December 5, 2011
Hilltopper fans are bummed today. They should be. I am bummed too. I was looking forward to covering my first bowl game. My fingers were especially crossed for the Hawaii Bowl. I hear Honolulu is very nice this time of year.
In all seriousness, it is a shame WKU did not get to play one more game. Despite a 7-5 record, it is as if the Hilltoppers' season has ended with a whimper. And that should not happen.
Do you remember Sunday, October 2? That was the day after the Toppers lost at home to Arkansas State to drop to 0-4. It was also two weeks after Western lost 44-16 to FCS Indiana State. An 0-12 season seemed imminent and message boards suggested Willie Taggart may not be the right man for the job. Today, those same people are hoping upon hope that Taggart does not leave in the next two years.
We all know what happened next. After the Arkansas State game, the Hilltoppers turned it around, winning seven of their final eight games of the season to finish 7-5 overall, 7-1 in the Sun Belt. WKU's only loss during that stretch was at No. 1 LSU. And the Tops traded blows with the Tigers before bowing out in the second half.
Who in their right mind thought we would be discussing WKU's bowl snub after starting 0-4? Don't raise your hand and say "I did!". I don't believe you. I certainly did not think so. I recall writing that the Hilltoppers were not a good football team after the Indiana State game. And at the time, they weren't. I can't say that anymore.
And that is what needs to be remembered about this year's Hilltoppers. Not that they were robbed of a bowl game. Not that the BCS is corrupt (although it is). But rather, we witnessed one of the most remarkable turnarounds you will ever see in college football. WKU had just snapped a 26-game losing streak the year prior. WKU had not won a home game in more than three years. And on December 5, 2011, we are talking about the Hilltoppers not receiving an invite to a bowl game. Things like that don't normally happen. They just don't.
So instead of remembering today's disappointment, remember the feeling when WKU fans stormed the field after beating Louisiana-Lafayette. Remember Casey Tinius' game-winning field goal as time expired to beat FIU. Remember watching Bobby Rainey score the winning touchdown in double overtime to win at Middle Tennessee (and I know fans enjoyed that one). Remember Rainey breaking the school's all-time rushing record on Senior Day in a 41-18 clobbering of Troy.
And just think...spring football is only four months away.
So what can be learned through all of this? Well, this is going to sound a little harsh, but Hilltopper fans were a little too late to the party.
WKU averaged 15,310 fans per home game. That's good for 113th out of 120 FBS schools. That's not going to cut it. Of the bowl eligible teams, only Ball State and Northern Illinois ranked lower. Ball State did not receive an invite and Northern Illinois won the MAC title...they had to go.
More fans have to show up for the Hilltoppers to truly move forward. Period. You can't just flood social media and expect that to do the trick. Don't get me wrong, I was impressed with the passion WKU fans expressed on the BBVA Compass Bowl facebook page. But I wonder...how many of those fans went to a home game this year?
Numbers talk. And more importantly, money talks. Bowl executives are going to select the teams they think will bring in the most money. It's not a perfect system, but that is the system nonetheless. And if Hilltopper fans don't want to relive the disappointment of this weekend, go support the team in person. You are in a position to directly impact the postseason fate of your team. If you don't care enough to attend home games during the regular season, why should a bowl think you will care enough to travel several hours and support them on the road? You can't have it both ways.
My final thought. The Sun Belt Conference did not do WKU any favors. The conference has two just bowl tie-ins and they went to league champion Arkansas State (before ASU won the league outright) and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin Cajuns won eight games and will play in New Orleans, which is about a two and a half hour drive on Interstate 10.
The Sun Belt has no secondary bowl tie-ins. That means if a conference like the Big 10 or ACC can't fill all of its bowl slots, the Sun Belt has no agreement in place to potentially grab one of those slots. That's why WKU was shut out of the Compass Bowl. Typically, the Compass Bowl features Big East vs. SEC. The SEC could not fulfill its requirement, opening the door for a team like WKU. But Conference USA had a secondary tie-in with the Compass Bowl. The result: SMU goes to Birmingham and WKU stays home.
What about FIU? The Golden Panthers won eight games, including at Louisville, and are in close proximity to St. Petersburg, site of the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. There is no doubt geography played a big role. Like I said, it's not a perfect system.
The Sun Belt has really bungled this whole process. People are upset WKU finished second in the league and will not play in a bowl game. Do you realize that the league champion is NOT guaranteed a bowl game every year? The two bowl tie-ins are only required to invite the Sun Belt champion twice every four years. No joke. Commissioner Wright Waters is retiring next summer. That might the best thing to happen to the conference in a long, long time.
It was certainly an eventful season for the Hilltoppers. Some good things. Some not so good things. But I think best is yet to come.