Bowl eligibility in college football at the NCAA Division I FBS level is the standard through which teams become available for selection to participate in postseason bowl games. When a team achieves this state, it is described as "bowl-eligible".
For nearly a century, bowl games were the purview of only the very best teams, but a steady proliferation of new bowl games required 70 participating teams by the 2010–11 bowl season, then 80 participating teams by the 2015–16 bowl season. As a result, the NCAA has steadily reduced the criteria for bowl eligibility, allowing teams with a non-winning (6–6) record in 2010, further reducing to allow teams with outright losing records (5-7) to be invited by 2012. For the 2016–17 bowl season, 25% of the bowl participants (20 teams) did not have a winning record.
Teams that are bowl eligible will usually either play in one of the bowl games that its conference is affiliated with based on conference tie-ins or the team will be chosen from the pool of remaining bowl eligible teams to fill one of the at-large positions. The various reductions in the bowl eligibility criteria are discussed below.
On April 26, 2006, the NCAA announced that they were relaxing the rules for eligibility starting with the 2006 season, particularly in light of the new twelve-game college football season. Now, teams with a minimum non-losing, or .500, record can qualify for bowl games if their conference has a contract with a bowl game. Also, other teams with a minimum non-losing .500 record (i.e. 6–6) could earn bowl bids if all other FBS teams with winning records have been taken and postseason spots still remain vacant. In thirteen-game seasons (used because of conference championship games, or allowable for Hawaiʻi and any of its home opponents in a given season), a team must win seven games.
Occasionally there will be more bowl eligible teams than there are spots in the NCAA football bowl games in the season. In these cases, some bowl eligible teams will not be invited to play in any NCAA football bowl game. Typically, teams with seven or more wins will not be left out of bowl games, although many seasons, most recently 2012, see at least one such team uninvited. Before the 2010–11 season, the Division I rulebook, specifically Bylaw 188.8.131.52, had several provisions that attempted to ensure that teams with seven wins will receive preference for bowl bids:
- Bowl games that have a contract with a conference must select a team with at least seven wins if one is available.
- Any bowl berths that become eligible when a conference fails to meet its contracted tie-ins must first be filled by any eligible seven-win teams before any remaining FBS 6–6 teams can be accommodated.
- Additionally, conferences are not allowed to sign contingency agreements with bowl games that would allow 6–6 teams from their conferences to receive bowl berths at the expense of any potential team with seven or more wins. While this does not prevent conferences from signing contingency agreements that are triggered when a second conference is unable to provide enough eligible teams to fill all of its contracted berths, it does not allow a 6–6 team from the contingency conference access to a bowl game over a seven win team from a third conference.
In 2008, these rules affected bowls contracted to the Big 12 and Pac-10, which each had at least one more bowl slot than eligible teams. The same applies to bowls contracted to the SEC. However, in that season, the WAC had a contingency agreement with one of the Pac-10's bowls, specifically the Poinsettia Bowl, providing that the bowl would select a WAC team (ultimately Boise State) if the Pac-10 did not have enough teams to fulfill their bowl contracts. The same contingency agreement applied in that season to the Sun Belt Conference and the Papa John's, Independence & St. Petersburg Bowls. Similarly, these rules affected bowls contracted to the ACC in 2009 because that conference has nine bowl tie-ins, but only had seven eligible teams that season.
Starting with the 2010–11 bowl season, the rule that required the selection of seven-win teams before any 6–6 teams was eliminated. The first season of the new rule saw Temple go uninvited despite going 8–4, including a win over eventual Big East BCS representative Connecticut. In the 2011-12 bowl season, the UCLA Bruins were invited to a bowl game despite a losing record after playing a conference championship game (6-6 in regular season, played and lost in Pac-12 Championship Game in extenuating circumstances), while 7-5 winning team Western Kentucky and 6-6 non-losing team Ball State did not receive invites.
Like NCAA sports where a tournament determines an automatic conference bid to the postseason tournament, a team can finish with a losing record (or a winning record but not eligible because of FCS wins) and still appear in a bowl game. In another change to bowl eligibility rules that took effect in 2010–11, a team that wins its conference but has an overall losing record must receive an NCAA waiver to appear in a bowl game. Previously, the waiver required no NCAA action. The new rule is still largely consistent with the NCAA rules in all other team sports, where a team that has a losing record that wins their conference championship through the conference tournament earns the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA typically awarded waivers in extenuating circumstances when a 6-6 team played in a conference championship game as a result of the division winning team being ineligible because of sanctions. This prevents the conference championship game from affecting bowl eligibility of team that advances to the conference championship in case of division-winning teams being sanctioned. The Pac-12 and ACC have both used it for such division champions, UCLA in 2011 and Georgia Tech in 2012, both of which were 6-6 and advanced to the conference championship game as a result of sanctions to the division winning teams (USC in the 2011 Pac-12 South, North Carolina and Miami in the 2012 ACC Coastal). Both lost in their conference championship games, but the NCAA awarded both waivers.
Starting with the 2013 season, this waiver is established by rule and all 6-6 teams participating in a conference championship game will be bowl eligible.
On August 2, 2012, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a significant change to the process to determine bowl eligible teams, going so far as to potentially allow 5-7 teams to go to a bowl, in case there were not enough regular bowl-eligible teams to fill every game. If a bowl has one or more conferences/teams unable to meet their contractual commitments and there are no available bowl-eligible teams, the open spots can be filled – by the particular bowl's sponsoring agencies – as follows:
- Teams finishing 6-6 with one win against a team from the lower Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), regardless of whether that FCS school meets NCAA scholarship requirements. Until now, an FCS win counted only if that opponent met the scholarship requirements—specifically, that school had to award at least 90% of the FCS maximum of 63 scholarship equivalents over a two-year period. In the 2012 season, programs in four FCS conferences cannot meet the 90% requirement (56.7 equivalents)—the Ivy League, which prohibits all athletic scholarships; the Pioneer Football League and Georgetown, which do not currently award football scholarships; and the Northeast Conference, which limits football scholarships to 38 equivalents.
- 6-6 teams with two wins over FCS schools.
- Teams that finish 6-7 with loss number seven in their conference championship game (that has been eliminated by the conference championship waiver rule).
- 6-7 teams that normally play a 13-team schedule, such as Hawaii's home opponents. Although Hawaii normally plays a 13-game schedule, it only played 12 games in the 2012 season.
- FCS teams who are in the final year of the two-year FBS transition process, if they have at least a 6-6 record.
- Finally, 5-7 teams that have a top-5 Academic Progress Rate (APR) score. This was later adjusted to allow other 5-7 teams to be selected thereafter—in order of their APR.
The 2015-16 bowl season featured a record 40 bowl games, and 3 teams with losing records (5-7 San Jose State, 5-7 Minnesota, 5-7 Nebraska).  Despite this, the Arizona Bowl was unable to fill teams for its Conference USA or alternate Sun Belt Conference tie-ins, leading to both teams being Mountain West Conference teams, and the first time since the 1979 Orange Bowl that a non-championship bowl game was played between members of the same conference.
- "Bylaw 184.108.40.206.1 Exception – Football Championship Subdivision Opponent" (PDF). 2010–11 NCAA Division I Manual. National Collegiate Athletic Association. p. 316. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- ESPN - NCAA approves 31 bowl games for 2006 - College Football at sports.espn.go.com
- "Bylaw 220.127.116.11 Exception – 12 Game Season" (PDF). 2009–10 NCAA Division I Manual. National Collegiate Athletic Association. pp. 354–55. Retrieved 2009-11-09.[dead link]
- "Bylaw 18.7.2 Postseason Football Championship and Postseason Bowl Licensing" (PDF). 2010–11 NCAA Division I Manual. National Collegiate Athletic Association. pp. 316–17. Retrieved 2010-11-28. Note that there is no provision in this rule that gives any preference to teams with seven or more wins over 6–6 teams.
- "Bylaw 18.104.22.168.2 Waiver for Conference Champion" (PDF). 2010–11 NCAA Division I Manual. National Collegiate Athletic Association. p. 316. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
- "Bylaw 31.3 Selection of Teams and Individuals for Championships Participation" (PDF). 2010–11 NCAA Division I Manual. National Collegiate Athletic Association. pp. 391–94. Retrieved 2010-11-28. See especially Bylaws 31.3.4 and 22.214.171.124.
- "Losing record? UCLA still wants a bowl".
- Hosick, Michelle Brutlag (May 2, 2013). "DI Board recognizes new conference, changes bowl qualification - NCAA.org". NCAA. Archived from the original on May 4, 2013.
- Johnson, Greg. "DI Board approves process to fill football bowls in case of shortfall". Retrieved 2 August 2012.
- "Forde-Yard Dash: Bowl edition".
- "Commissioner calls bowl matchup of two MWC teams 'a travesty'". ESPN.com. Retrieved 30 December 2015.