clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bad, Better, or Best Bowl Games

Rating the Bowl Games All-Time

The bowl season has begun, with some tight contests going down to the wire and some absolute blowouts. We’ve already had our first matchup of ranked teams, with #23 Troy nipping #22 UTSA in the Cure Bowl, and one more ranked team with #14 Oregon State committing an act of animal cruelty in its 30-3 dismantling of Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Our beloved Huskies tripped up in the desert this year, and without that misstep would’ve been playing for the Pac-12 title and a trip to the CFP. Even with the ASU loss, a USC win would’ve almost certainly landed us in the Rose Bowl, but when the Trojans got blasted by the Utes, we settled for a berth in the Alamo Bowl. This led to some hand wringing among some Husky fans about whether or not the Alamo Bowl actually sucked and was a terrible disappointment. I mean, obviously the Rose Bowl is better, but how bad is the Alamo Bowl really? Some called it a “lower-tier” bowl, and that is literally true, in much the same way that the 18th floor of a building is “lower” than the 20th-floor penthouse. If only there were some way to measure how the bowls stack up with each other...

Enter the Bowl Prestige Score!

The BPS is a mathematical model to look at what things are important in making a bowl game interesting in the grand scheme of things, and here are the things that feel like they matter most.

Championships: If a bowl game produced an AP or UPI national champion (or featured one, in the days when titles were awarded before the bowls), you get a bonus for that.

Ranked Teams: Matchups make fights, and the bigger the teams playing in your game, the bigger your legacy. The higher the teams’ rankings, the more points you get for each ranked team. Games that match up a pair of top 10 teams get bonus points. Because their use goes back the farthest, I’ve used AP rankings for everything (other than champions, as noted above).

Longevity: History, legacy, and tradition still matter at least a little in college football, so having a long track record helps. However, a long history of uninspired matchups matters less, especially recently, so you lose points based on how long it’s been since your bowl had a ranked team and a matchup of two ranked teams.

Star Power: Your bowl game gets bonus points if it features a Heisman winner. No other college awards really move the needle the same way, so I didn’t bother tracking Outland, Lombardi, Thorpe, Butkus, etc. winners. Nobody cares who finishes second, either, so no bonus points for Heisman runners-up.

Identity: What is the “brand power” of your bowl? Has it had to change its name over the years or been able to hold onto its brand identity. The current Cheez-It Bowl (the second bowl to have that name) is now on its eighth name. That’s a mark against. The Holiday Bowl has had its name for 43 games, the Liberty Bowl for 64 contests. That’s continuity and legacy.

NOTE: The Rose Bowl gets a bonus in this category for the simple fact that it has always kept its name first and has never put any sponsor’s name ahead of it. It’s not the “Tostito’s Fiesta Bowl”; it’s The Rose Bowl Game, presented by AT&T or whomever is putting up the money that year. That’s a baller move and sets the Grandaddy of Them All apart.

All-Time Bowl Prestige Score Standings

To the surprise of no one, the classic New Year’s Day bowls are way out in front of every other bowl. Of course they are. They have history, legacy, top matchups, championships, and everything else. These rankings are all-time, so history matters; it does not necessarily reflect the same rank-ordering for these bowls’ current status.

NOTE: This rating system does not include CFP championship games, since those are not actual “bowl games” per se. In terms of recent importance, obviously they’d be at the top, but we’re talking actual bowls, so they don’t get included. I also haven’t included any of the many dead bowl games (unless they were direct antecedents to a still-extant bowl), though I probably will go back and rate them at some point.

Tier 1A: The Granddaddy of Them All

  • Rose Bowl (1325)

The Rose Bowl stands alone. It has a 21-game head start on the next-oldest bowls. True, there were no national rankings back then, nor any Heisman, so other than national champions the Rose Bowl didn’t really have any other way to collect bonus points during those early years. Even so, the Rose Bowl ranks #1 in national champions (32), Heisman winners (14), and top-ranked teams (34 ranked 1-2, 58 ranked 3-5). ‘Nuff said.

Tier 1B: The New Year’s Classics

The Cotton Bowl started 2 years after its sister southern bowls and fell behind in prestige as the SWC waned in stature; however, the Cotton and Orange are tied at #2 in Heisman winners (11) and the Sugar ranks #1 all-time in top 10 matchups (52). The Sugar and Orange are also nearly even with the Rose in teams ranked 1-2 (Sugar 33, Orange 31, with the Cotton a distant #4 at 13).

The Sugar Bowl (13.31) actually ranks #1 and the Orange (13.14) #2 in average BPS, though as noted above the Rose Bowl’s 21 extra games with no rankings or Heisman actually work against it.

Tier 1C: The New Year’s New Kid

  • Fiesta Bowl (635)

Starting in 1971, the Fiesta had a lot of catching up to do, but in 34 fewer games it had as many #1-2 ranked teams as the Cotton Bowl and nearly matched it with 24 teams ranked 3-5 (Cotton 27), 28 top 10 matchups (Cotton 35), and 5 national champions (Cotton 6). This top-heaviness brings its average BPS (12.21) in at #3, just ahead of the Rose Bowl (12.06).

Tier 2: Just Outside the Door

  • Gator Bowl (494)
  • Citrus Bowl (431)
  • Sun Bowl (354)
  • Peach Bowl (354)
  • Holiday Bowl (293)
  • Liberty Bowl (272)

This is the first tier of bowls that at some point in their history have had another name, respectively the TaxSlayer, Tangerine, John Hancock, and Chick-fil-A bowls for the first four. The Holiday and Liberty have kept their names throughout, but just didn’t have as many big games to show for it. That takes them down a little, but these bowls have a lot of history; the Holiday Bowl is the youngest at 43 games; the others all at 56 or more, up to a whopping 88 for the Sun Bowl.

Obviously, the Peach Bowl took a huge step up in weight class when it got added to the CFP rotation, so it’s been rocketing up the rankings in the last decade; previously, it would’ve been at the bottom of this group or even on the next tier below this level.

All of these games regularly feature ranked teams, but the Peach and Citrus have a big advantage over their fellows in terms ranked matchups, as it’s been a long time since the Sun (18 years), Liberty (18 years), or Gator (14 years) had two ranked teams at the same time. The Sun Bowl earns a lot in longevity, being tied for #2 with the Orange and Sugar in games played. The others though, are well ahead of it in terms of top 10 matchups (Peach 7, Citrus 3, Gator 2, Liberty 1) and Heisman winners (Citrus 3, Gator 2, Holiday 2, Liberty 2, Peach 1), with the Sun having neither. Only the Citrus and Holiday have featured a national champion, and only they and of course the Peach have featured a team ranked 1-2.

Historically speaking, this level is the floor for top-5 teams, champions, and Heisman winners, with rare exceptions.

Tier 3: On the Porch

  • ReliaQuest Bowl (205)
  • Alamo Bowl (188)
  • Cheez-It Bowl (102)
  • Las Vegas Bowl (97)
  • Independence Bowl (93)

These Bowls are mostly in the 30s in terms of games played, with the Independence Bowl playing the “Sun Bowl” role at this tier with more games (46) than the others but generally lower-profile games (it’s been 25 years since a ranked team played in Shreveport, 29 years since ranked teams matched up). The other four almost always feature a ranked team, though only the Alamo (nearly every year, including last season) and ReliaQuest (most recently 3 years ago) match them up more than once in a blue moon.

With one exception, this tier is the floor for top-10 teams, with 14 of them appearing across these five games. For teams ranked #11-15, however, the Alamo Bowl (17) actually is tied with the Fiesta Bowl and ahead of the Sun, Peach, Holiday, or Liberty. These games occasionally feature outlier exceptional teams or players as well. The Cheez-It Bowl featured a top-10 matchup in its inaugural season as the Blockbuster Bowl (#6 Florida State vs. #7 Penn State), but that’s the only top-10 match in this tier (though the Alamo had #10 vs. #12 in 2016). RGIII in his Alamo matchup with UW is the only Heisman winner to play in a bowl in this tier and #4 Kansas State in the 1998 Alamo is the only top 5 team.

The Cheez-It gets the mark of shame as the most-renamed bowl, having been previously the Blockbuster, Carquest, MicronPC, Florida Tourism, Mazda, Champs Sports, Russell Athletic, and Camping World bowl (in addition to being the Florida Sunshine Classic when first founded, though they changed the name before ever playing a game, so that one doesn’t count against it). That cavalcade of company names—and for that matter, being the second bowl to bear the Cheez-It name (after the former Copper,, Insight, Buffalo Wild Wings, Cactus, and now Guaranteed Rate Bowl)—did it no favors in scoring on brand identity.

Tier 4: Out in the Yard

  • Guaranteed Rate Bowl (54)
  • Music City Bowl (51)
  • New Orleans Bowl (47)
  • Duke’s Mayo Bowl (36)
  • Armed Forces Bowl (36)

These bowls have played 20+ games each, often finding a ranked team every few years but never matching them against each other. The Guaranteed Rate Bowl gets punished for its repeated name changes or else it might be closer to the group above, but its general performance level fits better here. Teams ranked #11-15 are a rarity at this tier (1 in the Rate Bowl, 2 in the Mayo Bowl), but there are a decent number of teams ranked #16-25.

Tier 5: Somewhere in the Neighborhood

  • Birmingham Bowl (26)
  • Texas Bowl (23)
  • Cure Bowl (23)
  • Quick Lane Bowl (22)
  • Pinstripe Bowl (21)
  • Boca Raton Bowl (20)

This is the floor for a team ranked in the top 20, with almost none showing up below it. It also has the semi-fluke pairing of not only two ranked matchups in this tier but an actual top 10 team when #23 Liberty beat #9 Coastal Carolina 37-34 in OT in 2020 and this year’s Troy/UTSA clash of #23 vs. #22, both in the Cure Bowl. Despite being only 8 years old, it punches above its weight with those ranked matchups, being ranked ahead of the Quick Lane/Little Caesar’s/Motor City Bowl that’s been around three times as long (24 games). It might have a good shot at moving up a tier if it can keep pulling in more ranked G5 teams.

Tier 6: Well, It’s Still Football

  • Hawaii Bowl (19)
  • First Responder Bowl (17)
  • New Mexico Bowl (17)
  • Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (16)
  • Military Bowl (13)
  • Frisco Bowl (12)
  • Arizona Bowl (12)
  • LendingTree Bowl (9)
  • Camellia Bowl (9)
  • Bahamas Bowl (8)
  • Gasaparilla Bowl (4)
  • Myrtle Beach Bowl (3)
  • LA Bowl (2)
  • Fenway Bowl (1)

These are the dregs of bowl season. Many of them are young, with fewer than 10 games played, but those that have been around longer like the LendingTree (aka GMAC, GoDaddy, Dollar General) at 24 games or the 26 for the Famous Idaho Potato (Humanitarian/MPC Computers) just haven’t ever managed to stage very meaningful games. Seven of the bowls in this tier have never featured a single ranked team, and due to repeated name changes, some even rate below the theoretical baseline of 1 point per game played. The Gasparilla (aka St. Petersburg, Beef O’Brady’s) bowl ranks worst of all 41 bowls on the list at a BPS of 0.29.

But hey, it’s still a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida in December, so it could be worse: It could be Eugene or Columbus, Ohio!

All-Time Ratings by Average Bowl Prestige Score

These all-time ratings are, of course, subject to cumulative stat-compiling by bowls that have been around a long time. Some, like the Sun Bowl or Independence Bowl, can look better in the aggregate than they might on a game-to-game basis just by hanging around for decades and not going out of business. That doesn’t necessarily tell us how impressive those bowls are from year to year, though, so looking at bowls on something other than a cumulative total is instructive.

The following tiers are instead ranked by Average Bowl Prestige Score (ABPS), which simply divides their total score by the number of games played. As noted above, this handicaps the Rose Bowl a bit by dint of their 21 extra games with no rankings or Heisman, but I’m going to just let it stand as is. Also, a reminder that this is historical, so the fact that the Peach Bowl is a CFP/NY6 Bowl now is only starting to compensate for the previous four and a half decades as a middling bowl that featured 13 matchups of two unranked teams (including as recently as 2011).

Tier 1: The Big Time

  • Sugar (13.31)
  • Orange (13.14)
  • Fiesta (12.21)
  • Rose (12.06)
  • Cotton (11.30)

Tier 2: The Next Best Thing

  • Citrus (7.70)
  • Holiday (6.81)
  • Gator (6.77)
  • Peach (6.32)
  • Alamo (6.27)

Tier 3: A Solid Matchup

  • ReliaQuest (5.54)
  • Liberty (4.25)
  • Sun (4.02)
  • Las Vegas (3.23)
  • Cheez-It (3.09)

Tier 4: Rising New Bowls or Stagnant Older Ones

  • Cure (2.88)
  • Boca Raton (2.22)
  • New Orleans (2.14)
  • Music City (2.13)
  • Independence (2.02)
  • Arizona (2.00)

Tier 5: Not Ready for Prime Time

  • Armed Forces (1.8)
  • Pinstripe (1.75)
  • Duke’s Mayo (1.71)
  • Guaranteed Rate (1.64)
  • Birmingham (1.63)
  • Frisco (1.5)
  • First Responder 1.42)
  • Texas (1.05)

Tier 6: Ya Basic

  • Hawaii
  • New Mexico
  • Military
  • Camellia
  • Bahamas
  • Myrtle Beach
  • LA
  • Fenway

Every bowl in this tier is at a flat 1.00.

Tier 7: Almost “The Blutarsky”

  • Quick Lane (0.92)
  • Famous Idaho Potato (0.62)
  • LendingTree (0.38)
  • Gasparilla (0.29)


Step 1: Games Played Base Score

(Total Games x3) - (Games since the last ranked matchup) - (Games since the last ranked team)

Step 2: Ranked Teams Bonus

(Teams Ranked #21-25) + (#16-20 x2) + (#11-15 x3) + (#6-10 x4) + (#3-5 x5) + (#1-2 x6)

Step 3: Big Game Bonus

(Games with 2 Top 10 teams x2) + (Games with a national champion x3) + (Games with a Heisman winner x3)

Step 4: Brand Consistency Penalty

-5 points for every previous name of the bowl (does not include different sponsors, unless they changed the actual bowl name)

Example: There would be no penalty for the Sun Bowl becoming the John Hancock Sun Bowl, but they do take the penalty for becoming the John Hancock Bowl from 1989-93). Changing back to a previous name has no penalty, nor does adding or dropping a .com in the name.

Methodological Notes

  • Some of the individual modifiers may seem relatively small compared to others because they tend to stack together. A game involving a national champion since the advent of the AP poll has a good chance of also having matched up two top 10 teams, and very often a team ranked #1-2 before the game, so a lot of those games will combine those bonuses.
  • In terms of making a “big game,” there is a qualitative difference between having a top 10 team or even a top 5 team and the #1 team in a given year, and I lumped #2 with #1 because in many years you had split votes between AP and UPI and there was clear disagreement over who #1 really was. It’s a lot rarer for disputes between #1 and #3 or #2 and #5; not impossible (see the 2000 season with UW, Miami, and FSU) but rare enough that making an extra dividing line for the top 2 teams seemed appropriate.
  • A game that simply kept its name throughout and matched up a pair of unranked teams every year would have a flat ABPS of 1.00 each year. It’s a game and not much more. Those below that mark have earned demerits from a lack of brand identity.

Final Thoughts

Let me know what you think of these ratings in the comments below and if you’re interested in seeing more of the raw numbers and/or you’d like to see more digging into some of the deceased bowls like the Aloha and Oahu. Until then, Go Huskies (and Horns Down in the Alamo Bowl)!