BOSTON (MainStreet) -- College football bowl games will hand out the first $1.8 million of their more than $260 million in payouts this weekend, but some bowls are deeper than others when it comes to their coffers.The three bowl games played Saturday are the first of 35 that will kick off between now and Jan. 8. Of the 120 teams in the NCAA's Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, only 50 won't be playing in bowl games. The requirements for bowl eligibility are so loose that a dozen teams, or more than 17% of the bowl field, qualified with 6-6 regular-season records. UCLA, at 6-7 on the year, managed to sneak into the Kraft ( KFT) Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year's Eve with a losing record. At least UCLA's conference, the Pac-12, will see a big chunk of that $260 million. More than half of the total bowl payout goes immediately to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big 10, Pac-12, Big 12 and Southeast Conference -- whose champions get automatic bids and who soaked up most of the at-large bids this year. Those conference's champions and at-large squads that secured bids in the Bowl Championship Series' biggest events, including the all-SEC Louisiana State-Alabama BCS National Championship game, have exclusive rights to the more than $90 million paid out by the Bowl Championship Series' five biggest events. That's just fine by Vizio, Discover ( DFS), Allstate ( ALL) and PepsiCo's ( PEP) Frito-Lay, which paid millions for multiyear sponsorship of the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, respectively, with rotating sponsorship of the BCS Championship game. Fox ( NWS), meanwhile pays $20 million per game to broadcast four of the five BCS games, while ABC's contract for the Rose Bowl cost it $300 million through 2014. The next most lucrative bowl pays more than $11 million less than a BCS matchup and both sponsors and the BCS are happy to keep it that way. This top-heavy bowl power structure can get problematic. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl found out the hard way this year this year when its governing body was fined $1 million and its $600,000-a-year chief executive fired for directing some of the bowl's $11.6 million profit toward illegal campaign contributions. It also doesn't help that even teams that qualify for BCS bowls can find themselves strapped for the experience. Last season, only 20 of the FBS' 120 athletic departments turned a profit. That's up from 14 the year before, but still represents a sharp division between the top 17% and everyone else. The ACC's Virginia Tech, for example, reported its athletic department was nearly $500,000 in the red after the costs of going to the Orange Bowl earlier this year outweighed the payout. This year, Virginia Tech has sold fewer than 10,000 of the 17,500 tickets allotted to the school for its Sugar Bowl appearance. This year's Orange Bowl, meanwhile, features a West Virginia team that's sold little more than 7,000 of its 17,500 tickets and a Clemson team that's having a tough time breaking 6,000. The Arizona Republic found that 41% of schools that went to BCS bowl games since 2007 reported losses as a result. Even small bowls can end up bleeding a school. Two years ago, Fresno State played in the New Mexico Bowl and ended up spending nearly $400,000 more than its Western Athletic Conference got out of the deal. The same happened to Missouri at the 2009 Texas Bowl (now the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas) when its trip to Houston went $470,000 over the Big XII's take. With our mind on bowl money and bowl money on teams' minds, we took a look at the five most lucrative non-BCS bowls and the five bowls with the smallest payouts to see what games were worth playing. Let's just say it doesn't look good for Saturday's starting slate.
1. AT&T (T) Cotton Bowl
Jan. 6 in Arlington, Texas
No. 8 Kansas State vs. No. 6 Arkansas
There should be this much money involved for two teams that probably should have been in BCS bowls in the first place. Arkansas wasn't helped by an LSU-Alabama Take Two title game that gave the SEC two spots in the BCS. Kansas State, meanwhile, doesn't draw like Michigan or Stanford, allegedly doesn't draw as well as undersold Virginia Tech and doesn't have the the Big East and ACC automatic bids of West Virginia and Clemson -- yet has already sold 14,000 tickets to its bowl game, or more than the latter two combined. Still, these two teams get Jan. 6 all to themselves, the biggest payout of any non-BCS bowl and the cold comfort of knowing that theirs is the best matchup left before the BCS title game. It's little consolation, but it's the best the bowls had to offer. Besides, it could have been a lot worse: They could be sent to the purgatory that is the $1 million Maaco Bowl Las Vegas in Whitney, Nev., and forced to play a 6-6 pushover from the Pac-12 such as No. 7 Boise State will on Dec. 22. Count your blessings and thank your conferences.
Jan. 2 in Orlando, Fla.
No. 20 Nebraska vs. No. 9 South Carolina
When you've played well enough to be ranked in the Top 10 and give some teams a scare, but not really well enough to get anyone excited about a BCS appearance without an automatic bid, this is your kind of bowl. It has a big payout, it's in sunny Orlando in winter and, if not for this year's Sunday scheduling, it's usually a New Year's Day bowl. That's not bad for a full season's work, even if your friends and relatives have to put up with those viking commercials during breaks in the action. Besides, if you have to endure a cold season in Nebraska and not come away with a Big 10 championship your first year in the conference, you can at least get a January trip to Disney ( DIS) World out of the deal.
Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.
No. 17 Michigan State vs. No. 16 Georgia
This is one of the few football games in Tampa that won't get blacked out on national television this year. Like a late-night purchase of a Bloomin' Onion appetizer after a long night of Foster's drinking, the Outback Bowl doesn't seem like the best idea until it actually happens. With ESPN pretty much monopolizing the bowl game slate on Jan. 2, this is the one game that's made it to ABC and given casual fans a fighting chance to see it. Combine that exposure with warm Gulf weather and payout with a weekend in Tampa/St. Pete and you're not only giving teams motivation to head south for the holiday, but you're giving people in their frozen Midwest hometowns plenty of reason to watch.
Jan. 31 in Atlanta
No. 25 Auburn vs. Virginia
This is where the rankings start to fall off a bit and the enticements get real. Auburn and Virginia have the kind of fan bases that can fill the Georgia Dome on a non-bowl night, but those big programs won't get out of bed and come to your bowl if there isn't big money involved. Paying out more than $3 million for a major city bowl that's fairly accessible to both fan bases is generous to say the least. Even if certain members of your student body feel strongly about a certain sponsor's views on kale and marriage, your conference's thanks for bringing in yet another big payday will certainly salve the wound.
Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Ohio State vs. Florida
In just about every other sport in America, a clash between two .500 teams wouldn't warrant millions of dollars in investment. When one is basically a bowl's home team and the other is one of the biggest brands in college sports from a region that contributes a sizable snowbird population to that bowl's home state, the price tends to go up. Ohio State (6-6) and Florida (6-6) are a dream matchup for a Gator Bowl already relegated to ESPN2. Ex-Florida coach Urban Meyer is heading to Columbus next year and basically wrote the Gator Bowl's subplot months ago. Throw in the fact both teams have played for the national championship twice in the past six years -- including Florida's 41-14 drubbing of the Buckeyes in 2006 -- and it's tough for this year's mediocre Buckeyes and Gators to walk away from that multimillion-dollar payday.
1. R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 17 in New Orleans
San Diego State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
How low is this bowl's payout? Middle Tennessee State is an eight-and-a-half-hour drive away and the school and its Sun Belt Conference still lost $50,000 sending the team there in 2009. While playing in the Superdome is nothing to scoff at -- especially considering it's hosting this year's title game and the 2013 Super Bowl -- the money being offered to poor San Diego State is only questionably enough to send the team all the way from California, never mind a band and fans. Even when they arrive, the teams have the "honor" of playing in a 76,000-seat stadium that has never drawn more than 31,000 for this event. Like all too many a night on Bourbon Street, this bowl seems like a really good idea at the time but ends up costing a whole lot later.
Dec. 17 in Boise, Idaho
University of Ohio vs. Utah State
This bowl exists in a negative universe where, somehow, getting dragged out to Idaho in the middle of winter is considered a reward for getting hit at full speed for an entire season. Think we're overreacting? Consider this tweet from University of Ohio punter Paul Hershey upon finding out his team was picked to play in this bowl after losing the Mid-American conference's championship game to Northern Illinois: "Idaho?? Who the f--- wants to play there in December??" That's the punter talking. You know, the guy who doesn't even need to be on the field for the majority of the game. If the guy who can sit under a pile of blankets for most of the game doesn't want to make the trip across the Midwest for your bowl, just imagine the kind of grumbling coming from the guys who'll actually be in those 41-degree-and-below temperatures for whole shifts at a time. If this doesn't motivate a team not to lose their conference title game the following year, few things will.
Dec. 27 in Detroit
Purdue vs. Western Michigan
Congratulations, you're going to Detroit. Yes, it's wonderful that college teams get to play in an NFL stadium such as Ford Field, but what does a team have to do to earn the "honor" of spending its postseason in a town giving itself over to urban farming? If you're a Big 10, BCS-eligible school such as Purdue, you go 6-6 and make fans of your mediocre squad long for the days of Drew Brees. If you're Western Michigan, you have to play just well enough to miss your conference championship by a slight margin but just poorly enough to avoid losing said championship and playing on frozen blue turf in Idaho instead of in a heated indoor stadium. Basically, if you're a college football team in a Great Lakes state with nothing better to do just days after Christmas, this might be for you.
Jan. 8 in Mobile, Ala.
Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State
The MAC's trail of indignity ends in a late-night game in Mobile. In a bowl landscape where TaxSlayer.com gets top billing for one of the bigger games, Danica Patrick-pimping domain dealer GoDaddy.com's sponsorship is the least of this game's problems. We understand that this is the last bowl game before the BCS championship, but shouldn't Northern Illinois get a bigger reward for willing its conference than a game in the home of the University of South Alabama Jaguars? Shouldn't Arkansas State get more than a short schlep for winning the Sun Belt? In fairness, Mobile is a pretty fun town and it's low-60s temperatures are nothing to sneeze at in January, but its cozy confines and its bowl's low-budget payday don't exactly make it a city of champions.
Dec. 17 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Wyoming vs. Temple
It's the first bowl aired, but one of the last bowls anyone wants to see. Taking leftovers from the MAC and the Mountain West Conference, this bowl gets exactly what it pays for. It's the 2 p.m. EST offering on ESPN and is really hoping for Temple's Philadelphia market share at this point. That sub-million payout figure isn't a whole lot for a team on the East Coast sending its whole squad and staff to the Southwest, but this is still an upgrade for Temple after being kicked out of the Big East for habitual losses and a lack of bowl appearances. For both its and Wyoming's trouble, however, both teams get to play in an open-air stadium on a day where the high is supposed to be a punter-freezing 41 degrees and snow is still a possibility. On a day of small bowls with tiny payouts, New Mexico's not the worst. Perhaps that's the best it can hope for. -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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