One team’s BCS Buster dreams became another team’s absolute nightmare… and no, we’re not talking today about Oklahoma falling to a Cotton Bowl battle against Texas A&M instead of playing in the Sugar Bowl against Florida. The Sooners still got a marquee matchup against an SEC school, one that will get top billing in a prime slot. No, Northern Illinois didn’t damn the Sooners to obscurity… the Huskies, however, did destroy the bowl dreams of another mid-major that had harbored BCS Buster dreams themselves throughout 2012.
Louisiana Tech began their season 5-0 before stumbling in an October showdown against Texas A&M that was rescheduled due to the hurricane on opening weekend. That game, against a 10-2 SEC school, ended in a 59-57 heartbreak only after Colby Cameron’s 2-point conversion attempt fell incomplete in Shreveport.
Three weeks ago, the Bulldogs were sitting in 20th in the BCS standings, the highest-ranked one-loss team among the non-AQ conferences, in position to climb four or more spots and guarantee themselves a BCS berth. With the chaos that unfolded elsewhere around the country in the past three weeks, they would even have had a good chance of reaching the top 12 and rendering all the arguments of worthiness completely moot.
Then they fell in consecutive weeks to Utah State and San Jose State, who proved to be the real class of the WAC in its final season of existence. The Aggies, 6-0 in conference play, laid claim to the league’s solitary berth in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, where they will take on Toledo in the last-ever MAC/WAC shootout. The Spartans, who finished second in league play at 5-1, managed to snag a Military Bowl bid after Army failed to reach bowl eligibility and Conference USA only qualified five teams for eight potential bowl slots.
This season, 77 teams were bowl-eligible. While leagues like the ACC and Big Ten had trouble filling all of their bowl affiliations, the mid-major rise left a lot of non-AQ schools scrambling for the best possible payday and location for their teams. It was obviously goign to be an uphill battle scrambling to get a third WAC school into a bowl game… but in a year where three of the WAC’s teams finished with a .750 winning percentage or better, how did 35 schools with lesser records claim a bowl berth ahead of the Bulldogs?
In a word, money. Louisiana Tech athletic director Bruce Van De Velde tried his damnedest to get Louisiana Tech the best possible bowl pairing… and, in the process, passed up lesser opportunities with the expectation that a bigger bid was on the way. Instead of accepting an Independence Bowl bid in nearby Shreveport against Louisiana-Monroe — a berth that would have provided the Bulldogs with a $1.1 million payout, to be split within the WAC one last time — Van De Velde held out for what looked like a sure invite to fill the vacant Big East/SEC slot in the Liberty Bowl.
The estimated payout? Around $1.44 million. Essentially Van De Velde was holding out for an extra $340,000.
And Louisiana Tech looked good to get that slot on Saturday night. Once Conference Championship Weekend had concluded, the dust settled on a landscape that looked like it would not include a BCS Buster this season. Louisiana Tech was already out of the mix and the other two WAC leaders had at least two losses. The Sun Belt and Conference USA had knocked themselves out of the mix. The Mountain West essentially did so, though there was a faint possibility that a two-loss Boise State team could sneak in. The team with the best chance (Kent State) lost the MAC championship to the Huskies, who were mired behind two-loss Boise at #21 in the penultimate BCS standing.
With Oklahoma looking like they were headed to New Orleans, the Big XII had all their teams placed and the Liberty Bowl still had a slot open. Then the improbable happened, NIU made BCS Buster history, and Oklahoma’s entry back into the non-BCS pool of bowl-eligible teams meant that the Big XII pecking order inevitably shifted downward. That left the Liberty Bowl snagging 6-6 Iowa State, because bowls have to worry about money as well and the Cyclones offer an entry into the Big XII market. With bowl affiliations constantly shifting, the Liberty was looking to potentially secure a strong local partner for future contests.
By that point, the deadline imposed by the Independence Bowl had passed, and the organizers had extended their open bid to the Ohio Bobcats. Frank Solich’s 8-4 team jumped at the opportunity to play in the postseason, given the depth of the MAC this season is part of the reason that NIU had launched to a BCS berth… and concurrently why there were more bowl-eligible MAC teams than affiliated bowl slots for that league.
Everyone was seeking the best possible money deal. When the Big XII got squeezed out of a second BCS payday, it let the Liberty Bowl protect its own, narrow interests. Every bowl game is a private entity intent on securing for itself the best possible attendance; and, barring that (because, really, do you expect Iowa State to bring more fans to Memphis than Louisiana Tech?), protecting current and potential long-term interests with the power-broker conferences of the sport.
The Bulldogs took a fat gamble, Van De Velde rolled the dice, and in the end Louisiana Tech crapped out. For the chance of $350,000 more to be divided among a dying conference, the Bulldogs end up with nothing… and their players, who had nothing to gain or lose from where they played, are left to wonder in vain whether they could have earned the first ten-win season since 1984. And the country, who will be treated to fourteen six-win teams in the bowl season, are denied the opportunity to watch Colby Cameron and the most prolific offense of 2012 one final time.