Matt Kupec: Which University Has Had the Longest Major Bowl Game Drought?

By Matt Kupec

October 4, 2018

A week ago I wrote a blog about my return to Kenan Stadium after a six year absence to watch UNC battle the Pittsburgh Panthers. It was a special time for my son Matthew and me and it brought back such great memories of representing UNC in the Carolina blue in the most beautiful stadium in America.

In the blog, we mentioned Carolina’s underwhelming football history, particularly as it relates to major bowl game participation. UNC has played in a long list of lower tier bowl games but it has been since 1950 since the Tar Heels last played in a major bowl game. On January 1, 1950 — that’s right 68 years ago — the Tar Heels marched into the Cotton Bowl behind All-American legend Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice to take on the Texas Longhorns.

But UNC’s long drought triggered a thought. How does UNC woeful record compare to the FBS teams in the major conferences when it comes to playing in major bowls? Who has the longest major bowl drought? Are there alumni at other schools with similar sentiments to that of the great UNC benefactor Phil Phillips who regularly would say to me that it was “my dream to see the Tar Heels play in one major bowl in my lifetime!”

I believe you will find the following information very interesting.

For purposes of the article, we have identified the major bowls as the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, and Fiesta. One could make the case that the Cotton Bowl has lost a bit of its luster over the years and that the Peach Bowl should be included since it is a Group of Six Bowls. But since my days at UNC when we were always reminded that the last UNC team to play in a major bowl game was Justice’s 1950 Cotton Bowl squad, we are going to include the Cotton Bowl as a major bowl!

I gave you the date of UNC’s last major bowl appearance as 1950 but what about the others? Has anybody had a longer drought? We have looked at every Major Bowl game from 1935–2018. There are 65 teams (including Notre Dame) the five major power conferences. Fifty-two teams have played in a major bowl in the last 18 years leaving only 13 remaining who have either never played in a major bowl game (5), or those schools who have had a very long drought since the last appearance in a major bowl game (8).

Let’s take a look at the major bowl droughts:

Surprises: Teams that Have Played in Major Bowls in Recent Years. There were a number of teams who I thought would have had longer droughts from major bowl games. Teams like Kansas, Illinois and Wake Forest have not exactly been powerhouses over the last decade but yet all three have played in a major bowl game in the last three decades. UCLA is surprising because it has been 19 years since the Bruins last appeared in the Rose Bowl.

Surprise: Recent Major Bowl Appearances of Select Teams

Shocking: Teams that Have Never Been to a Major Bowl Game. Surprisingly, there are five schools that have never been to major college bowl. Anybody shocked by these teams? South Carolina has had the most success of this group, particularly the three recent 11–2 seasons under Coach Steve Spurrier but the Gamecocks bowl games during that stretch were two Capital One Bowl games and the Outback Bowl. NC State is shocking because the Wolfpack have enjoyed many successful seasons but never enough to reach major bowl game participation.

Teams With No Major Bowl Game Appearances

Longest Droughts of Teams Since They Last Played a Major Bowl Game. Here is the dreaded list of longest streak in terms of years since the school has played in a major bowl game. You don’t want to be on this list and UNC leads it followed by Kentucky and Duke.

Teams with the Longest Major Bowl Droughts Since Their Last Appearance

What is interesting to note is that the top three schools with the longest drought are better known as “basketball schools.” In fact, Kentucky (#1), UNC (#3), and Duke (#4) are three of the top four programs with the most basketball teams. Somehow, Kansas (#2) was able to play in two Orange Bowls over the last couple of decades. It makes me think about the blog I wrote about whether a school can enjoy basketball and football success at the same time?

So What About UNC’s Streak? I didn’t realize it was this bad. This is not a good statement on my UNC football program. It has been 68 years since UNC has played in a major bowl. And frankly, there haven’t been many close calls since then! This is a program that ranks #28th in all-time football wins (excluding Ivy League and FCS schools), has produced a great many NFL players, has a picturesque stadium on a beautiful campus and the school is ranked as one of the best public universities in America. What gives? Phil Phillips, I am getting worried that the Tar Heels may not deliver your wish for a major bowl game during your lifetime!!

About the Author

Matt Kupec (