Bowl eligibility in college football at the NCAA Division I FBS level is the standard through which teams become available for selection to participate in postseason bowl games. When a team achieves this state, it is described as "bowl-eligible".
For nearly a century, bowl games were the purview of only the very best teams, but a steady proliferation of new bowl games required 70 participating teams by the 2010-11 bowl season, then 80 participating teams by the 2015-16 bowl season. As a result, the NCAA has steadily reduced the criteria for bowl eligibility, allowing teams with a non-winning (6-6) record in 2010, further reducing to allow teams with outright losing records (5-7) to be invited by 2012. For the 2016-17 bowl season, 25% of the bowl participants (20 teams) did not have a winning record.
Teams that are bowl eligible will usually either play in one of the bowl games that its conference is affiliated with based on conference tie-ins or the team will be chosen from the pool of remaining bowl eligible teams to fill one of the at-large positions. The various reductions in the bowl eligibility criteria are discussed below.
In mid-October 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA waived bowl eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 bowl season, intended "to allow as many student-athletes as possible the opportunity to participate in bowl games this year."
For the 2018-19 bowl season, a team was required to meet the following criteria to participate in a bowl game:
If there are not enough eligible teams to fill all the bowl slots, additional teams may be selected, according to the following priorities, which must be applied in descending order:
On April 26, 2006, the NCAA announced that they were relaxing the rules for eligibility starting with the 2006-07 bowl season, particularly in light of the new twelve-game college football season. Now, teams with a minimum non-losing, or .500, record can qualify for bowl games if their conference has a contract with a bowl game. Also, other teams with a minimum non-losing .500 record (i.e., 6-6) could earn bowl bids if all other FBS teams with winning records have been taken and postseason spots still remain vacant. In thirteen-game seasons (used because of conference championship games, or allowable for Hawaiʻi and any of its home opponents in a given season), a team must win seven games.
Occasionally, there will be more bowl eligible teams than there are spots in the NCAA football bowl games in the season. In these cases, some bowl eligible teams will not be invited to play in any NCAA football bowl game (usually teams from Group of Five conferences). Typically, teams with seven or more wins will not be left out of bowl games, although there are times, most recently the 2012-13 bowl season, that see at least one such team uninvited. Before the 2010-11 bowl season, the Division I rulebook, specifically Bylaw 18.104.22.168, had several provisions that attempted to ensure that teams with seven wins will receive preference for bowl bids:
In the 2008-09 bowl season, these rules affected bowls contracted to the Big 12 and Pac-10, which each had at least one more bowl slot than eligible teams. The same applies to bowls contracted to the SEC. However, in that season, the WAC had a contingency agreement with one of the Pac-10's bowls, specifically the Poinsettia Bowl, providing that the bowl would select a WAC team (ultimately Boise State) if the Pac-10 did not have enough teams to fulfill their bowl contracts. The same contingency agreement applied in that season to the Sun Belt Conference and the PapaJohns.com, Independence, and St. Petersburg bowls. Similarly, these rules affected bowls contracted to the ACC in the 2009-10 bowl season because that conference has nine bowl tie-ins, but only had seven eligible teams that season.
Starting with the 2011-12 bowl season, the rule that required the selection of seven-win teams before any 6-6 teams was eliminated. The first season of the new rule saw Temple go uninvited despite going 8-4, including a win over eventual Big East BCS representative Connecticut. In the 2010-11 bowl season, the UCLA Bruins were invited to a bowl game despite a losing record after playing a conference championship game (6-6 in regular season, played and lost the Pac-12 championship game in extenuating circumstances), while a 7-5 winning team (Western Kentucky) and a 6-6 non-losing team (Ball State) did not receive invites.
Like NCAA sports where a tournament determines an automatic conference bid to the postseason tournament, a team can finish with a losing record (or a winning record but not eligible because of FCS wins) and still appear in a bowl game. In another change to bowl eligibility rules that took effect in 2010-11, a team that wins its conference but has an overall losing record must receive an NCAA waiver to appear in a bowl game. Previously, the waiver required no NCAA action. The new rule is still largely consistent with the NCAA rules in all other team sports, where a team that has a losing record that wins their conference championship through the conference tournament earns the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA typically awarded waivers in extenuating circumstances when a 6-6 team played in a conference championship game as a result of the division winning team being ineligible because of sanctions. This prevents the conference championship game from affecting bowl eligibility of team that advances to the conference championship in case of division-winning teams being sanctioned. The Pac-12 and ACC have both used it for such division champions, UCLA in 2011 and Georgia Tech in 2012, both of which were 6-6 and advanced to the conference championship game as a result of sanctions to the division winning teams (USC in the 2011 Pac-12 South, North Carolina and Miami in the 2012 ACC Coastal). Both lost in their conference championship games, but the NCAA awarded both waivers.
On August 2, 2012, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a significant change to the process to determine bowl eligible teams, going so far as to potentially allow 5-7 teams to go to a bowl, in case there were not enough regular bowl-eligible teams to fill every game. If a bowl has one or more conferences/teams unable to meet their contractual commitments and there are no available bowl-eligible teams, the open spots can be filled - by the particular bowl's sponsoring agencies - as follows:
The 2015-16 bowl season featured a record 40 bowl games, and three teams with losing records (San Jose State, Minnesota, and Nebraska; each 5-7). Despite this, the Arizona Bowl was unable to fill teams via its Conference USA or alternate Sun Belt Conference tie-ins, leading to both teams being from the Mountain West Conference, marking the first time since the 1979 Orange Bowl that a non-championship bowl game was played between members of the same conference.
The 2016-17 bowl season again featured 40 bowl games, and three teams with losing records (6-7 Hawaii, 5-7 Mississippi State, and 5-7 North Texas). The 2017-18 bowl season featured 39 bowl games due to the discontinuation of the Poinsettia Bowl, with all bowl slots filled by teams with winning or .500 records; UTSA at 6-5 did not receive a bowl bid, while 15 teams with 6-6 records were selected. The 2018-19 bowl season again filled all slots for 39 bowl games with teams having winning or .500 records. One team with a winning record, Southern Miss at 6-5, did not receive a bowl invitation, while there were 10 teams with 6-6 records selected.
The following teams entered bowl games with losing records.
|Season||Team||Record||Win Pct.||Bowl game||Result||Ref.|
|1945||South Carolina||2-3-3||.438||1946 Gator Bowl||L, 26-14|||
|1963||SMU||4-6||.400||1963 Sun Bowl||L, 21-14|||
|1970||William & Mary||5-6||.455||1970 Tangerine Bowl||L, 40-12|||
|2001||North Texas||5-6||.455||2001 New Orleans Bowl||L, 45-20|||
|2011||UCLA||6-7||.462||2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (December)||L, 20-14|||
|2012||Georgia Tech||6-7||.462||2012 Sun Bowl||W, 21-7|||
|2014||Fresno State||6-7||.462||2014 Hawaii Bowl||L, 30-6|||
|2015||Nebraska||5-7||.417||2015 Foster Farms Bowl||W, 37-29|||
|Minnesota||5-7||.417||2015 Quick Lane Bowl||W, 21-14|||
|San Jose State||5-7||.417||2015 Cure Bowl||W, 27-16|||
|2016||Hawaii||6-7||.462||2016 Hawaii Bowl||W, 52-35|||
|Mississippi State||5-7||.417||2016 St. Petersburg Bowl||W, 17-16|||
|North Texas||5-7||.417||2016 Heart of Dallas Bowl||L, 38-31 (OT)|||
Denotes a team that had a 6-6 regular season record, then lost their conference's championship game before playing in a bowl game.