Seventy teams played in last year’s 35 bowls with only 8-4 Temple and 6-6 Western Michigan getting left out among bowl-eligible schools. This year’s bowl season again features 35 games and again, just two schools were left out of the mix among bowl-eligible teams. Miami-Florida was 6-6 but had a self-imposed bowl ban, leaving 6-6 Ball State and 7-4 Western Kentucky as the only two schools not going ‘bowling’ among teams which were eligible. Western Kentucky, the little school from Bowling Green, Ky, deserves special mention.
The Hilltoppers own a proud basketball tradition, reaching the Final Four back in 1971 led by Jim McDaniels, losing in double-overtime to Villanova in the semifinals. However, football is another story. The school was a transitional member of the FBS in 2007 and 2008 and became full members (as part of the Sun Belt) in 2009, a year in which the team went 0-12. Western Kentucky lost its final eight games in 2008, before going 0-12 in 2009. The team then lost its first six games of 2010 before winning 54-21 at Louisiana-Lafayette on October 23, ending a 26-game losing streak, the longest among all NCAA divisions. Almost exactly a year later (10/22/11), Western Kentucky snapped an 18-game home losing streak in a 42-23 win over again, Louisiana-Lafayette. Western Ky opened the 2011 season 0-4 but finished the season on a 7-1 run in SBC play to finish second in the conference. However, while both Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida International (Western beat BOTH schools) got bowl bids out of the SBC (as did league champions Arkansas St), the Hilltoppers got left out. In the name of James McDaniels, I cry foul!
A total of 13 schools with 6-6 records got bowl bids this year, plus UCLA got an invite after a loss in the Pac-12 championship game gave the Bruins a 6-7 record. Four bowl games will feature 6-6 opponents, including UCLA as a 6-6 team. I’ll touch on all of those four contests as I offer a few random thoughts on the 2011-12 bowl season. In Part II of my Bowl Preview, I’ll cover games through December 28.
The bowl season opens on Saturday December 17 with three games. Temple missed out last year despite an 8-4 record but this year the Owls’ 8-4 mark was good enough to meet 8-4 Wyoming (off a 3-9 year) in the New Mexico Bowl. It’s rare that this bowl features two 8-4 teams and Temple hopes for the school’s second-ever bowl win in the its fourth bowl appearance (beat Cal 28-17 in the 1979 Garden State Bowl). Ohio U (9-4) is ‘bowling’ for the fourth time in Frank Solich’s seven years but has yet to win one. That’s nothing new, as the Bobcats are 0-5 all-time in bowl games. They meet Utah State on the blue turf of Boise for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Aggies won their final five games to finish 7-5, the school’s first winning season since 1996. The New Orleans Bowl completes Saturday’s action with 8-4 UL-Lafayette (off a 3-9 season) playing in its first-ever bowl game against San Diego State (also 8-4). The Aztecs lost their coach (Brady Hoke) to Michigan but are playing in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1966 and 1967, when the school beat Montana State and then San Francisco State in consecutive Camellia Bowls. Now you KNOW, I couldn’t have made that up!
The bowl season resumes on December 20 in Florida with the Beef ’0’ Brady’s Bowl in St Petersburg. Florida International (8-4), only a full FBS member since 2005, is playing in its second straight bowl game, after winning a thriller over Toledo last year in the Little Caesars Bowl, 34-32. The Golden Panthers’ opponent is 6-6 Marshall, whose claim to fame in 2011 was beating Southern Miss 26-20 back on September 10. Up next is the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego (Dec 21), where 10-2 TCU faces 8-4 La Tech. The Horned Frogs have fallen a long way in just one season, as just last year, TCU became the first school from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in the Rose Bowl since the advent of the BCS. TCU beat Wisconsin 21-19 to finish 13-0 and become the eighth team in the BCS era to finish a season undefeated and not win a national championship. One wonders how motivated TCU will be here, after back-to-back BCS Bowl games (lost 17-10 to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago). The Horned Frogs better be careful, as the Bulldogs enter this game on a seven-game winning streak. Note that La Tech lost 19-17 at 11-2 Southern Miss, 35-34 at 12-1 Houston and 26-20 in OT at the SEC’s Mississippi State.
The MAACO Las Vegas Bowl follows on Thursday (12/22) with Boise State facing Arizona State. Since I wrote Part I of this article, Boise State has joined the Big East, so I guess the team’s head coach Chris Peterson is now in favor of the BCS, because his Broncos can now earn a BCS Bowl bid by winning the weakest of all the automatic qualifying leagues. I agree that Boise State got a raw deal again this year (see Part I for all the details) but I don’t believe Peterson or anyone at Boise State will be shedding any tears for a school which finds itself in a similar situation to Boise this year, now that the Broncos are part of a BCS conference. And so goes the hypocrisy.
The Hawaii Bowl is being played Christmas Eve, featuring 7-5 Nevada and 11-2 Southern Miss, fresh off its 49-28 win over Houston in the C-USA championship game. Talk about being delusional. Golden Eagles’ head coach Larry Fedora was being interviewed right after the game and the sideline reporter correctly noted that Southern Miss’ win over Houston, knocking the Cougars out of a BCS Bowl game, cost C-USA some $15 million. Fedora's response was that it shouldn’t have, as Southern Miss was worthy of a BCS spot. Really? Now I give Southern Miss its due, as the team just completed its 18th consecutive winning season but a BCS Bowl bid? Southern Miss lost 26-20 at 6-6 Marshall and if that’s not enough to disqualify the not-so Golden Eagles, how about the team's 34-31 loss at 3-9 UAB, a team which they were favored against by just over three TDs? I will agree that Southern Miss gets an unworthy opponent in Nevada, a team which followed last year’s record-breaking 13-1 season (Wolf Pack ended the year 11thin the final AP poll) by going 7-5 overall and not winning a Boise State-less WAC in 2011. The good news for Southern Miss is, it’s hard to beat the venue (Honolulu)!
The only football on Christmas Day will be the Bears at the Packers in the NFL but it’s back to ‘bowling’ on the 26th, as the Independence Bowl features a pair of non-descript 7-5 teams, North Carolina and Missouri (only bettors will have much interest in this one). December 27th’s Little Caesars Bowl will have a hard time matching last year’s game. FIU rallied from a 24-7 deficit against Toledo to take a 31-24 lead with just over three minutes to go. However, the Rockets re-took the lead with a TD and two-point conversion with 1:18 left, only to see FIU kick the game-winning FG from 34 yards with 0:00 left on the clock. Purdue and Western Michigan were both 6-6 this year (the first of four bowls between 6-6 teams) with Purdue coming off three consecutive losing seasons and Western Michigan getting a bowl bid at 6-6, after being denied one in 2010 with the same record. Note that this is WMU’s fifth bowl invite and the Broncos are still looking for their first-ever win (0-4 all-time).
The Belk Bowl, formerly the Meinke Car Care Bowl, will also be played on the 27th in Charlotte. Louisville, which like Cincinnati, lost the Big East’s tie-breaker to West Virginia. So instead of representing the conference in a BCS Bowl, the 7-5 Cardinals (winners of five of their last six), take on 7-5 North Carolina St, playing in its home state. The Wolfpack finished with five wins in their last seven, including beating then-No. 7 Clemson 37-13 and Maryland 56-41 in their last two games. You just may have heard about the team’s final regular season game vs Maryland. The Terps led 41-14 with six minutes left in the third quarter but NC State then scored the next six times it touched the ball, in what incredibly is only the second-biggest comeback in ACC history (Clemson trailed Virginia 28-0 back in 1992 before winning, 29-28!).
Wednesday, December 28 features the Military Bowl from Washington, D.C and the Holiday Bowl from San Diego. Toledo (8-4) averages 42.3 PPG (8th) and 7-5 Air Force 34.4 PPG (22nd), so expect a high-scoring Military Bowl, weather permitting. Mack Brown came to Texas in 1998 and the Longhorns never won less than nine games (won 10 or more in nine straight years from 2001-09) in a season before falling to 5-7 in 2010. The Longhorns are back ‘bowling’ in 2011 at 7-5 and will face California. Jeff Tedford took over a Cal program in 2002, which hadn’t had a winning season since 1993. He went 7-5 in 2002 and then led the Bears to seven consecutive bowl appearances before finishing 5-7 last year. However, like Texas, Cal went 7-5 this year and that sets the stage for what is hardly an inspiring Holiday Bowl matchup.
Part III of my 2011-12 Bowl Preview will be available on Christmas Day, covering the 11 bowl games from December 29-31.