WMU, EMU might be on collision course for securing bowl bid

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Eastern Michigan is banking on Chris Creighton having one of the hottest teams in the MAC to give it postseason appeal.

We need more bowl games! 

Said pretty much by nobody, ever.

That is, perhaps, until now — especially if you're Western Michigan or Eastern Michigan, who are sitting nervously, with their 7-5 records, fingers crossed that they hear their name called sometime Sunday.

The college football bowl season is about a lot of things. Ratings. Ticket sales. Mostly, money. It's also about math, and this is a precarious problem for two of the state's three Mid-American Conference schools, one of which could very well find itself sitting home in December.

According to The Associated Press, there are 81 college teams who are bowl-eligible, meaning they have at least six wins over Football Bowl Subdivision teams — and an 82nd is possible if Virginia Tech, at 5-6, takes its regular-season finale against Marshall — while there are 78 bowl slots available. A square peg doesn't fit into a round hole, and 81 doesn't fit into 78.

In the MAC, the math is fuzzy, too, with seven bowl-eligible teams, for five guaranteed bowl slots.

That has Eastern athletic director Scott Wetherbee and Western athletic director Kathy Beauregard going to bat for their programs — the Eagles, who haven't played a bowl game inside the United States since 1987, and the Broncos, who got left out of the bowl picture a season ago despite an eligible 6-6 record.

"I have been letting the bowl committees know that we are the hottest team in the MAC, we have won five straight MAC games for the first winning season in conference play since 1995," Wetherbee said. "Our defense has only given up one touchdown in the last three games.

"All of our games are closely contested, which makes for great entertainment."

Beauregard, likewise, has been trying to pump up the case for coach Tim Lester and Co., citing the Broncos' strong fan base, not to mention the school still carries some cachet from its New Year's Six appearance in the Cotton Bowl two years ago.

Beauregard said that last year she knew the Broncos, at 6-6, were in danger of staying home. This year, if it's the same result, she said it would be a "crusher."

The Eagles, likewise, clearly know the situation is dicey, which is why coach Chris Creighton and his players took to Twitter this week with a hilarious mock music video — set to Destiny's Child's, "Say My Name."

The bowl system is complicated, and we're not going to get into everything here, because there are so many rules, you'd need a Ph.D. in Everything to fully grasp it. But here's what we do know, in relation to the MAC, and Western and Eastern.

The MAC's seven bowl-eligible teams are Buffalo (10-2), Ohio (8-4), Northern Illinois (7-5), Toledo (7-5), Eastern (7-5), Western (7-5) and Miami (6-6). 

The MAC, this year, has five guaranteed bowl tie-ins, including the Bahamas Bowl, which already has selected Toledo. The Bahamas Bowl has to select early, so players can secure passports.

Then there is the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Alabama; the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise; the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama; and, this year, the Frisco Bowl in Texas.

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Of the seven bowl-eligible teams, Toledo already is going; Buffalo and Northern Illinois are going; they are guaranteed, as participants in Friday's MAC championship game at Ford Field; and Ohio, with the next-best record, is going. That leaves one guaranteed bowl for the final three teams, and of those three, go ahead and rule out Miami, which has a worse record than Western and Eastern.

There is, of course, an X-factor: the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, which is regularly a fallback for the MAC. The bowl has guaranteed tie-ins to the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference, but as leagues that regularly participate in the College Football Playoff and the New Year's Six, there often aren't enough teams from those leagues to fill the bowl, which then turns to the MAC.

In two of the four years of the Quick Lane Bowl, the ACC has played the Big Ten; in the other two years, it has featured a MAC team. (The Quick Lane Bowl's predecessor, the Motor City Bowl, was a guaranteed MAC bowl, and thus had a MAC participant every year, 1997-2013.)

It just so happens that this year, there are a lot of bowl-eligible Big Ten and ACC teams. The Big Ten has nine bowl-eligible teams, and the ACC also has nine, with a possible 10th in Virginia Tech.

With the ACC having just one team slotted to a prime bowl game — likely playoff-bound Clemson — the ACC has all but locked up one side of the Quick Lane Bowl. (Side note: Kiss goodbye those dreams of a Western Michigan-Minnesota-P.J. Fleck Bowl.) Early takes put Pat Narduzzi's Pittsburgh team, at 7-5, as a good bet.

Tim Lester's Western Michigan team finished the regular season 7-5.

The Big Ten is trickier. It has three teams in the top 12 of the College Football Playoff rankings, meaning it could have three teams going to at least the New Year's Six: Ohio State (six), Michigan (seven) and Penn State (12). That scenario would leave the Big Ten with six bowl-eligible teams for its remaining bowl tie-ins. If that holds, then the Big Ten would leave the Quick Lane looking for another team.

That's the best-case scenario for Western and Eastern, who then almost certainly would both go bowling.

That would also be the best-case scenario for the Quick Lane Bowl (5:15 p.m., Dec. 26, ESPN), given the 20,211 it drew for Duke-Northern Illinois in 2017, 19,117 for Boston College-Maryland in 2016, and 23,876 for Rutgers-North Carolina in 2014. It drew 34,217 for Central Michigan-Minnesota in 2015.

Two keys there: Ohio State beating Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, and then making the College Football Playoff; and Penn State holding strong at No. 12, and the playoff committee not having a change of heart for the final rankings. Washington State (10-2) lurks right behind Penn State (9-3) at No. 13.

If that doesn't go the MAC's way, there's always a chance Eastern or Western could still go to a bowl, with one getting an at-large bowl to a game with a conference tie-in that can't fill all the slots. But the MAC does no good for TV ratings, and long-distance fan travel traditionally isn't very strong, so that can be counted on. In any event, Wyoming (6-6) and Louisiana-Monroe (6-6) are believed to be competitors for at-large spots.

In any event, things could be setting up for an Eastern-Western showdown. Either way, there will be disappointment in either Ypsilanti or Kalamazoo. Either one stays home, or one travels more than 1,000 miles away, while the other gets the desired trip up the road to Ford Field, where thousands of their own fans can easily make the trip and gobble up some cheap tickets.

Going head-to-head, Eastern has the better resume, with, as Wetherbee noted, its late-season surge, plus its nonconference win over Purdue (which beat Ohio State). But Western did beat Eastern, 27-24, and the Broncos fans travel better. At the 2016 MAC championship game, in which Western played, there was an announced attendance of 45,615, and it appeared to be legitimate.

Eastern football has been gaining fans in the last few years, with two bowl-eligible seasons in the past three years (after not having made a bowl game since 1987). It's never played in a Detroit bowl, or for that matter even the MAC championship game at Ford Field, so it's never gotten the chance for its fans to prove their support.

Wetherbee says the Eagles fans will come through.

"Our fans are extremely eager to find out our destination and purchase tickets," he said. "I believe that we will travel better than any of the other bowl-eligible teams in the MAC."

Said Beauregard: "Western Michigan University will be proud and honored to represent any our of MAC-affiliated bowls or at-large selections."


Twitter.com: @tonypaul1984