Which schools are fired up to be being bowling this month? And who’ll have a tough time getting motivated to play an additional game?
College teams are extremely tough to read this time of year. Of course, everyone wants to participate in a postseason game—the swag, the road trip and the chance to close the campaign on a national stage, preferably in a warm destination. But motivational levels in December are often starkly different than they are in October. Bodies and minds have been taxed, and there are no more rivalry games or conference title drives to help maintain focus and intensity.
Eighty teams have yet to complete their 2016 seasons. Most are fired up to play once more. However, a select few will have a tough time getting back up for reasons ranging from the opponent and the event to disruptions in the coaching staff.
Teams Fired Up To Be Bowling
You always cherish your first of anything. And since the neophyte Roadrunner program has never appeared in a postseason game, the New Mexico Bowl will forever be special around campus. UTSA has tied Georgia State and South Alabama by needing only six years to go from birth to bowl. Facing New Mexico on national TV is especially rewarding for those seniors who laid the foundation long before a bowl invitation was even a realistic goal. Plus, Frank Wilson is a young and energetic first-year head coach who’s every bit as pumped as his kids to be participating in this game.
No one on the Cowboy roster has ever played in a bowl game, so any invitation was going to be cause for hootin’ and hollerin’ around Laramie. But a chance to face longtime rival BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl makes this month extra meaningful for Wyoming. Craig Bohl and his Cowboys are eager to add an exclamation point to this surprising 8-5 season, especially after falling short in the Mountain West Championship Game. Wyoming will have no problems getting up for the Cougars, an on-and-off conference partner from as far back as the 1920s. And BYU has won 16 of the last 18 meetings, which Bohl will undoubtedly mention once or twice prior to kickoff.
4. Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion
Based purely on gratitude and wide-eyed excitement, it’ll be tough surpassing the Bahamas Bowl this postseason. The Eagles and Monarchs are hardly household names in college football circles. But both are wrapping up transformational seasons with an improbable meeting in Nassau. EMU, a perennial doormat on the brink of financial insolvency, is bowling for the first time since 1987. ODU, meanwhile, is appearing in its first-ever bowl game, just seven years after revitalizing a program that had been dormant for the previous seven decades. The pair is flush in intangibles, though the Monarchs rate an edge by virtue of their five-game winning streak.
A little bummed after getting dumped by Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game earlier this month? Sure. But unlike most teams that lose their league title games, the Buffaloes are genuinely excited to be facing Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. This trip to San Antonio represents Colorado’s first bowl game since 2007, and a win will lock down a top 10 finish for a program pegged in the preseason to finish last in the South Division. The Buffs also boast rare staff continuity for a program that’s blown so far past expectations, as well as a terrific group of seniors determined to finish this memorable season with a win.
2. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are absolutely thrilled to be in Pasadena to face USC in the Rose Bowl, the reward for being an unlikely Big Ten champion. However, there’s still this nagging feeling around Happy Valley that the team that won the nation’s top conference—and defeated No. 3 Ohio State—ought to at least get a shot to participate in the College Football Playoff. It won’t. But it can still make the committee look foolish on Jan. 2 by taking care of equally hot USC, which is entering the postseason on an impressive eight-game winning streak.
1. Western Michigan
The Broncos are perfectly situated to become the third straight Group of Five squad to win a New Year’s Six bowl game. The motivation is self-explanatory—undefeated Mid-American Conference champion gets to play in a marquee game, the Cotton Bowl, against a Big Ten opponent, Wisconsin. The players were going to be fired up no matter what was happening in the periphery. But Western Michigan will also have the added bonus of still being led by spark plug coach P.J. Fleck, whose decision to stay in Kalamazoo is the biggest upset of the postseason so far.
Teams Poised For A Bowl Letdown
Last year, the Cougars took down Florida State in the Peach Bowl. This season? After starting 5-0 and beating Oklahoma, it was playoff or bust in Houston. But that was before three regular season losses lowered the bar to the Las Vegas Bowl, where San Diego State awaits. Oh, and the coach that helped bring the Cougars into the national lexicon, Tom Herman, is setting up shop in Austin. It does help that Herman’s permanent successor, Major Applewhite, will be coaching the team Saturday. But while Applewhite has never prepared a team for a bowl game, Aztec coach Rocky Long has gone through this process 10 previous times.
The Midshipmen still get excited about the postseason, winning bowl games the last three years. This December, though, will require Ken Niumatalolo to go elbow deep into his motivational bag of tricks. Navy has dropped its last two games. The first, at home to Temple in the American title game, ended hopes of playing in a bigger bowl event. The second on Dec. 10 snapped a 14-game winning streak versus rival Army. Depleted and demoralized, it won’t be easy getting back up for a trip to Fort Worth to play Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces bowl.
4. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are happy to still be playing, especially a staff that wants additional practice time with the young kids, like sophomore QB Nick Fitzgerald. But will the team be focused this month? Mississippi State is 5-7, only earning a spot in the St. Petersburg Bowl after an insufficient number of programs qualified. Worse yet, Dan Mullen’s kids are playing the day after Christmas against a middling MAC team, Miami U., which started the season 0-6. The Bulldogs had a penchant for playing down to competition during the regular season, and are nearly two-touchdown favorites over the RedHawks.
True, the Badgers exceeded expectations by winning the Big Ten West and earning a Cotton Bowl bid. But they really had their hearts set on the Rose Bowl, particularly after jumping out to a 28-7 lead on Penn State earlier this month. However, Wisconsin collapsed in Indianapolis, squandering a chance to end the year in Pasadena opposite USC. Plus, the Badgers will be in the classic no-win situation of drawing this year’s Cinderella, Western Michigan, which will be participating in the most momentous game in school history. If the Badgers don’t come prepared, the Broncos are liable to ride the wave to a signature win.
The Owls deserved a better fate, a feeling likely shared by the players. Temple won arguably the best Group of Five conference, rocking Navy, 34-10, in Annapolis to close out the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. And while Western Michigan was the right choice to land the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl berth, the Owls have to be a little underwhelmed by skidding Wake Forest in chilly Annapolis, where they closed the regular season on Dec. 3. Furthermore, interim coach Ed Foley is leading the team now that popular leader Matt Rhule has taken the Baylor job.
Jim Grobe is coaching his last game in Waco. The 6-6 Bears haven’t won a game since Oct. 15. After the debacle that has been Baylor football over the past seven months, this program needs a break in the action in the worst possible way … and yet there’s still one more game left on the schedule, a trip to Phoenix to face Boise State in the Cactus Bowl. The Broncos always revel at the opportunity to defeat a Power Five team, any Power Five team. Each Bear, on the other hand, will need to look deep within to locate his motivation for snapping a nasty six-game losing streak.