I’ll confess. Sometimes my “Stanford” personality just gets the better of me. Sometimes I waste hours on an intellectual pursuit—with no particular payout other than conquering a mental challenge. This is one of those times.
I wondered to myself: if the Pac-12 allowed 5-7 teams to go bowling, what would Stanford’s odds be? I did an elaborate calculation that involved scrupulously gathering bowl eligible teams, teams on the bubble, and APR rankings. I considered bowl bans, 13-game seasons, and number of FCS opponents. I topped it off with FPI win probabilities, Monte Carlo simulations, and a probability analysis. (For anybody who wants to see the nitty-gritty of my analysis, I’ll leave all the math in the first comment to this post.)
Ultimately, I determined the odds to be around 660-to-1 (0.15%). Even in an alternate universe where the Pac-12 allows 5-7 teams to go bowling, it still seems Stanford’s odds of bowling are nigh-on-impossible. But does nigh-on-impossible mean impossible?
Imagine for a moment that you have sitting in front of you the names of every working person in America. You randomly select a name. Do you think it’s at least possible that you selected the name of someone who works as a dentist?
If so, you’ve already conceded that in our alternate universe, it would be possible for Stanford to get a bowl game. In fact, the odds of Stanford going bowling would be even better than the odds of choosing a dentist (only 0.1% of American workers are dentists)!
After putting far too much work into a completely meaningless calculation, I began thinking about a sentiment I’d heard from a growing number of Stanford fans. Many told me: “The Notre Dame game is inconsequential. Why should I even watch?” Others told me: “I’m glad I’m a Stanford fan—if our football team is bad, we don’t even have to watch!”
I tried my hardest to come up with any reason whatsoever for a casual fan to watch the Notre Dame game. Does Stanford have anything to play for? Not really. Even if everything fell perfectly into place, Pac-12 rules bar 5-7 teams from a bowl game. Could we ruin Notre Dame’s season? Well, no. Not really. They already have two losses and even if they win, nobody expects them to get a NY6 Bowl anyway. How about the Legends Trophy? Not especially meaningful to casual fans. The trophy that mattered most is the one Stanford already lost: the axe.
And then I thought something that might be absolutely sacrilege: maybe—just maybe—the Pac-12 should allow 5-7 teams to go bowling. Maybe it shouldn’t stand alone as the lone conference that forbids it. I know, I know. Teams lose money by going to lesser bowls. And a team with a losing season does not deserve an appearance in a bowl game. Besides, even if the Pac-12 did allow 5-7 teams to go bowling, Stanford’s odds are still very remote.
But what if it did happen? I, for one, would suddenly be watching the Notre Dame game in silent suspense, wondering how it might end. I know it’s irrational. I know a 0.15% chance is only scarcely better than a 0% chance. But hear me out: it’s not exactly thrilling on Selection Sunday anticipating the fate of an undefeated power five team: everybody already knows it’s heading to the CFP. But to go into a game you’re supposed to lose—to go into a weekend with the odds stacked against you—with nothing but a hope and a prayer—I for one know that I’d be glued to my seat, mesmerized by the possibility of witnessing the seemingly impossible.
And isn’t that the goal of the Pac-12? The goal isn’t to save football programs money by avoiding lesser bowl games. The goal isn’t even to give teams what they deserve. The goal is to create a product that gets people to watch. Lucrative broadcast deals don’t get signed unless people are watching the games. And a Stanford-Notre Dame game with absolutely nothing at stake to the casual fan is guaranteed to get low viewership from Stanford fans.
Alas, the Pac-12 does not allow 5-7 teams to go bowling. And because of this, suddenly Stanford has nothing to play for—its fans have nothing to watch. And while Stanford won’t typically be 4-7 going into the final game of the season, there will be Pac-12 teams each season who are. Each and every one of these games could have stakes attached to them. But each year, we’ll turn blind eyes to these games that a Pac-12 rule rendered meaningless.
And will Stanford upset Notre Dame? Probably not. And will there be any bowl slots available for 5-7 teams? Again, probably not. And would Stanford get in even if slots were available? Not a guarantee.
But what if it did happen? What if—against all odds—everything fell perfectly into place? Before the Pac-12 rule, there was a chance. But now there is none.