At the end of October — and eight games for most FBS teams — the topic of bowl games enters the college football media news cycle.
No, it’s far too early for projections — that’s something which ought to begin during Thanksgiving Week — but the subject of bowl eligibility will occupy a central place in many teams’ seasons over the next five weeks.
Saturday represented a main-event newsday for anyone who covers college football on a national scale. From West Virginia-Oklahoma State at noon Eastern to Clemson-Florida State, which ended near midnight in the East, Week 9 was packed with games considerable significance in the College Football Playoff race. Conference and division championships; New Year’s Six bowl positioning; Heisman Trophy leverage — these and other centerpieces of every college football season acquired extra scrutiny this past weekend, given the high-profile matchups which annually lend added texture to such competitions.
From Stillwater to Salt Lake City, from Madison to Tallahassee, national bloggers wrote about these national stories. It’s not merely the way the industry is designed; the biggest games in the sport have to elicit the strongest and most immediate reactions. The vastness and breadth of college football simply don’t allow every story to be covered at the same time.
With this prelude now over, simply realize that while you might have been watching Clemson-Florida State or Washington-Utah, other games unfolded in the realm of the FBS underclass. Teams weren’t competing at a great national height with the media spotlight finely focused on their backs. Teams weren’t thrust into cauldrons of withering pressure fed by hostile crowds in packed houses.
No, some teams played off-the-radar games — three of them away from home — in places with schools better known for basketball than football.
The goal for these teams: no, not a spot in the playoff or atop the division standings, or even in the top 25 of the polls, but a better chance at bowl eligibility.
A lot of programs don’t give bowl eligibility a second thought (because they don’t need to), but for many schools in the 128-member FBS, a 6-6 record is cause for a major celebration.
Saturday, four teams didn’t reach that goal, but they took massive steps to get there. Sure, the playoff and New Year’s Six races are coast-to-coast headliners, but it’s worth giving these representatives of the pigskin proletariat their due.
In the last game of Week 9, in Honolulu, the New Mexico Lobos fended off the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. The winner was going to grab a fifth victory in 2016, while the loser was going to remain stuck at four wins. New Mexico knew it still had to play Mountain West Mountain Division leader Wyoming, so this contest on the island likely represented the difference between a bowl and no bowl in 2016. By capturing Saturday’s game in the overnight hours, head coach Bob Davie put Los Lobos in position to go bowling in consecutive seasons. UNM’s best chance is in its game against lowly Nevada this Saturday.
As Today’s U writer Tom Shanahan documented here, Army recalled its early-season excellence by winning at Wake Forest. The Black Knights, by taking care of Morgan State, will get to six wins. Just one other conquest will push them to seven wins, which would mark a profound triumph for head coach Jeff Monken, who had to endure two rough seasons in West Point before this year’s great leap forward. A bowl bid would mark Army’s first postseason appearance since 2010. For the little guy in the FBS, a bowl game is the definitive stamp of success in a season, the foremost indication that the ship is heading in the right direction.
Kentucky throttled Missouri to get to five wins. Coach Mark Stoops seemed to be a goner earlier in the season, but the weakness of the SEC and his persistent faith in his players have created a stirring rally. Skeptics will say that Mississippi State allowed Samford (of the FCS) to score more than 40 points this past weekend, trying to diminish the value of Kentucky’s recent wins, but the Wildcats have certainly squandered golden opportunities in the past. They aren’t now. That’s to their great credit. Stoops has shoved aside the hot seat.
A win over Austin Peay of the FCS will give Kentucky bowl eligibility. The Wildcats are just about there.
Indiana, unlike the teams mentioned above, has only four wins instead of five. However, the Hoosiers play Rutgers and Purdue in November. If they win those games, they’ll be able to make bowl reservations for the second straight season.
Indiana’s last bowl win came in 1991. The Hoosiers definitely qualify as a program which won’t much care about its bowl assignment, as long as it can take home a trophy to Bloomington. Getting rid of that burden would give coach Kevin Wilson a chance to dream bigger dreams in the Big Ten.