Solving the Colorado-USC Rose Bowl debate ahead of time

Stanford fullback Chris Harrell warms up before the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Iowa, Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. Colorado might not get there in 2017. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The Colorado Buffaloes have never made the Rose Bowl Game. The USC Trojans have played in 32 Rose Bowls, more than any other school by a large margin (12 over Michigan’s 20).

Playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in eight years (2009) would mean a lot for USC, but in relative terms, it would mean so much more for Colorado to make the pilgrimage to Pasadena. Such a moment would instantly become iconic in CU’s history, in ways that would not apply to USC or other programs for which the Rose Bowl is an expectation or at least an annual goal.

Before saying anything else, it should be said that Colorado can lock down (at worst) a Rose Bowl berth by beating the Washington Huskies Friday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game. “At worst” simply refers to the reality that if Colorado doesn’t make the playoff, the Rose Bowl will be its destination.

Colorado can avoid a debate about whether it deserves the Granddaddy Of Them All… or not.

The complicated part: What if Colorado loses to Washington? The (then-)10-3 Buffaloes and the 9-3 USC Trojans would both be in the mix for a January 2 reservation in the Arroyo Seco. The College Football Playoff committee’s final rankings will likely shape the Rose Bowl representative from the Pac-12.

Let’s get ahead of this debate instead of being ambushed by it next Sunday morning in Boulder and Los Angeles.


At a previous employer, I chronicled the BCS era on several levels, one being the awarding — and denial — of BCS bowl bids to teams which lost conference championship games. (No link is available — it has been taken down.)

Here are my findings, which do not include all instances of conference title game losses (because some teams, such as 2005 Colorado, never did deserve a BCS bowl in the event of losing a conference title game):

“Notable BCS bowl snubs involving teams that lost conference championship games:

1998 season: Kansas State

1999: Florida

2001: Tennessee and Texas. Texas did not get in because of the two-team limit per conference in BCS bowls. (Tennessee was simply snubbed in favor of Florida in a political decision.)

2003: Georgia. The Bulldogs weren’t snubbed on a purely political level; they were essentially locked out by Kansas State’s upset of Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game, which gave the Big 12 an extra BCS berth.

2005: LSU and Virginia Tech

2007: Missouri

2011: Georgia and Michigan State. Georgia was a victim of the two-team-per-conference limit, while Michigan State was straightforwardly snubbed in favor of Michigan.

2012: Georgia. Again, the Bulldogs were a victim of the two-team-per-conference limit in this case.

2013: Missouri. The Tigers were also a victim of the two-team-per-conference limit.

Notable BCS bowl inclusions involving teams that lost conference championship games:

2003 season: Oklahoma (made not just a BCS bowl, but the 2004 Sugar Bowl, which doubled as the BCS title game that season)

2008: Alabama

2009: Florida

2011: Virginia Tech

2013: Ohio State”

Among teams that had a reasonable claim to a BCS bowl ticket, exclusions outnumbered inclusions in the 16-season BCS era.

In the 2014 season, as the BCS gave way to the New Year’s Six, Wisconsin was knocked out of the NY6 after a conference title game loss. So was Missouri. On the other hand, Georgia Tech and Arizona made NY6 bowls despite losing conference championship games.

In 2015, Florida, North Carolina and USC were knocked out of the NY6 by conference title game losses, though USC was a proper exclusion, having lost four games heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford. Iowa stayed in the NY6 despite its loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Nevertheless, the unfair exclusions (2) outnumbered the appropriate inclusions (1).

Reasonable people can and will disagree, but it is my fervent view that college football — as a matter of process, structure and principle — must reward good teams (defined as having fewer than three losses entering the conference championship game) which lose conference title games.

It should not be beneficial for Ohio State or any other team to miss a 13th game because it failed to win its division. Colorado could suffer as a result of earning a 13th game by dint of its own quality. (Photo by Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire)

It should not be beneficial for Ohio State or any other team to miss a 13th game because it failed to win its division. Colorado could suffer as a result of earning a 13th game by dint of its own quality. (Photo by Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire)

This past week, and continuing through the playoff announcement on Sunday, a lot of discussion is flying through the college football community about Ohio State, and this specific question:

“Is it good or not that Ohio State doesn’t have to play a 13th game in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title?”

Understandably, many feel it’s a PLUS for the Buckeyes to not be in Lucas Oil Stadium against the Wisconsin Badgers. OSU can’t lose another game. Ergo, in the eyes of many, it is safe regardless of what happens elsewhere in the country on Friday and Saturday.

Conceptually, the arguments make perfect sense.

From the view of a competitor, however, they’re absolute nonsense, insulting to the very idea of competition, excellence and human aspiration.

What kind of a world do we live in when it is “good” for a team to not win division or (especially) conference championships? What has gone wrong when a team’s long slog through autumn against familiar backyard foes does not lead to a title… and that team is rewarded for the lack of said title?

Yes, divisions should be banned in college football — few people who write about the sport have been as adamant about that need as I have. Yet, as long as we have divisions, that accomplishment — not so much the winning itself but the earning of a 13th game — has to be honored.

It’s ridiculous — for teams with 10-2 or 11-1 records (we can debate 9-3, and we can exclude 8-4 or worse teams from this discussion) — to be punished for earning that 13th game.

Colorado, without a 13th game, would finish its season 10-2 with losses to USC and Michigan (UM on the road). USC has finished 9-3 with a win at Washington — better than any CU win — and the head-to-head win over Colorado, but with losses to Utah and Stanford plus a loss to Alabama on a neutral field.

The resume comparison is close, and a strong argument can be made for either team. The problem: Colorado losing a 13th game — as would be the case for any team in a similar situation — should NEVER be the reason the Buffs lose out on a Rose Bowl berth.

Should USC return to the Rose Bowl on January 2? Based on resume, the Trojans have a good case, but Colorado and other teams which earn 13th games with strong overall records should not be punished for losing that 13th game. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

Should USC return to the Rose Bowl on January 2? Based on resume, the Trojans have a good case, but Colorado and other teams which earn 13th games with strong overall records should not be punished for losing that 13th game. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

Let that point sink in for USC fans or advocates: The resumes are relatively even, and USC has a valid claim to a Rose Bowl berth in a head-to-head with Colorado. This is not a resume argument.

No, Colorado should get the Rose Bowl ticket not because its portfolio is obviously superior to USC’s. It should get the Rose Bowl berth simply because it should not be punished for losing a 13th game it earned, a game which empirically — and competitively — marks an INHERENTLY more successful season than what USC produced.

Colorado, not USC, won the Pac-12 South. Colorado has only two losses and did not win the division title with four losses the way USC did last year.

This isn’t about punishing USC; arguing for a Rose Bowl for Colorado — in the event of a loss to Washington on Friday — is about rewarding the Buffaloes for measurable and substantial achievements this year, including the earning of a 13th game… which should always be seen as good, never bad, in college football.



  1. Drew Davidson

    Dec 3, 2016 at 10:10 am

    A division champ is not a conference champ. Colorado getting stomped by Washington reveals that they clearly are an inferior team

  2. Sean

    Dec 2, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    USC would have beat both teams that played in the PAC12 championship game…again tonight. But go ahead and put the Buff’s in the Rose Bowl just because, and lose four points in Nielsen ratings for ABC.

  3. Prentice

    Dec 1, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    To Matt Zemek (the author): Nebraska in 2001 should also me mentioned as a team that didn’t even win its division, but nonetheless was awarded a berth in the BCS championship game by a narrow margin over Colorado, despite the fact that CU waxed them 62-36 in the final regular season game and had to then go play and beat Texas in Big XII CCG. Of course the Huskers got demolished by Miami in the BCS, so there’s that. Just another reason why the BCS sucked.

  4. Dry

    Dec 1, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    I mean, Colorado didn’t play Washington in their regular season, which may give them second conference loss.
    Current conference championship system is not good, so we see B1G has similar problem as well.

    • Tom

      Dec 2, 2016 at 1:30 am

      This, this, this. Colorado won the division on the back of a weaker conference schedule that had them skipping Washington. I understand not wanting to punish a team for playing an extra game, but what about SOS? USC had to go ON THE ROAD to Washington, Utah, and Stanford whereas Colorado skips Washington all together in place of Wazzu at home and had Utah at home.

      Frankly if Colorado can’t beat a Washington team on a neutral site, that USC beat by double digits on the road it really taints their divisional title and just further points out how flawed conference championship system is with rotating opponents.

  5. Joe

    Dec 1, 2016 at 9:44 am

    13th game is never bad? Well, if Clemson and Washington lose then I guess they stay at 3 and 4. Michigan sitting idle has no chance. An extra game provides an opportunity to move up but never down? That’s competition at it’s worst. Wonder why some programs schedule less competitive non-conference games – they don’t want the loss. We evaluate wins and losses throughout the season but not on conference championship games? Regardless of past data, etc. each team should be evaluated on their final record. Colorado will not be punished for a loss to Washington. It just becomes part of their record.

  6. Cora Carter

    Nov 30, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    USC lost to Stanford, not Cal, and Colorado lost to USC in the Coliseum. So both of Colorado’s losses were on the road.

  7. Josh

    Nov 30, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    USC lost to Stanford, not Cal. Meaning, USC’s three losses were to #1 Bama, #18 Stanford, and #20 Utah – all in September.

    If Colorado loses to Washington, it will mean Colorado was unable to notch a Top 15 win. Meanwhile, USC has notched two Top 10 wins (one of those being against a current playoff team on the road, and the other being against Colorado – a game that, statistically, was not nearly as close as the score would indicate).

    I believe you are putting too much weight on wins and losses and not nearly enough weight on the quality of those wins and losses. Also, I am not sure if you were using the “this would mean so much to Colorado, not as much to USC because they have been there” as a valid argument for earning a berth. If you were, that is ridiculous. You can’t punish a school for being historically dominant. This is an entirely new USC team with its own identity and unique overcome adversity, and they deserve to be in the Rose Bowl if they earn it, just as the many USC teams before them have done.

  8. Frank

    Nov 30, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    USC didn’t lose to Cal.

  9. J Ham

    Nov 30, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    The problem is this 13th game for colorado is a perfect chance to compare colorado and USC. USC has the head-to-head win already and if colorado were to lose handily to a washington team that USC had no trouble defeating, the 13th game really just clears up the confusion between the two teams. Colorado’s best win will be stanford, USC’s will be to both division champs and top-10 Pac 12 teams. Colorado will have had the chance to beat washington and prove itself equivalent at least to USC and will have come out failing.

    It is not punishment for the Colorado team. At this point, Washington would go to the rose bowl based on rankings and record, the buffs would need the win anyway to go. If they lose, it becomes clear the difference between the buffs and the trojans, it rewards the team that deserves it most and therefore should put the trojans in.

    • King Wænd

      Nov 30, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      hey you’re a waænd

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