The idea of holiday “bowl” games in college football probably started with Amos Alonzo Stagg, a disciple of one of college football’s founding fathers, former Yale coach Walter Camp. In 1892, Stagg became the first paid college football coach, hired by the newly formed University of Chicago to create a football program as a means of promoting the school. On Christmas Day 1894, Stagg’s Chicago Maroons traveled to San Francisco to play the first match in a two-game exhibition against another recently founded private school, Stanford University. Chicago won the first game 24-4, but Stanford rebounded four days later to win the rematch 12-0 in Los Angeles. Chicago then played two more exhibition games out west — including a 52-0 drubbing of the Salt Lake City YMCA — before returning home.
Seven years later, Stanford would play in what is generally regarded as the first official bowl, the Tournament East-West football game sponsored by the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. The group had staged an annual New Year’s Day parade since 1890 and to help cover costs for the 1902 event, Stanford and Michigan were invited to play a football game. It wasn’t much of an exhibition. Michigan dominated college football in 1901, outscoring its previous ten opponents a combined 501-0 (including a 128-0 squeaker over Buffalo). Stanford fared no better, losing 49-0.
Although the Tournament of Roses turned a handsome profit of about $3,200 on the game, Stanford’s non-competitive performance led the Association to run a chariot race the next year instead of football. The Rose Bowl as we know it today did not become a permanent fixture of the Tournament until New Year’s Day 1916, when Washington State won its first (and to date, only) Rose Bowl over Brown.
The formation of the Southeastern Conference in 1932 coincided with the rise of additional bowl games during the 1930s, including Miami’s Festival of Palms Bowl (later renamed the Orange Bowl), the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the Sun Bowl in El Paso, and the Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas. The SEC fielded its first bowl teams on New Year’s Day 1935. Alabama defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl 29-13, while Tulane defeated a previously unbeaten Temple team in the inaugural Sugar Bowl 20-14 (which was played at Tulane Stadium).
Tulane’s victory marked the beginning of the SEC’s long affiliation with the Sugar Bowl, although no conference member would win the game again until 1943, when Tennessee defeated Tulsa. The last time no SEC team participated in the Sugar Bowl was 2000, when Virginia Tech played Florida State for the BCS championship. Under the current BCS rules, the winner of the SEC Championship Game automatically qualifies for the Sugar Bowl unless, as has been the case the past five years, that team qualifies for the BCS National Championship Game. When that happens, the Sugar Bowl may select any other eligible BCS team as a replacement. In practice, the Sugar Bowl has always chosen the next-best available SEC team.
After the BCS and the Sugar Bowl, the Capital One Bowl has the next choice of SEC teams. This game was established in Orlando in 1947 as the Tangerine Bowl and originally featured smaller colleges from the South and the Ohio Valley Conference. The first SEC team to play in the bowl was Florida, which lost the December 1973 game to Miami of Ohio. In 1983, the name was changed to the Florida Citrus Bowl. Tennessee won that first Citrus Bowl 30-23 over Maryland. The SEC also inaugurated the second name change to the Capital One Bowl in 2003, when Auburn defeated Penn State 13-9.
Under its agreement with the SEC, the Capital One Bowl is obligated to take the SEC runner-up if it is not selected for the Sugar Bowl. This only applies, however, if the runner-up has at least two more wins than the next available SEC team.
After the Capital One Bowl, the Outback Bowl, played in Tampa, has first choice of any remaining SEC East teams, while the Cotton Bowl has priority over the SEC West. The Outback Bowl was established in Birmingham in 1977 as the Hall of Fame Classic. It was sponsored by the National Football Foundation (currently chaired by Ole Miss alum Archie Manning) and its affiliated College Football Hall of Fame. In 1986, the Foundation moved game to Tampa. A separate organization continued to run a successor bowl game in Birmingham, the All-American Bowl, until 1992, when that game was displaced by the newly created SEC Championship Game. The Tampa Hall of Fame Bowl acquired Outback Steakhouse as a title sponsor in 1995. Like the Capital One Bowl, the Outback Bowl pairs its SEC team against a Big 10 opponent.
The Cotton Bowl Classic has fallen into the second tier of bowls despite its location and long tenure. A Texas oilman financed the first game, held in 1937 between Texas Christian and Marquette. For most of its history, the Cotton Bowl featured the Southwest Conference champion, but when that conference dissolved in 1996, other bowls, notably the Fiesta Bowl, supplanted the Cotton Bowl in stature. The Cotton Bowl has tried to regain its top-tier status in recent years, moving from its eponymous stadium to the new Cowboys Stadium and lobbying for inclusion as a BCS bowl. But for now, it remains home to an SEC West also-ran versus the first non-BCS qualifier out of the Big 12.
The fifth bowl in the SEC lineup is the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A Bowl, which also sponsors a regular season “kickoff” game each year (as Georgia fans no doubt wish to forget). This game started as the Peach Bowl in December 1968, when LSU defeated Florida State 31-27. Chick-fil-A acquired the full naming rights in 2006. Given its location in the heart of SEC country, the Chick-fil-A Bowl is generally well attended and claims to have the second-longest consecutive sellout streak (14 as of 2010) after the Rose Bowl. The SEC selectee plays the first non-BCS team qualified from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Another historic game that’s fallen into the depths is the Jacksonville-based Gator Bowl, which started in 1946. The Gator Bowl is probably best remembered as Ohio State coach Woody Hayes’s final game, in 1978, after he punched an opposing player. After the Sugar Bowl, the SEC’s longest affiliation is with the Gator Bowl, dating back to 1953, when Florida defeated Tulsa. Today, the Gator Bowl provides the third postseason match-up between the SEC and the Big 10.
The next two bowls on the SEC roster are based in Tennessee. The Liberty Bowl, played in Memphis, matches an SEC team against the champion of Conference USA. The Music City Bowl, played in Nashville, provides a second SEC-ACC bowl contest.
The Liberty Bowl actually dates back to 1959, when a former Villanova athletics director decided to organize the first cold-weather bowl in Philadelphia. Penn State defeated Alabama in the first game, 7-0. The game struggled in Philly for five years before moving to Atlantic City for one year in 1964, where it became the first indoor bowl game. The next year, the game moved to Memphis. At different times the Liberty Bowl has been affiliated with the service academies and the Mountain West Conference, but it has hosted Conference USA’s champion since that conference’s formation in 1996. South Carolina became the first SEC Liberty Bowl team of the BCS era, defeating Houston in the 2006 game.
The Nashville Sports Council established the Music City Bowl in 1998 for the express purpose of staging a bowl with an SEC team. The first game — a Virginia Tech rout of Alabama — was played at Vanderbilt Stadium; the game has been played at the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field since 1999. The only Music City Bowl that did not feature an SEC team was the 2005 game between Minnesota and Virginia.
The final, and newest, bowl game in the SEC lineup is the BBVA Compass Bowl. This game actually originated with the demise of the All-American Bowl mentioned earlier. That game ended when the SEC awarded its championship game to Birmingham in 1992. But the SEC left Birmingham for Atlanta two years later. In 2006, postseason football returned to Birmingham as the PapaJohns.com Bowl, which featured South Florida and East Carolina. In 2010, the title sponsorship changed to BBVA Compass, a Birmingham-based financial services subsidiary of a Spanish bank. The SEC affiliation began in 2010 when Connecticut defeated South Carolina 20-7. Pittsburgh defeated Kentucky last year. This is the only bowl that matches up SEC and Big East teams. If the SEC doesn’t produce a ninth bowl-eligible team, the BBVA Compass Bowl selects a team from the Sun Belt Conference instead.