Purdue played well enough this season to get an invitation to a bowl game. Not just any bowl, but a New Year’s Day bowl. Purdue played poorly enough this season to fire its coach. That, my friends, is the modern-day college football bowl system.
Purdue is somewhat of an unfair example. The Boilermakers are 6-6, but moved up in the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order because two of the better teams, Ohio State and Penn State, were ineligible. But Purdue is one of 12 6-6 teams going bowling (and not the only bowl team to fire its coach; 7-5 North Carolina State canned Tom O’Brien).
There is even a sub-.500 team, 6-7 Georgia Tech, playing in a bowl. The Yellow Jackets needed a waiver from the NCAA to become bowl eligible (their seventh loss came in the ACC Championship Game) and will face USC in the Sun Bowl. What a matchup. The Trojans are the first preseason No. 1 to lose five games since Ole Miss in 1964; a loss to Tech would make them the first to lose six. The good news for the Trojans and Yellow Jackets is that they’ll be getting Helen of Troy hair dryers as part of their bowl gift package. (For more about bowl gifts, check out my story from last season.)
The bowl field has been bloated for years, but this season’s exceptionally lame matchups have really driven that point home. Of course that criticism can’t be applied to the Bowl Championship Series. The BCS. We are told these bowls are important, and so they are.
For the second year in a row the Fiesta Bowl provides the best non-championship matchup, as Oregon plays Kansas State. These two schools were supposed to play this season but cancelled their meeting. Now the winning team’s fans have additional bragging rights.
Will Wisconsin have anything left for Stanford in the Rose Bowl? The Badgers went 4-4 in the Big Ten but made it to the conference championship because of the aforementioned postseason bans to the two top teams in its division. Once the Badgers got there, they beat Nebraska 70-31, becoming the first five-loss team to reach the Rose Bowl and making me wonder whether they saved every good play they had for the Big Ten title game.
Louisville head coach Charlie Strong will face Florida, where he was an assistant from 2002-2009, in the Sugar Bowl. Strong reportedly had a chance to return to the SEC as the head coach of Tennessee, but turned it down to stay put. In an interesting article for Grantland, Bryan Curtis wrote about how college football’s financial structure made Strong’s decision understandable.
Northern Illinois’ Orange Bowl invitation caused some backlash, which was silly. It’s as if some people were just realizing the BCS is a horrible system. The Huskies plan to use the criticism as motivation when they take on ACC champion Florida State.
“A lot of people don’t think we deserve to be there,” said NIU senior defensive tackle Nabal Jefferson, whom I spoke with earlier this month at the National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Awards. “We all have a chip on our shoulder. At Northern Illinois, a lot of us were too small for the Big Ten, not fast enough for the Big 12, so we use that as motivation. [The negativity surrounding us] is just motivation for us to prove to everyone that we deserve to be there. That’s the way we’re approaching the game.”
The final weekend of the regular season was a wild one for the Huskies, who won the MAC Championship on Friday, Nov. 30. Two days later, they learned their head coach, Dave Doeren, was leaving for North Carolina State, just a short time before their Orange Bowl berth became official. “It was definitely an up and down day,” Jefferson said. Northern Illinois, a 13.5-point underdog, will try to be the Boise State to FSU’s Oklahoma.
The National Championship, as you may have heard, features Notre Dame and Alabama. Notre Dame last played on Nov. 24. When the Irish take the field on Jan. 7 it will be for the first time in more than six weeks. Alabama last played on Dec. 1. It makes the preparation for the bowl game different than for other games during the season, when there is just one week (or two at the most) between games. I asked Barrett Jones, Alabama’s All-America center and the winner of the Scholar-Athlete Award. Jones will be appearing in his third national championship, so he knows as well as anyone the unique preparations for the game.
“The way we manage it is that the bowl game is almost like a small season of its own,” Jones said. “For the first few practices we go back to the camp-style practices, go back to the basics, and don’t focus on Notre Dame. If you just focus on the team you’re playing the whole time, it drives you crazy. It’s just too much time. We just work on us for a few days, because that’s the most important thing—what we do and how we execute. The last few practices we start to focus more on the opponent. We have a very specific strategy that Coach Saban uses. It has worked and we’re hoping it works again.”
Nick Saban took Alabama to the national championship last year and won 21-0 against a team he had lost to earlier in the season. He won in 2009. And he won in 2003 while at LSU. He knows how to put together a winning game plan and how to handle the time leading up to the game. I don’t think Notre Dame will simply be “happy to be there,” but there’s no substitute for having gone through this process before.