Every year at this time, though oddly not in this year for some reason, you hear about some team that went 6-5 or 6-6 and whose fans say, "We should turn down a bowl because we don't deserve one." Rarely does any actual football team agree, and it would be utter foolishness to turn down an opportunity to go to a bowl game.
OK, let's say you're 6-6 and you've been invited to the Independence Bowl to play another 6-6 team. Have you had a great season? Well, no. Is anyone other than your fan base, some die hard conference followers, and the other team's fan base going to be really interested in watching? Probably very few people. Will you really be "salvaging" your season with a win? No. Will a loss, giving you a losing record, make the season an unmitigated disaster? Well, here I think the answer is "not really." The season is already a disaster and a loss in the bowl game won't make a hill of beans of difference.
But a bowl game gives you something. It gives you two weeks of practice, essentially another Spring Practice session. For teams not really playing for very much, this is an excellent opportunity to get young players a lot of reps, which they haven't really gotten since August. This is an excellent building block for the next season.
Back in February, in one of my first ever blog posts, I said of Spring Practice, "It is said that the typical player will make the biggest improvement he will ever make during his first Spring Practice." The bowl practices aren't exactly like Spring Practice, where the previous year's seniors are gone and the team is focused exclusively on trying to prepare for the following season, but it is a nice head start. You have an extra week of practice, so you aren't strictly installing a game plan for the next game like is typical during the season.
When installing a game plan during a game week, a team is pretty much limited to getting its regular rotation of players the practice reps. With an extra week of practice (and especially with a less than colossal matchup) there will be more instruction, more drilling, and more reps for the younger players. This is a valuable asset that non-bowl teams will not get.
It also rewards your players, who get to go to a new city (yay Shreveport!) and get some swag for their season. Granted, Rose Bowl swag is a lot nicer than I-Bowl swag, but hey it's free stuff that you can legally give your players. If you tried to do it without a bowl game, the NCAA would come and kick you in the groin.
It is my recollection, though I haven't actually looked it up, that Notre Dame once declined to go to a bowl game because they did not believe they deserved it. This was utter foolishness and it did nothing but hurt them.
I overheard some talking head saying that a win in a bowl game also gives a team momentum heading into the next season. While this may be true, I am doubtful of this particular alleged benefit. I'm not going to do an exhaustive study on the win percentage of teams that won bowl games last year versus that of teams that lost bowl games versus teams that did not participate in bowl games. Let me just say that in the National Championship game, we have a matchup of a team that won a bowl game versus a team that lost it. In the Rose Bowl we have a bowl winner versus a team that did not go to a bowl game. In the Fiesta, we have a team that won its bowl game versus a team that lost its bowl game.
The 2003 LSU team that won the national championship was coming off a loss in the previous Cotton Bowl (incidentally, our only recent bowl loss). The 2007 LSU team that is playing for the national championship is coming off a bowl win, but Ohio State is coming off a blowout bowl loss. Eh, if there's a correlation, it is not clear to me.
But anyway, if you get invited to a bowl game, be happy and go play it. College football tightly restricts and regulates practice time, and going to a bowl game gives you significantly more of it than you would otherwise have. Take advantage of it.