INSIDER Randy Johnson
The math seems simple. If a college football team wins six games, it’s eligible for a bowl game. With teams usually playing 12 games, that means a .500 record gets you a trip to somewhere semi-exotic, like say, Albuquerque, N.M., or Boca Raton, Fla.
Since 2015, however, we’ve dealt with some new math. Because there are 39 bowl games, there aren’t always enough six-win teams to fill all 78 spots. Enter the Academic Progress Rate (APR), a formula used by the NCAA to gauge how programs are progressing toward graduating players. Teams with 5-7 records that have the highest APR will get to go to a bowl if there are openings.
Sound familiar? It should, because the Gophers traveled this path to the Quick Lane Bowl two years ago. Minnesota was one of three 5-7 teams to play in a bowl in 2015.
And it could happen again.
At 4-4, the Gophers need two victories in their final four games to qualify in the preferred, six-win way. But their latest (2015-16) APR score is so high — potentially the highest among teams on a five-win bubble — the Gophers likely are one victory away from being bowl-bound.
Jerry Palm thinks Minnesota will play in a bowl. Palm is a CBSSports.com analyst, and he is the gold standard when it comes to bowl projections. He has the Gophers playing Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 27.
“That projection is based on them finishing 5-7 and getting a spot due to APR,” Palm said.
Palm analyzes every teams’ schedule and assigns wins and losses, using few upsets. In the Gophers’ case, he has them losing at Michigan, beating Nebraska at home, losing at Northwestern and losing to Wisconsin at home.
Through last weekend’s games, Palm projected that 25 teams would finish 5-7. “That’s a pretty significant chunk,” he said. “It was a much smaller number the week before.”
As of now, Palm sees three bowls taking 5-7 teams based on high APR scores: He projects Duke (currently 4-5; 992 APR score) to the Independence Bowl, the Gophers (4-4; 992) to the Pinstripe Bowl and Vanderbilt (3-5; 992) to the Birmingham Bowl.
Palm has the Gophers in the Pinstripe in large part because bowls contractually ask for different teams each year and few repeat appearances in a five-year span. “Merit doesn’t matter anymore,” he said, referring to previous pecking orders based on conference finish. “It has to do with where you have been lately.”
Interestingly, Palm does not have Nebraska (4-4), Maryland (4-4) or Purdue (3-5) making a bowl. If each got to 5-7, their APR scores would trail Minnesota’s.
As for the top of the Big Ten, Palm has both No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State making the playoff, along with Alabama and Clemson. Key to that, he says, will be No. 1 Georgia’s Nov. 11 game at No. 14 Auburn. He projects the Bulldogs to lose that game. He also has Notre Dame and Oklahoma losing one more game.
In the case of unbeaten and No. 9 Wisconsin, Palm sees only one route for the Badgers to make the playoff: win out, including the Big Ten title game.
“Their conference schedule has hurt them more [than their nonconference] because they only have Michigan among the competent teams in the other division,” he said. “Their own division, the next-best team might win, what, six or seven games total? … Wisconsin’s schedule is just terrible. There isn’t any way around it.”
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org