bowl

In the AP Top 25, 14 of the 25 teams won their bowl games, including seven of the top 10. It seems, bowl wins do not matter much for poll placement. Maybe it enables a team to sneak in on the back end, maybe not.

These are all superficial things anyway. Things that fans care about and that those within the program probably have little thought about.

At least this season shows us that the momentum of winning a bowl game seems largely a media creation. That does not mean winning the bowl game is not important. Just maybe not for the forward-looking reasons we want to think it is.

  • NUmanager

    Greatest value would be a likely 2013 preseason ranking. Everything else is conjecture at best.

    • Cliff Garstang

      Preseason ranking PLUS fan interest. A bowl win would give the fans a very nice “taste” to savor over the off months and would help to build interest (and ticket sales, probably) as we head into next season. But I don’t see any “real” impact on the team itself.

  • PairofCats88

    Recruiting benefits, if any, would not show the immediately next year… more likely 2-3 years later…. which, of course, makes correlation that much more difficult

  • CatInTheHat

    I do think certain bowls have a knack (sp?) for choosing teams within their contractual obligations that are on the verge of big breakthroughs. Incidentally, my unscientific observation is that the Cotton Bowl and the Gator Bowl are the two that have, at least over the course of the past decade or two, been best at this. I haven’t looked at all of the data, though, so who knows?

  • John

    I think I’m stating the obvious, but bowl momentum will be unique for each team. If you have a senior-heavy team (and aren’t a traditional power like Alabama, etc., that reload each year), you should have a stronger team that can win a bowl game, but the cupboard may be dry the next year. I think the momentum effect is bigger for a program on the rise, like what you saw with a Boise State or TCU. But without looking at the number of seniors on a bowl winner, it’s hard to see the sample bias.

    • That definitely is true. I didn’t go further and figure out what teams lost a lot entering this season and the stories of each individual bowl winner. It is different for each program too. Winning that first bowl game in 60+ years could do a lot more for the Wildcats than if Michigan beat South Carolina, for instance.

    • PurpleRain

      I think the conclusions in this story are based on pretty thin data. I would argue that a more in-depth review would focus on programs in the #11-25 section of the top 25 – invariably you will have programs in the top 10 playing one another, so there will be losses for some of those teams.

      NU needs this bowl win for all the reasons discussed previously and this analysis does not change my opinion.

  • cece

    we lost on ABC and ESPN and won on the deuce this season, and the bowl game is on the deuce, so let’s keep winning on the deuce and get a Gator win. Go ‘Cats!!!!!!

  • jpklock

    Thanks for finally providing some data to the whole bowl perception situation. I’m actually glad to see that bowls are essentially like any other game, in terms of program impact: It’s good to win, and bad to lose, any game. There’s no evidence (outside the AP 25, which is, itself, sketchy evidence) that bowl wins or losses “count” more or less than non-bowl wins or losses.

    That makes a lot of sense to me: young (16-19 year old) players don’t care about bowl record, because they KNOW that they can win, regardless of the records of their predecessors. This is the inevitable and correct knowledge of young, exceptionally athletic men.

    Coaches know that a bowl win or a bowl loss comes out about the same: extra practice time, same pressure on the coaching staff (win, and be loved, or lose, and polish your resume while hoping you get to stay around).

    So, yes, let’s go 1-0 in the month of January. The end. Go ‘Cats, beat the, uh, Mississippians. ians.

  • nwujames

    I’m coming to Jacksonville with a dozen purple cowbells (not exaggerating) and am happy to distribute amongst fellow Wildcats.

    If anyone’s looking to buy these, $20 for a dozen + 1/2 day shipping from Amazon: