The bowl season began with five games on Saturday. What’s worth retaining from these games? Here’s a short list.
5 – GAME MANAGEMENT, BOWL STYLE:
COACHES WHO TREATED BOWLS AS FUN EVENTS WERE REWARDED
This is a topic we wrote about earlier in the week: Bowl games demand a different approach relative to the regular season. Sure enough, the coaches who treated bowls as fun moments — occasions in which to give their players chances to make dynamic plays instead of treating the game as a grim NFL week-four contest — were rewarded.
Utah immediately busted out a trick play to get a jump on Colorado State, setting a tone for the Las Vegas Bowl. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun went to the grab bag frequently, and his offense found openings in Western Michigan’s defense throughout the Potato Bowl. Bowling Green coach Dino Babers went for it on fourth and two from the South Alabama 44 early in the Camellia Bowl. In the regular season, a lot of teams might punt then and there. Babers’ aggressive move resulted in a 44-yard touchdown on a night when the Falcons won by five points.
In contrast to the coaches who went for the maximum on day one of the new bowl season, UTEP coach Sean Kugler — who, prior to joining UTEP in 2013, had spent his previous six seasons as an NFL assistant — treated the New Mexico Bowl as an NFL game. He punted on fourth and two deep in his own territory when trailing by two scores early in the fourth quarter. He was more concerned about not losing by a 21-3 (blowout) score than he was interested in winning the game. He followed the textbook NFL mindset of “let’s keep the game close instead of giving ourselves the best chance of winning, even though that latter path invites more risk if choices don’t work.”
Kugler’s offense, trailing 14-3 with under five minutes left, allowed at least 15 if not 20 seconds to bleed from the play clock on multiple snaps while the game clock was running. The Miners attempted short passes in bounds and then burned a timeout inside the four-minute mark. Being limited in terms of timeouts, Kugler still chose to kick a field goal and settle for an eight-point deficit at 14-6 instead of trying to do more. (Had he not burned the timeout, the field goal would have made more sense, since an extra timeout facilitates a longer drive for a touchdown, which is what UTEP still needed.)
Then came the worst move from Kugler: Having spent a timeout, an onside kick with 3:02 left was the obvious play. Yet, Kugler kicked deep. This was UTEP’s first bowl game since 2010 and only its second in the past nine seasons. This was a special moment and a profound opportunity for the Miners. Coaching not to lose — or more accurately, to not get blown out — instead of pursuing every (aggressive) avenue toward victory, represents the NFL mentality at its worst.
It’s a shame, really: Kugler has done a spectacular job in rebuilding UTEP. What he’s achieved over the past two seasons should be praised from the rooftops in El Paso. Yet, a performance like this on a national stage — the biggest stage UTEP enjoyed this season, more than its late-night game against Texas Tech earlier in the year — will make people think Kugler isn’t all that special.
It really comes down to this: Coaches are typically very astute in the core component of their profession, but they just don’t devote as much attention to the game-management side of the business, as this tweet referencing Philadelphia Eagle head coach Chip Kelly says quite eloquently:
Coaches get so consumed with Xs and Os and tendencies (and rightfully so) and I don't think any consider basic game strategy.
— Frank Schwab (@YahooSchwab) December 21, 2014
4 – BOWLING GREEN WON FOR ITSELF
The Bowling Green Falcons were the only team in the Mid-American Conference’s East Division to have a winning record this season… that’s because they finished 8-6 instead of 7-7 as a result of their thrilling Camellia Bowl win over South Alabama. If the MAC wanted to make a statement on Saturday, its most improved team, Western Michigan, would have beaten Air Force. The MAC didn’t get that, but with Bowling Green winning, the league didn’t get shut out.
What Bowling Green’s win says is more about the Falcons than the conference. A fellow named Urban Meyer — ever heard of him? — got the ball rolling for this program in 2001. The foundation Meyer set in two immensely successful (but bowl-less) seasons enabled successors Gregg Brandon and Dave Clawson to make six bowl appearances combined from 2003 through 2013, a majority of those 11 seasons. With Dino Babers coaching in this year’s bowl game, the Falcons have clearly achieved a measure of continuity, sustaining performance from one staff to another. By winning this game, Bowling Green scored its first bowl triumph since 2004. Northern Illinois is the best program in the MAC, and programs such as Central Michigan, Ohio, and Toledo have enjoyed some very significant moments over the past decade, but Bowling Green just might be the second-best program over the past 12 seasons.
3 – LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE ATTAINS AFFIRMATION
Every year, the New England Patriots get a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs. The Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup. The San Antonio Spurs defy age and time. The Chicago Cubs fail to make the World Series.
The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns win the New Orleans Bowl.
Are these opponents the best of the best? No. Still — the Sun Belt is generally the worst of the Gang Of Five conferences, and ULL has represented the Belt with distinction in four straight seasons, winning the New Orleans Bowl four straight times. ULL did so this year even though it did not win the league title (Georgia Southern). The coach of the Cajuns, Mark Hudspeth, continues to put himself in position to take a high-profile job, though we’ve said that after previous New Orleans Bowl wins.
How impressive is Hudspeth’s body of work?
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) December 20, 2014
Also, consider this: Though the 12-game season naturally makes it easier to win nine games (and therefore makes the feat cheaper at power schools… Nebraska, cough, cough…), ULL is a school which had won nine games only ONE TIME before Hudspeth came along. The Cajuns won nine games in 1976, going 9-2 in an 11-game season. They went 8-3 in an 11-game schedule in 1993, the only other time the program won as many as eight games.
Hudspeth has won nine games in four straight seasons. At Nebraska, that’s nothing to take note of. At ULL, it’s an immortal achievement. Rage, rage, Cajuns, against the dying of the light.
2 – UTAH SETS THE TONE FOR 2015
The Utah Utes left some money on the table in 2014 — you can say that in college sports as long as you’re not literal about it. Utah almost beat Arizona State, almost took a 14-0 lead on Oregon, almost beat Washington State, almost won the Pac-12 South. The Utes had a lot to be mad about, and instead of sulking in the Las Vegas Bowl, they beat a 10-win Colorado State team like a dirty old rag… and that was with quarterback Travis Wilson missing numerous throws to wide-open receivers on long balls. The Utes won, 45-10… and the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
Utah made its big bowl statement. The Utes will be part of a hugely competitive Pac-12 South next season. The Mountain West, which we’ll talk more about in the next item, enjoyed a good day on Saturday. However, it fell flat in its biggest contest on Dec. 20.
1 – THE MOUNTAIN WEST AND THE STORY OF DIVISIONS
The Mountain West is a prime example of the importance of the divisional dynamic in college football… and why that dynamic needs to be ushered out of the sport.
It’s not just the SEC East, Big Ten West, or ACC Coastal which show why divisions need to be abolished, due to the imbalances they create within conferences and their season-long schedules (and schedule rotations). The Mountain West’s Mountain and West divisions illustrate why leagues need to abandon divisions.
With Nevada — from the MWC West — losing to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl, only San Diego State — with a win over Navy Tuesday night in the Poinsettia Bowl — is left with a chance to give the MWC West an eight-win team this season. The MWC West has been terrible, and Saturday did not change that reality. Meanwhile, Utah State and Air Force both won bowl games to notch win number 10 on the season. Four teams from the MWC Mountain have 10 wins.
Yes, many of those wins came against cupcakes and lower-end teams in the conference itself, but when four teams all reach the 10-win plateau while no one in the other division might even get to eight, it’s absurd to think that divisions are the best way to organize conferences that want to play a title game. Boise State hosted 6-6 Fresno State in the MWC Championship Game. It should have hosted Colorado State if the MWC wanted to play a true championship game… or, if college football possessed a better set of elastic 13th-game policies, Boise State would have been free to play a Gang Of Five team in a one-game playoff (say, Northern Illinois).
The Mountain West showed on Saturday that divisions need to die sooner rather than later in college football.