The Weekend Review
Has it really come to this? Number of bowl-eligible teams dangerously low
Posted: Sunday November 28, 2004 8:10PM; Updated: Monday November 29, 2004 1:11PM
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We're not kidding.
If you provide the helmets and shoulder pads and promise to sell a few thousand tickets, we'll provide you with first-class accommodations, meals and a week's worth of action-packed activities in such exotic locales as Boise, Idaho, Fort Worth, Texas, or Detroit. No purchase necessary, just please sign up. For the love of God, we're begging you!
OK, so it hasn't reached quite that drastic a scenario, but this season's bowl lineup will wind up coming as close as humanly possible to having to answer that dreaded question we've all been asking for several years now: What if there aren't enough teams to fill all 28 bowls?
A bizarre series of events over the past week has brought the projected number of eligible bowl teams down to 57 for 56 available spots -- and left bowl officials across the country pulling their hair out. Unfortunately for fans of a doomsday scenario, the lowest the final total can reach is exactly 56, which will only happen if Hawaii loses Saturday against Michigan State.
A quick recap of the week that was in bowl-eligibility:
On Monday, officials for South Carolina and Clemson announced they will not accept bowl invitations this season as punishment for an ugly brawl in their Nov. 20 game. Take two off the table. On Friday, Colorado beats Nebraska 26-20, leaving the Huskers at 5-6 and ending their 35-year streak of postseason appearances, while LSU routs 5-5 Arkansas 43-14, ending any chance of the SEC being able to meet all its bowl arrangements. That's four teams down. On Saturday, Syracuse provides the lone bowl "upset," knocking off Boston College to finish 6-5 and giving the Big East a rare surplus of eligible teams (six, including Notre Dame). Later in the day, however, Tulane ends 5-5 TCU's season, while around 3 a.m. EST, Hawaii knocks off Northwestern, leaving the Big Ten's fourth-place team ineligible at 6-6. Cumulative count on the week: Minus-six.
All of which means that if your team finished with a winning record, it's all but guaranteed to wind up somewhere this bowl season. Therefore the Mid-American Conference, which has never before garnered more than two invites in the same year -- and which a year ago saw a 10-win Northern Illinois team get left at home -- could have as many as six this year (Miami of Ohio, Toledo, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, Marshall and Akron), while Connecticut and Troy (formerly Troy State), both just a few years removed from I-AA, likely will be making their first-ever bowl trips.
Not to take anything away from these teams, for whom reaching any bowl game will mean as much to their program as a BCS berth does for the big boys, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we've got a problem here. The bowls will avoid an all-out crisis this year by the skin of their teeth, but it's only a matter of time before it happens. What if Alabama was still under a bowl ban this year? What if a school were to turn down an invite for academic reasons (Virginia has already said it will not play in the Dec. 21 Champs Sports Bowl, which conflicts with finals). Are we really that far away from the day that two 5-6 teams square off in a bowl game?
The powers-that-be will ramble on about how wonderful an experience these trips are for the players, and that's certainly true. But how wonderful is it for college football to have New Mexico and Syracuse play in front of 18,000 fans two days before Christmas? Honestly?
Currently, the NCAA's recertification process for bowl games is about as rigorous as a Jim Harrick Jr. test. Basically, as long as they can put up the necessary funds, all 28 games will be right back in business next year, and there are cities as we speak formulating plans for new ones, not to mention the BCS is creating its own, new game in 2006.
And to think, this is the system whose "integrity" the university presidents are so concerned about preserving that they won't even utter the word "playoff." These days, as officials for the lower-tier bowls frantically work the phones in hopes of wooing a Troy or Akron, the system reeks of a different word: "desperate."
Player of the Week
Diamond Ferri, RB/S, Syracuse: A Massachusetts kid, Ferri did everything possible -- literally -- to ensure Boston College wouldn't be leaving the Big East with a BCS berth. The Orange's starting strong safety the past two seasons, Ferri was a running back when he first arrived at Syracuse four years ago. When starter Damien Rhodes -- himself a replacement for the injured Walter Reyes -- went down with a left knee contusion in the first quarter Saturday, Ferri was pressed into service in his old role. All he did was carry 28 times for 141 yards and two touchdowns (he'd had one previous rushing attempt all season) in addition to playing special teams and defense, where he returned a fourth-quarter interception 44 yards for a touchdown to seal Syracuse's 43-17 upset.
"What you saw was a kid who loves football," said Orange coach Paul Pasqualoni, who noted that Ferri was on the field for 125 plays. "The true definition of a college football player."
It was the signature moment of an up-and-down career for Ferri, a former all-everything recruit who got off to a rough start, playing sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, then leaving school for a year following an academic-related suspension. Upon returning in 2003, he switched to defense and became a star, but ultimately, it was his return to offense that provided his greatest highlight to date. Said Rhodes: "That's probably one of the biggest performances I've ever seen in my entire life, in any sport, to be able to come in and play like that."
USC QB Matt Leinart (24-of-34, 400 yards, five TDs, no INTs) vs. Notre Dame; Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams (28 carries, 263 yards, two TDs) vs. South Florida; Hawaii WR Chad Owens (nine catches, 155 yards, four TDs; 76-yard punt return for TD) vs. Northwestern; Kent State WR Darrell Dowery Jr. (13 catches, 240 yards, two TDs) vs. UCF; Georgia DE Quentin Moses (three sacks) vs. Georgia Tech; Bowling Green QB Omar Jacobs (36-of-60, 415 yards, four TDs, no INTs) vs. Toledo; Texas RB Cedric Benson (33 carries, 165 yards, 1 TD) vs. Texas A&M; Arizona CB Antoine Cason (12 tackles, forced fumble) vs. Arizona State; Louisville LB Chad Rimpsey (two forced fumbles, sack, blocked punt) vs. Cincinnati.
Team of the week
Arizona: The Wildcats may have finished 3-8 in their first season under Mike Stoops, but they managed to give their fans something to celebrate for the next 364 days. On Friday, Arizona stunned its arch-rival, No. 18 Arizona State, 34-27 with an inspired performance that seemed in no way to mirror its previous 10 games. The Wildcats' offense, one of the worst in the country all season, experienced a long-awaited awakening, with quarterback-of-the-future Richard Kovalcheck completing 17 of 31 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns, and running back Mike Bell running for 139 yards. They gained a season-high 398 yards. And while the defense gave up plenty of yards to Andrew Walter and the Sun Devils' offense (Walter left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder separation), they also forced five ASU turnovers and converted them into 24 points.
"I think we showed our true colors today," Stoops said afterward. "As the game wore on, we played more confidently, and played up to the end."
He whose mom giveth, receiveth
If this nugget from the Denver Post doesn't make you believe in the idea of karma, nothing will.
In 1982, Colorado coach Gary Barnett's mother, Edith, a St. Louis native, hosted a baby shower for her friend Bessie Kincade on the occasion of the birth of Kindcade's son, A.J. On Saturday, A.J. Kindcade, now a senior defensive back for Missouri, intercepted a pass from Iowa State quarterback Bret Meyer in the end zone in overtime to seal a 17-14 Tigers victory over the Cyclones -- and send Barnett's Buffaloes to the Big 12 championship game.
"What went around, came around," said Barnett. "Or something like that."
1. Can you fire a coach who takes your team to the BCS? While Steel City columnists spent much of the season writing Walt Harris obituaries, the eighth-year coach was quietly leading a remarkable in-season turnaround that, barring a loss next week to South Florida, will culminate in a Fiesta Bowl berth for the Panthers. Granted, it's a joke that any team from this year's Big East will be playing in one of the four major bowl games, but that doesn't diminish the importance of Pittsburgh's 16-13 Thanksgiving night win over rival West Virginia.
The Mountaineers came into the season as the overwhelming conference favorite, but the Panthers' come-from-behind win, combined with Boston College's loss to Syracuse, leaves Harris' team at the top of the heap. They beat the Eagles in overtime earlier in the season and, despite losing to Nebraska, Connecticut and Syracuse, should wind up the highest-ranked team among the four tied for first. The key to Pittsburgh's improvement has been the play of QB Tyler Palko, who was brilliant in the Panthers' Nov. 13 win at Notre Dame. Palko struggled much of the night against West Virginia, but he led a 14-play, 73-yard fourth-quarter drive, culminating in a 2-yard touchdown run, to give Pittsburgh the lead.
Palko's emergence gives Panthers fans no shortage of reasons to be optimistic about the program's future. Now, will AD Jeff Long feel the same way?
2. If the marketing whizzes were to stick one of their clever nicknames on this weekend's action, it would have been "Choke Job Saturday." Iowa State, playing for its first title of any kind since 1912, got to the Missouri 6 and 3-yard line, respectively, on its final two possessions and failed to score, missing a 24-yard field goal and throwing an interception in the end zone to lose 20-17 in overtime. Boston College, needing only to beat 5-5 Syracuse at home to go to the BCS, instead got whupped 43-17. Northwestern, despite finishing fourth in the Big Ten, couldn't beat 5-5 WAC team Hawaii to become bowl eligible (it says something about the strength of the Big Ten this year that its fourth-best team lost to TCU, Arizona State and Hawaii).
Still, the most mind-numbing moment of the day came in the Georgia Tech-Georgia game. After clawing their way back from an early 16-0 deficit, the underdog Jackets drove to the Dawgs' 21 in the final two minutes with a chance to go the winning touchdown. But after getting sacked for an 11-yard loss on second down, Tech QB Reggie Ball got duped by Sanford Stadium's faulty scoreboard and spiked the ball on third down, thinking it was second down, then threw the ball away on 4th and 21, thinking he had another play. Painful.
3. Conversely, Georgia QB David Greene was as clutch as clutch can be. Sent to the sideline early on with a cracked bone in his left thumb (his throwing hand), Greene watched in frustration as the Dawgs' offense struggled miserably under D.J. Shockley, allowing Georgia Tech back in the game. Greene began warming up in the cold, miserable rain, originally struggling even to grip the ball, and began asking coach Mark Richt to go back in, but Richt, on the advice of the training staff, resisted. Finally, with 7:11 remaining and Georgia clinging to a 16-13 lead, Greene got his wish. He promptly led the Dawgs from their own 33 to the Tech 27, completing a 12-yard pass to Reggie Brown on a third and 9, to set up a 44-yard field goal by Brandon Coutu to push the lead to six, which the Jackets couldn't surmount. In the final home game of his career, Greene pushed his Division I-A record for victories as a starter to 41 and allowed him to finish 4-0 against rival Tech.
"Greene wasn't at his best physically, but he was at his best in leading us to that last field goal," said Richt. "I was sitting there thinking, 'This is the last game he's going to play in this stadium. Who am I to keep him out?' So I let him go back in."
4. Should USC be concerned about its run defense? Obviously it's hard to nitpick a team that just won 41-10 and hasn't lost in 20 games, but watching Saturday's game against Notre Dame, it was tough not to notice Irish running backs Darius Walker and Ryan Grant breaking off one big run after another into the third quarter, with the pair combining for 158 yards on 26 carries. Statistically, the Trojans still rank second in the country in rushing yards allowed (80.6), but they haven't exactly played a bunch of teams known for their ground games, either. In fact, the only USC opponent ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing is Cal, and in that game Bears RB J.J. Arrington went for 112 yards in a near-upset. Unlike Cal, Notre Dame didn't have a passing game to complement its running backs and therefore wilted down the stretch. Clearly, USC's defense still has a dominant pass rush and a knack for causing turnovers, but one can't help but wonder how they'd fare against an offense as balanced as Oklahoma's or Auburn's, both with elite running backs and highly efficient quarterbacks. The Trojans' last foe to present a similar challenge was Cal, which, not coincidentally, nearly beat them.
5. Tennessee may be headed to the SEC championship game next week, but it's going in limping. The Vols ended the regular season with two closer-than-expected calls against cellar dwellers Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the latter a 37-31 victory Saturday in which they had to rally from a 31-22 fourth-quarter deficit on their own field. It was expected Tennessee might struggle offensively without injured QB Erik Ainge, but it was the defense's performance against the nation's 114th-ranked offense that was truly alarming. A week after allowing 33 points and 420 yards to Vandy, the Vols gave up 270 yards to Kentucky in the first half before settling down.
"There's no excuse to give up 24 [offensive] points against Kentucky," said Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. "I don't want to take anything away from Kentucky, but yeah, we've got concerns."
Mainly that their SEC title opponent is Auburn, which put up 34 points and 400 yards when the teams played Oct. 2.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.