In switching bowls, CMU gets bigger exposure, payday, but tougher opponent

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Central Michigan gets to play in a bowl game, after a wild-and-crazy Monday that began with the Chippewas set to play Boise State in the Arizona Bowl and ended with them preparing to face off against Washington State in the Sun Bowl.

That's the good news, that they get to play at all. Eleven other bowl teams haven't been as fortunate, with five games canceled and two bowls getting replacement opponents because of the latest COVID-19 surge.

The bad news: The on-field task of trying to win a bowl game for the first time since 2012 just got tougher for the Chippewas, a Mid-American Conference collection of "misfit toys," as head coach Jim McElwain affectionately called them, who now have to face a dynamic Power Five offense out of the Pac-12.

CMU had to have dark uniforms shipped in for the Sun Bowl, and patches stitched on.

"There's a huge difference," McElwain said Wednesday from Tucson, Arizona, ahead of Thursday's four-and-a-half-hour bus ride to El Paso, Texas. "You're talking about a Power Five program out of the Pac-12 against a bunch of guys from Central Michigan that only have one set of uniforms. There's a huge difference. When someone says there isn't, I've been at both ends. I know.

"This is a huge challenge for us, but what a great opportunity."

The biggest opportunity lies in the exposure Central Michigan (8-4) will receive in switching from the Arizona Bowl, which was to be the only bowl game this season streamed rather than broadcast on TV, to the Sun Bowl, the nation's second-oldest bowl game behind the Rose Bowl.

More than a million viewers, by comparison, are expected to tune into the Sun Bowl, which will be broadcast on CBS, with kick off set for 12:30 p.m. Friday.

CMU also will receive a significantly larger payout at the Sun Bowl, which negotiated with the Mid-American Conference on terms that haven't been released publicly. But it's a "sizable" difference, commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told The Detroit News. Teams and conference split the payouts; the Arizona Bowl had a scheduled payout of $350,000, split between the parties, compared to the Sun Bowl's $4.55 million.

McElwain joked that he's doubtful CMU will see any of that money anyway.

More: 'It goes pretty fast': How CMU was able to secure new bowl game, bigger payday in 8 hours

The bigger payoff comes in the competition, which is fierce. Washington State, which fired coach Nick Rolovich in October because he failed to comply with the state's vaccination mandate for its employees, finished the regular season 7-5, but those wins included the likes of Washington, Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon State and Cal. Jake Dickert was named interim coach, then the full-time head coach.

Washington State is led by a dynamic passing offense and quarterback Jayden de Laura, who was Pac-12 freshman of the year, and a pair of star receivers. Central Michigan is 117th in the nation in pass defense. Junior linebacker Troy Brown (Flint-Carman Ainsworth), who was a first-team All-MAC selection along with senior lineman Troy Hairston II (Birmingham Seaholm), told reporters earlier this month that he was preparing for a "pretty slow" offense in Boise State.

"Their overall team speed, quickness, their ability in the passing game, hey, let's call it the way it is. That's our Achilles heel," McElwain said. "I'm sure they're licking their chops looking at us right now, 'We might be able to set an NCAA record against these guys.' ...  For us, it's gonna be to try to keep the ball in front of us and hopefully make them earn the yards they get."

Likewise, that might be Washington State's plan on defense, too. Central Michigan is 19th in the country in total offense (450.7 yards) and 32nd in the nation in scoring offense (33.0 points). In their last five games, they've averaged more than 40 points.

And it should be business as usual for the Chippewas on that front. Even if they wanted to add a new wrinkle, they don't have time, given less than four days to prepare for Washington State.

Leading Central Michigan's offense is redshirt freshman running back Lew Nichols III (Detroit Cass Tech), the nation's leading rusher (just ahead of Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III, who was the MAC's offensive player of the year. 

Kalil Pimpleton had three touchdowns in a five-minute span, including two on punt returns, in Central Michigan's win over Western Michigan.

Junior receiver Kalil Pimpleton, the Muskegon native whoso season was defined by two punt returns for touchdowns in the 42-30 victory over Western Michigan on Nov. 3, also was named first-team All-MAC. So were junior offensive linemen Bernhard Raimann, from Australia, and Luke Goedeke. Senior receiver JaCorey Sullivan (Muskegon) and junior receiver Dallas Dixon were named third-team selections.

"You're not able to reinvent the wheel in this short period of time," McElwain said. "We're not going to put in a bunch of unique stuff. You've gotta rely on your base principles, and go out and play.

"That's what it's all about."

McElwain said he was worried his team wouldn't get a chance to play one more game when Boise State (7-5) had to pull the plug shortly after noon Monday. But a team of folks from the MAC, Pac-12, CMU, Washington State and the Arizona Bowl salvaged a game.

CMU and the MAC have been wildly complimentary of the Arizona Bowl, which got high marks for its hospitality from title sponsor Barstool Sports. CMU stayed there through Wednesday to enjoy the hospitality.

But the Arizona Bowl never was going to be able to find a new opponent this time of year, when non-bowl-eligible teams haven't practiced in weeks, and most have players home for the holidays.

So CMU and the MAC jumped at the Sun Bowl opportunity.

"I love these guys," said McElwain, 59, in his third season, and second bowl, with the Chippewas. "We weren't the most-talented, but we've got a bunch of guys that care about each other and an organization that cares about each other. To get an opportunity to go play a final game, with this group, it's gonna hold a special part in my heart for the rest of my life. We'll see what happens. We're playing a really good team, all right, with kind of the land of misfit toys. But we're gonna have a blast doing it.

"We've got a chance, for three hours, to put Central Michigan on national television.

"You can't put a price tag on that."

Sun Bowl


►Kickoff: 12:30 p.m., Friday, Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas


►Records: Central Michigan 8-4; Washington State 7-5

►Line: Central Michigan +7.5

►Outlook: Central Michigan is bowl-eligible for the 12th time in the last 15 seasons (not including 2020 because of COVID-19), and is 3-9 all-time in bowls. The last postseason win by the Chippewas came in the 2012 bowl game in Detroit, when they beat Western Kentucky, 24-21. ... CMU coach Jim McElwain is 2-2 during bowl games, with one win each at Colorado State and Florida. He's 0-1 at Central Michigan.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984