Tuesday, December 27, 2005

God Bless the Conference USA

The endless parade of college football bowl games continues with two contests tonight. Clemson takes on Colorado in the Champs Sports Bowl, followed by Arizona State versus Rutgers in the Insight Bowl. With the completion of last night's Motor City Bowl, college football fans must face a sad truth: Conference USA's predominant position in the bowl hierarchy is now over.

Before today, seven bowl games have been played - five of which included a Conference USA school. The bowl season includes 28 matchups. Therefore, if the league could have maintained such a pace, 20 of its 12 members would have gone bowling. Instead, Conference USA will have to settle for its ubiquitous presence in the first week of bowl games.

Southern Mississippi got the conference off to a roaring start with a 31-19 victory over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl. The Golden Eagles won the same game last season, so they felt the equivalent euphoria that defending Rose Bowl champion Texas will experience if it wins in Pasadena on January 4. Southern Miss was heavily favored, so the only upset was that Arkansas State still calls its teams the Indians. The Sun Belt champs did claim superiority in their state, as the Razorbacks failed to qualify for the postseason.

Conference USA's record fell to 1-1 the next night as UTEP was trounced 45-13 by Toledo in the GMAC Bowl. The game was played in Mobile and represented the first unpleasant experience in the state of Alabama for Miners head coach Mike Price. Inexplicably, two bowl games were played the following evening with no involvement from the league. One of those matchups was the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, which may be adding more words to its name as I write this article. With an at-large berth available, representatives from the bowl showed themselves to be completely unpatriotic in passing over Conference USA. Instead, they invited the Naval Academy.

Houston returned the conference to the spotlight on Friday in the Fort Worth Bowl. Kansas routed the Cougars 42-13 in a rematch of Larry Brown's first game as the KU head basketball coach in 1983. Phi Slamma Jamma won that matchup 91-76 on its way to a second consecutive NCAA championship game appearance. After that season, the Houston basketball program headed south. Coach Brown also went south, as well as north, east, west, northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest, and any directions yet to be defined.

Central Florida diverted the nation from last-minute shopping and family dysfunction during a Christmas Eve classic versus Nevada. Due to a missed extra point, the Golden Knights fell 49-48 in overtime at the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. However, the team's 8-5 record reflected an amazing turnaround from a winless 2004. The accomplishment is a wonderful entry for coach George O'Leary's resume - certainly the most impressive factual listing.

Last night, Memphis got Conference USA back into the win column with a 38-31 victory over Akron in the Motor City Bowl. The Tigers had to overcome the Zips' previous experience at Ford Field - a 31-30 thriller over Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game. The two shootouts were a pleasant surprise for the city of Detroit - unaccustomed to seeing exciting football at the venue.

The Tulsa Golden Hurricane hopes for a third Conference USA victory in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl versus Fresno State on New Year's Eve. Tulsa will be the third "Golden" league member to play in a bowl game, so look for conference also-rans to follow suit. Next season, you'll see the East Carolina Golden Pirates, the UAB Golden Blazers (an homage to the early days of Monday Night Football), and the Marshall Golden Thundering Herd.

Now Conference USA concedes the spotlight to BCS members. The league enjoyed its day in the sun, but tonight it steps aside for what college football fans truly want to see: Rutgers in a bowl game.