Pros and cons of bowl system
Posted: Wednesday December 22, 1999 08:21 PM
By Marc Lancaster, Special to CNN/SI
SEC commissioner Roy Kramer has long been the country's most vocal proponent of maintaining the bowl system, as opposed to going to a Division I-AA style playoff among the big schools. Kramer doesn't hold back in his enthusiasm for the bowls, and the SEC has even taken a public relations step toward that end in recent years, including an entire page of notes in its pre-bowl conference press release touting the positives of "Bowl Games and College Football."
Everyone has an opinion on the subject of postseason play in Division I-A, but this year's bowl lineup and the reaction to it among some fans around the conference has shown a downside to the system. Three of the conference's highest-profile schools -- Tennessee, Florida and Georgia -- have had trouble moving tickets to their bowl games, all for highly-sought slots in the postseason order.
The slow sales aren't really all that surprising for the Vols and Gators -- neither team is playing for the accustomed national championship, nor anything else of tangible significance, so a little more apathy is to be expected. In Tennessee's case, especially, a return trip to Tempe, Ariz., for its second straight Fiesta Bowl berth is a tough sell -- that's a long way to go again if there isn't a ring to be captured.
Florida's fans will probably pick up the slack late, as they usually do when the Gators play a bowl game in their home state. The Citrus Bowl is right down the road from Gainesville in Orlando, but Florida's subpar season has tempered some enthusiasm around the program.
Y2K might be playing a role in Georgia's difficulties. The Outback is the first sporting event of the millennium, kicking off at 11 a.m. ET on New Year's Day, and some fans would just as soon stay at home. The Bulldogs' matchup with Purdue and star quarterback Drew Brees is compelling, but Georgia has sold only about half of its allotted tickets. The university has even taken to running ads on local radio stations in an effort to pump up sales (think: "Oh honey, tickets to the Outback Bowl, that's just what I wanted for Christmas!")
To all of this, Kramer would point out the flip side -- there are indeed some schools that can't get their hands on enough tickets. First on that list is Arkansas, which has gone wild over its game against historical rival Texas in the Cotton Bowl. And Kentucky should travel well to nearby Nashville for the Music City Bowl.
Each side can probably swing the numbers to suit the argument it wants to make, but it's clear that success has spoiled a few programs in the conference. That's not necessarily a horrible thing -- think of how much money Florida and Tennessee fans have spent traveling to bowls in the last five years -- that's just life at the end of the '90s.
Airing it out
Teams in the SEC are used to seeing opponents with big-time passing games just about every week during the conference schedule.
Part of the dilemma in preparing for a bowl game as a coach is adjusting to face a scheme that is different from those you see all year -- the traditional Big Ten full-bore ground attack, perhaps. But with spread offenses becoming more prevalent nationwide, a couple of SEC teams will be facing familiar looks from an unfamiliar source in their bowls.
Ole Miss takes on Oklahoma in the Independence Bowl on New Year's Eve, and will take a shot at stopping an explosive Sooner passing attack. Even though the architect of the offense that has made Josh Heupel one of the nation's top passers, offensive coordinator Mike Leach, has already left to take another job, the Sooners will give the Rebel secondary all it can handle.
The same challenge faces Georgia, as it takes on Purdue in Tampa on New Year's Day. The Bulldogs went to the Outback Bowl two years ago to face a Wisconsin team that did nothing but run, and Georgia suffocated the Badgers and then-sophomore tailback Ron Dayne in a 33-6 rout. Facing Brees and his aerial show, which accounted for 3,531 yards and 21 touchdowns this year, will be interesting for the Bulldogs.
Back to the veterans
After a frustrating year of tinkering, Florida coach Steve Spurrier has decided to give his seniors a last hurrah in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan State by allowing most of them to start the game.
That means a return to quarterback for Doug Johnson, who was benched late in the season and played only one unsuccessful series in the SEC Championship Game loss. Joining Johnson in the starting lineup on offense will be center Ryan Kalich, who has missed most of the year with a foot injury suffered in the season opener, and guards Cooper Carlisle and Cheston Blackshear. Defensively, Keith Kelsey and Anthony Mitchell will be in the lineup from the beginning.
"In the past, we have always allowed our seniors to play in the bowl game and that's what we are going to do this year," said Spurrier. "I was probably a little too negative after some losses this year, in that I made comments about the older guys not playing in the bowl game, but these seniors have had outstanding careers at Florida and they want to play in the bowl game down in Orlando."
Happy to be here
It doesn't bother Kentucky one bit that it has a slot in what is considered the lowest-tier bowl among the SEC's tie-ins -- many people didn't think the Wildcats would win nearly enough games to even qualify for postseason play this year after Tim Couch's departure.
But here Kentucky is, facing Syracuse in the Music City Bowl and making its first back-to-back bowl appearances since the 1983 and '84 seasons, both of which were trips to Tampa for the old Hall of Fame Bowl. Kentucky lost 26-14 to Penn State in last year's Outback Bowl.
The berth, said coach Hal Mumme, is a sign that the program is headed in the right direction.
"From my perspective, I think we're right on course," said Mumme. "I didn't expect to come in here and win the conference right away, but I did hope to come in and win and get to some bowl games and recruit so we could be competitive in the SEC and have a chance to win it."
Every SEC school except Vanderbilt has made it to a bowl game within the last five years. The Commodores' last postseason trip came in 1982; the next most delinquent team in the league is South Carolina, which last made a postseason appearance in 1994. ... Kentucky will get some injured players back for the bowl game, including receivers Brad Pyatt and Quentin McCord. Georgia, meanwhile, lost freshman pass-rusher Charles Grant to torn knee ligaments in its season finale. ... Bowls involving SEC teams had a combined attendance of 515,927 fans last year, with the combined capacities for the stadiums in which the games were held equaling only 514,233. That means 100.3 percent of the seats were sold for the SEC's eight games. ... Half of the SEC's bowls (Citrus, Outback, Independence and Music City) will feature the first-ever meeting between the two teams. Texas and Arkansas, meanwhile, have played each other 73 times, though the last game was in 1991.
Marc Lancaster covers the SEC for the Athens (Ga.) Daily News/Banner-Herald.
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