The history of the bowl game began with the 1902 Tournament East-West football game, sponsored by the Tournament of Roses Association between Michigan and Stanford, a game which Michigan won 49-0. The Tournament of Roses eventually sponsored an annual contest starting with the 1916 Tournament East-West Football Game. With the 1923 Rose Bowl it began to be played at the newly completed Rose Bowl stadium, and thus the contest itself became known as the Rose Bowl game. The name "bowl" to describe the games thus comes from the Rose Bowl stadium. Other cities saw the promotional value for tourism that the Tournament of Roses parade and Rose Bowl carried and began to develop their own regional festivals which included college football games. The label "bowl" was attached to the festival name, even though the games were not always played in bowl-shaped stadiums.
The historic timing of bowl games, around the new year, is the result of two factors: originally bowls began in warm climates such as Southern California, Louisiana, Florida and Texas as a way to promote the area for tourism and business. Since commercial air travel was either non-existent or very limited early on, the games were timed a substantial amount of time after the end of the regular season to allow fans to travel to the game site.
The Rose Bowl was the only major college bowl game in 1930. By 1940, there were five major college bowl games: the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl (1935), the Cotton Bowl Classic (1937), the Orange Bowl (1935), and the Sun Bowl (1935). By 1950, the number had increased to eight games. In 1960 there were still eight major college bowl games, but by 1970 the number had increased again, to 11 games. The number continued to increase, to 15 games in 1980, to 19 games in 1990, 25 games in the year 2000 and as of 2010, 35 games in total. Up until around the 1950s, games were played solely on New Years Day, with few exceptions. In the late 1950s, more bowl games began playing their games earlier in December. Also bowl games began to be set in cities which were not thought of as winter vacation destinations due to their colder climates.
Currently, college football bowl games are played from mid-December to early January. As the number of bowl games has increased, the number of games a team would need to win to be invited to a bowl game has decreased. With a twelve game schedule, a team may have six wins and be invited to a bowl game. As of the 2009 season, the University of Alabama has played in more bowl games than any other school, with 55 appearances and 31 victories. The University of Southern California has the most wins, with 48 appearances and 32 victories. The Nebraska Cornhuskers hold the record for longest streak of bowl game appearances at 35 straight (1969–2005). The longest active streak is Florida State with 30.
The attendance of 106,869 for the 1973 Rose Bowl set the Rose Bowl Stadium record, as well as the NCAA bowl game attendance record. The Rose Bowl stadium still is the largest capacity stadium and the Rose Bowl game has the highest attendance for post season bowl games.
Because of the vested economic interests entrenched in the various bowl games, the longer regular season compared to lower divisions of college football, and a desire not to have college players play several rounds of playoff games during final exams and winter recess, the Division I Bowl Subdivision has never instituted a playoff tournament to determine an annual national champion. Instead, the National Champion in the Football Bowl Subdivision has traditionally been determined by a vote of sports writers and other non-players. The current system, in use since 1998, is the Bowl Championship Series, a selection system that creates five bowl match-ups involving ten of the top ranked teams, including an opportunity for the top two to compete in the BCS National Championship Game. The BCS relies on a combination of both the traditional polls and computer models to determine relative team rankings, and to determine the top two teams to play in the National Championship Game. Nevertheless, the system of bowl games has been challenged often.
In 2012, the commissioners of all eleven football bowl subdivision conferences, as well as the athletic director from Notre Dame, met and reached a consensus to refer a four team, seeded playoff to the BCS' President Advisory Committee. On June 26, 2012, the presidents approved the playoff structure, to begin at the end of the 2014 regular season.
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