The postseason. It’s the dream of every team in every sport, the mark that must be hit within a reasonable timeframe without bringing serious change into the locker room. To reach the NCAA Tournament you have to have a fair amount of distance from .500 to be assured safe entry—think 20-11, 21-12, 19-12 with some big wins, etc. The NFL usually requires 10-6 or 9-7 and a bit of luck. But college football?
6-6. That’s it. Just break even and you’re in.
It’s one of the lowest bars in major sports for the postseason. Of course, that’s not the whole story. You want to make the playoffs?
Well, that’s a bit different.
Postseason and playoffs are not the same thing in CFB, but are in almost everything else. For the playoffs, you’ll need a record of about, oh, 12-1. Or 13-0. Oh, and be a Power 5 school—you can say goodbye to any playoff hopes if you’re outside of that tier unless you’ve got a Cincinnati or Notre Dame schedule and a lot of luck.
In college football, the season is the regular season. That’s where the emphasis and the fun is, as well as the most meaningful games. The NCAA Football Tournament sees teams survive and advance in division-clinching conference games, the Iron Bowl, The Game, early heavyweight non-conference showdowns.
Once the dust has settled after Champ Week, just a small handful of teams are left standing that have shown that they need to play each other to decide the championship, and thus only two were taken to do that until 2014 when we got the four-team playoff (Obviously money has a lot to do with it as well, but I think this lies underneath even the financial interests).
As for the rest of the teams who put in a good season? They get a reward for their good play. They get a bowl game.
Bowl season is a pretty unique part of college football, and while they are sometimes duds and feel useless teams that take them seriously not only provide awesome games for fans but also extremely valuable momentum and achievements for their program.
Some are extremely prestigious and winning them feels like winning a golf major. Others are, well, the Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl.
Below are the bowls SEC teams can try to play in. The prestige rankings assume that the New Year’s Six bowls are not being used as CFP bowls and the SEC team in question isn’t making the CFP.
Tier 1: New Year’s Six
1. Sugar Bowl
2. Orange or Cotton Bowl
3. Fiesta or Peach Bowl
The New Year’s Six bowls have a bit of a unique selection process. Here’s the basics: if the Sugar Bowl is not being used for the playoff, then the best non-playoff SEC team goes there. It’s the best thing besides the playoff that an SEC team can get, and the highest mark you can hit outside of contending for a championship in the four-team field. The second-best SEC team also gets to go to a New Year’s Six bowl if they are one of the best overall teams remaining—better than other Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, etc. teams that could also take those spots.
So the Sugar Bowl is the crown jewel, and the others might invite you if the league is particularly deep that year compared to the rest of the country. With the Orange and Cotton Bowls being a bit older and more historic than the other two, they get a slight edge.
The Rose is technically possible for an SEC team to play in, but only if it’s a CFP bowl that year and an SEC team gets slotted there for the playoff. Alabama played in it in 2021 en route to a title and Georgia went in 2017, but that’s been it since 1946. It’s not really applicable to these rankings, which are for SEC teams that don’t make the playoff.
Tier 2: Prestigious Bowl Games
1. Citrus Bowl
2. Gator Bowl
3. Outback Bowl
The Citrus is hands-down the best non-NY6 bowl, and a big achievement for UK last year and in 2018. In all three of these you’re likely playing motivated, Top-25 teams and you’re playing them in Florida on New Year’s Day or Eve. Pretty great deal for the teams, the fans who go, and the fans who watch on TV. These may not be the New Year’s Six, but they are definitely bowls where the victory trophies still matter and still reflect a successful season.
Tier 3: Still Good Bowl Games
1. Music City Bowl
2. Liberty Bowl
3. Texas Bowl
The Music City Bowl usually draws at least one ranked team, usually draws motivated and hungry teams, and usually ends up giving not just a great football game but also a great fan experience in a rowdy Nissan Stadium in a lively city. The only downside is the weather might be a bit chilly compared to the Florida bowls.
The Liberty Bowl also has a lot of history, and the Texas Bowl is still taken somewhat seriously (maybe just because it has an SEC team?). You definitely want to turn 6-6 into 7-5 to avoid the tier below, though.
Tier 4: Better Than Nothing
1. Duke’s Mayo or Las Vegas Bowl (alternates each year)
2. Birmingham Bowl
3. Gasparilla Bowl
These kinds of bowls are very good, valuable, and meaningful for lots of teams and fans. They mean a lot to the Conference-USA, Sun Belt, MAC, AAC, and Mountain West teams that work as hard on their seasons as the rest of the country and are very grateful for their bowl trips regardless of where they are.
For SEC teams, though, these bowls are hideous. You do not want to be playing in the Gasparilla Bowl or in a bowl named after mayonnaise that will also drench the winning team’s coach with mayo at the end. Still, it is better than nothing. Even the Gasparilla Bowl is better than 5-7, and pride should be shoved aside for the reward that a bowl berth is.
Of course, if you do have the embarrassment of being sent to one of these bowls, you better win it. 6-7 is definitely worse than 5-7 if you actually lose the Gasparilla Bowl.
So there you have it: the bowls of the SEC. Kentucky’s really enjoyed the second tier over the last several seasons, and back in the Bear Bryant and Fran Curci days went to the Sugar, Orange, Cotton, and Peach Bowls each once.
When it comes to bowls they’ve made the big ones in the past and are making pretty good ones now. Can they perhaps crash the New Year’s Six party yet again this season? Will they at least return to the Outback Bowl where they lost to Penn State in 1998?
We’ll find out soon enough.