It's not fair, but you can't blame the Outback Bowl for taking Michigan over Michigan State
The Outback Bowl is not the College Football Playoff selection committee.
That’s important to note because the argument that I’m about to make has nothing to do with which program had the better season or which program has been better in the last decade between Michigan and Michigan State. Clearly, it’s the latter.
But when the Outback Bowl announced that it selected Michigan and not MSU, there was Playoff-like outrage. The word “snub” was thrown around, and understandably so. For the the Spartan players who reacted on Twitter, it was a blatant slap in the face.
“What’s the point of the regular season?”
I get it. MSU did EARN the better bowl game. The thought of some group of bowl executives sitting around a table and saying they weren’t good enough hit home. It should’ve. If the Spartans weren’t upset about that, Mark Dantonio would’ve failed them.
Dantonio’s comments on the matter were perhaps even more telling.
Dantonio on Michigan being chosen ahead of Michigan State for the Outback Bowl: “The records are what they are. I’ll just continue to focus on beating Michigan.”
— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) December 3, 2017
That’s a good point. The records are what they are. MSU was 9-3, and Michigan was 8-4. The former held the head-to-head advantage, too.
Bowl selection committees are expected to take the next-best available team to play in their game. When word gets out that a team like Iowa (7-5) is higher on a bowl selection committee’s wish list than Northwestern (9-3), it’s not a good look.
But why does that happen? It’s not that the bowl selection committee believes one team is better than the other. As long as there isn’t an overwhelming difference in the two teams, it doesn’t really matter to them.
Bowls always have been and always will be about selling tickets. Period.
Is that fair to programs who feel like their body of work should be the only measuring stick for their bowl slot? No, but it’s reality.
Reality is that the Michigan alumni base is massive. In fact, in a recent article on cheatsheet.com, Michigan had the No. 3 living alumni base in the country. Interestingly enough, Michigan State was No. 4 on that list. The Outback Bowl’s decision was not simply about which school has the biggest living alumni base, especially since both are comparable.
There’s something else that’s worth considering. You can bet the Outback Bowl took this into account, too.
When MSU last played a bowl game in the state of Florida, it was in the Outback Bowl in the 2011-12 season. The attendance was 49,429 for the triple overtime thriller against Georgia (Bulldog fans also travel extremely well).
Michigan played in the Outback Bowl that very next year and attendance was 54,527. That was with Brady Hoke and a somewhat defeated Wolverines squad. My bad. I meant “de-cleated.”
Jim Harbaugh’s first two bowl games were both played in the state of Florida. They drew 63,113 in attendance the first year and 67,432 the second year. Obviously it helped that Michigan played schools from the state of Florida in each of those games.
You know what also helped that attendance number? The fact that Michigan fans sold out their allotment of 10,000 tickets about eight minutes after they went on sale in 2015, and they sold out of their 15,000 ticket allotment the Tuesday after the Orange Bowl announcement in 2016.
Call me crazy, but I bet Michigan runs through its ticket allotment pretty quickly this year, too.
That’s not meant as a slight to Michigan State, which is consistently among the top 20 nationally in home attendance. But go back to 2014, when MSU was in a similar spot to Michigan in 2016. The Spartans were playing Baylor in the Cotton Bowl (Dallas) in what was the biggest non-Playoff bowl game. It was virtually identical to Michigan’s 2016 circumstances, when the opposing team was from the state of the New Year’s Six bowl site.
MSU athletic director Mark Hollis admitted that the Spartans were “struggling” to sell their allotment of 13,000 tickets and that they were in danger of getting poached by Baylor fans (MSU sold less than half to that point). That was the last non-Playoff bowl that MSU played in.
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The most surprising headline of this bowl season besides “Jim Harbaugh leaves for the NFL” would be, “South Carolina fans might pounce on Michigan’s unsold tickets.” It ain’t happening.
The Outback Bowl knew that. It knew that if Michigan and MSU were close in records and there was a choice, that edge was going to the team that’s a lock to sell out its ticket allotment.
That’s what this is all about for the people who make those decisions. They want to sell tickets and they want eyeballs on their game for advertisers. They don’t want to risk having half-empty stadiums and disappointing TV ratings. If they can have a good, competitive game, all the better.
But the bottom line is, well, it’s all about the bottom line. It’s not a fair system, even if it disguises itself as one. MSU players got an unfortunate reminder of that on Sunday.
Dantonio will absolutely keep focusing on Michigan. That’s been a pretty successful endeavor so far. If his team shows up to San Diego with — get ready for it — a chip on its shoulder, it’ll finish with double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years. Win or lose in the Outback Bowl, Michigan will only have three double-digit win seasons in that stretch.
Something tells me Dantonio will take more solace in that than what the Outback Bowl thinks of his program.