With the college football regular season winding down, there are usually a handful of teams that finish with a 5-7 record. These teams come up just short of bowl eligibility, which generally requires at least 6 wins. However, in some years, there are not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all the bowl slots. This opens up the possibility for 5-7 teams to petition for a bowl bid. So can a 5-7 team make a bowl game? The quick answer is yes, but only under special circumstances.
Bowl Eligibility Rules
The NCAA has established rules for bowl eligibility that normally require a .500 record. Specifically, a team must have at least 6 wins against FBS opponents, with only one of those wins allowed to come against an FCS team. So generally, a 5-7 record would not be bowl eligible. However, the NCAA does allow exceptions to be made under certain conditions:
- If there are not enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all the spots, 5-7 teams can be considered.
- 5-7 teams must have a top 5 Academic Progress Rate (APR) score.
- 5-7 teams can only be selected after all 6-6 and above teams have been chosen.
So while most of the time a 5-7 record means no bowl, there is a path teams can take to become eligible. It just requires a strong APR and some luck with too few 6-win teams.
Recent Examples of 5-7 Bowl Teams
There have been five instances in the past decade where 5-7 teams have made a bowl under these special NCAA rules:
- 2015: Nebraska, Minnesota
- 2016: Mississippi State
- 2018: Northern Illinois
- 2019: Michigan State
Back in 2015, Nebraska finished 5-7 but was able to secure a bid to the Foster Farms Bowl based on their high APR score. Minnesota also made the Quick Lane Bowl that year at 5-7. In 2016, Mississippi State got into the St. Petersburg Bowl despite having a losing record.
More recently, Northern Illinois made the 2018 Boca Raton Bowl at 5-7, being selected after several 6-6 teams were passed over. And last season, Michigan State qualified for the Pinstripe Bowl with a 5-7 mark.
So while it’s relatively rare, it’s clear 5-7 teams can occasionally get into a bowl game with the right credentials.
Nebraska in the 2015 Foster Farms Bowl
Nebraska had a rough 2015 season, finishing the regular season at 5-7 under then-coach Mike Riley. However, the team had a sterling APR score of 985, which was 5th best in FBS. On Selection Sunday, the Foster Farms Bowl extended an invitation to Nebraska to fill an open slot. They gratefully accepted and went on to dominate UCLA 37-29, ending their disappointing year on a high note. This remains the only bowl game Nebraska has reached with a 5-7 record.
Minnesota in the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl
Minnesota found themselves in a similar situation to Nebraska in 2015. After finishing the regular season 5-7, their 989 APR score (3rd best) qualified them for bowl consideration. The Quick Lane Bowl selected the Gophers, making this the first bowl appearance for Minnesota since 2012. Although Minnesota ultimately lost the game to Central Michigan 21-14, it was an opportunity for extra practices and a chance to build for the future.
Mississippi State in the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl
The 2016 Mississippi State Bulldogs became the first SEC team to make a bowl game with a 5-7 record. Under first-year head coach Joe Moorhead, the Bulldogs struggled to a losing record. However, their 982 APR score granted them access to a bowl if chosen. In late December, Mississippi State accepted a bid to play in the St. Petersburg Bowl, falling to Miami (OH) 16-31.
Northern Illinois in the 2018 Boca Raton Bowl
After a 7-5 regular season record in 2017 resulted in a bowl-less winter, Northern Illinois was eager to get back to the postseason in 2018. But their hopes were dampened after stumbling to a 5-7 record, including a costly loss to Western Michigan in the regular season finale. Led by coach Rod Carey, the Huskies put their energies into their studies, earning an APR of 983. When the Boca Raton Bowl had an opening, NIU enthusiastically accepted their invitation. Though they ultimately lost to UAB 13-37, the Huskies considered it a reward for their hard work in the classroom.
Michigan State in the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl
The Spartans endured a rough 2019 campaign, finishing with a bleak record of 5-7. This included lopsided losses against Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan in Big Ten play. But coach Mark Dantonio’s squad took care of business in the classroom, posting an 984 APR for the year. When multiple 6-6 teams declined bowl invites, Michigan State was more than happy to accept an invitation to the Pinstripe Bowl. They went on to defeat Wake Forest 27-21, ending the season on a positive note.
The Bowl Selection Process for 5-7 Teams
So how exactly does a 5-7 team go about getting into one of the coveted bowl games? Here is an overview of the selection process:
- All teams with 6 wins or more are invited to fill bowl slots.
- If any slots remain open, 5-7 teams that rank in the Top 5 of APR scores are considered eligible.
- Bowls that need at-large teams can extend invitations to the eligible 5-7 teams.
- 5-7 teams must then weigh their options and decide whether to accept or decline any bowl invitation.
- If 5-7 teams decline, bowls move down the list and ask the next 5-7 team.
- Once all 5-7 teams are chosen, bowls may consider FCS teams or 6-7 teams from Hawaii/Alaska.
The key takeaway is that 5-7 teams have zero control over their destiny. They must achieve a strong APR score and then wait patiently (and hope) for a bowl invitation to materialize. It takes the right set of circumstances to align for a 5-7 squad to go bowling.
Why Bowls Invite 5-7 Teams
Bowl directors don’t generally like having to invite 5-7 teams to fill out their slate – they would always prefer a 6-6 or better FBS team. However, when faced with the possibility of an empty slot, many bowls decide that a 5-7 team is better than no team at all. Here are some of the reasons bowls are motivated to grant special invites:
- Allows them to fulfill conference tie-ins – Some bowls have contracts requiring particular conferences to supply teams.
- High academic schools bring positive PR – Schools with top APR scores fit the academic mission of many bowls.
- Bowls rely on payouts – Each team that plays brings a lucrative payout to the bowl organization.
- Empty slot hurts bowl’s prestige – Playing with less than the full slate of teams can diminish a bowl’s reputation.
While far from ideal, inviting an eligible 5-7 team allows bowls to check many of their requirement boxes. The other option of not filling the slot is seen as less appealing from both a financial and prestige standpoint.
Fulfilling Conference Obligations
Most major college football bowls have contracts requiring particular conferences to provide teams in certain years. For example, the Rose Bowl is always required to take the Pac-12 and Big Ten conference champions. When those conferences can’t meet their part of the deal, it creates major headaches for the bowls.
Inviting a 5-7 team from the contracted conference is an acceptable fallback option. The bowl is meeting its contract requirements, even if the record is not quite up to normal standards.
Rewarding Academic Achievement
One factor in a bowl’s decision making process is a team’s academic track record. Teams with top APR scores are generally full of responsible student-athletes who represent their university well. Having schools like this in their game provides positive PR for the bowl organization.
Bowls can point to giving a 5-7 team a chance as an example of selectively rewarding institutions who take academics seriously. Rather than wins and losses, they claim to be prioritizing educational values.
In simplified terms, more teams equals more money for bowl organizations. Each school that plays in a bowl brings along a lucrative payout and strong fan contingent. Choosing not to invite an available 5-7 team can negatively impact the bottom line.
Filling out their slate allows the bowl to maximize television rights, ticket sales, sponsorships and other revenue streams. While the payout may be slightly smaller for a 5-7 at-large, something usually beats nothing financially.
Preserving Bowl Prestige
No bowl organization wants the embarrassment of hosting a game with less than a full field of teams. Even inviting 5-7 schools is preferable from an optics standpoint compared to empty sidelines and unfilled hotel room blocks.
Playing the game short-handed threatens the bowl’s reputation and relevance. Extending bids to academically eligible 5-7 teams enables the bowl to preserve its competitive prestige in the public eye.
Do 5-7 Teams Get At-Large Bids Over 6-6 Teams?
A common misconception is that 5-7 teams receive at-large bowl bids ahead of 6-6 teams. In reality, all 6-6 and better teams must be invited before any 5-7 teams are considered. The only time a losing record trumps a .500 mark is if the 6-6 team’s APR is poor enough to qualify them for a ban.
So a mediocre 6-6 team with a strong academic score will always get priority over a solid 5-7 classroom team. The ladder can only be climbed once all other options have been exhausted.
Here are the bowl selection priority levels:
- Conference champions and contracted teams
- League runners-up and other 6-6 or better teams
- Remaining 5-7 teams in APR order
- 6-7 teams from Hawaii/Alaska
- FCS teams
Most bowls will go to great lengths to avoid dropping to the 5-7 rung. But once there, earning a spot comes down to APR rankings rather than quality of team.
Likelihood of Future 5-7 Teams Making Bowls
Given the relative rarity, it’s fair to wonder what the future likelihood is of other 5-7 teams making bowl games. There are a few key factors that point to this phenomenon continuing from time to time:
- Number of bowls still increasing – With 43 bowls, demand not always meeting supply
- Pressure on bowls to fill spots remains high – Contracts and finances incentivize bowls to fill out the slate
- Academic component adds new avenue – Gives marginal teams extra opportunity to become eligible
As long as these conditions persist, we can expect a handful of 5-7 teams to occasionally get into bowls when things break right. But it will remain a rare exception since most years provide enough 6-6 or better options. Strict APR requirements also limit the pool of candidates able to take advantage.
Expanding Bowl Lineup
One obvious factor is the swelling number of bowl games in recent years. There are now 43 total contests compared to just 11 back in 1970. Meanwhile, the pool of participating teams has not expanded nearly as much over the years. This creates an economic situation where demand for bowl eligible teams can exceed supply in any given year.
Adding more bowls magnifies the chance of available slots exceeding .500 teams. Unless runaway expansion continues indefinitely, a point of equilibrium will eventually be reached. But for now, the widening gap feeds the need for 5-7 fill ins.
Bowl Financial Considerations
As mentioned earlier, bowls are under immense pressure to fill all their slots. Contractual conference ties, financial backers, sponsors, and local tourism dollars all depend on having two viable teams take the field.
With so much at stake, bowls have strong motivation to get creative when the standard pool of teams falls short. Inviting 5-7 squads nichely serves this purpose when absolutely needed.
Rewarding Academic Achievement
The NCAA’s APR requirement for 5-7 teams qualifies more than just on-field performance. Hitting the books now gives athletic departments a secondary avenue to chase a bowl bid. This incentivizes marginal teams to prioritize academics in hope of a backdoor postseason entry.
As long as this scholastic component remains part of the 5-7 criteria, schools will optimize towards it. We can expect several each year to position themselves for bowl eligibility via the classroom rather than the stadium.
In summary, here are the key points on whether 5-7 college football teams can make a bowl game:
- The general rule is teams must have a 6-6 or better record.
- However, exceptions are made when there are not enough eligible 6-win teams.
- 5-7 teams must have a top 5 FBS APR score to qualify.
- Just over a dozen 5-7 teams have made bowls in the modern era.
- Bowls are financially and contractually incentivized to fill all slots.
- 6-6 teams get priority, but bowls can invite 5-7 if needed.
- More bowls and APR emphasis make 5-7 bids likely to occasionally occur.
So while a long shot, with the right pieces in place, a 5-7 college football team can find themselves celebrating an unexpected bowl invitation. It provides a unique second chance for redemption after a losing season.
A 5-7 record normally spells the end of a college football team’s season. However, the NCAA built in contingencies for schools that come up just short while excelling in the classroom. These academic All-Americans occasionally get rewarded with bowl trips as a result.
But the circumstances have to be just right for a 5-7 squad to go bowling. The expanding postseason lineup must outpace the pool of eligible teams in that given year. And the 5-7 school needs a top 5 APR score to even enter the at-large conversation. Bowls will exhaust all 6-win options before considering any 5-7 candidates.
A rare set of events must align for losing record teams to access the postseason. The football powers prioritize on-field play, while NCAA emphasizes hitting the books. When these two forces collide, we get the unusual chance to see determined 5-7 teams in bowl games. It provides a consolation prize for their scholarly diligence and gives loyal fans one last game to cheer.