So what's the greatest injustice of bowl selection process this year? Oklahoma State getting locked out of a title shot? Nick Saban voting the Pokes lower than third in the polls? Boise State losing three games in four years and getting only a single BCS bid?
Nope. None of the above.
The most regrettable event of the bowl season happened in Bowling Green, Ky.
The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky gathered Sunday night to celebrate their 7-5 season at an awards banquet. It started at 6 p.m. -- right around the time the team hoped to get good news about a bowl berth.
It was a storybook year for WKU: The Hilltoppers were 0-12 two seasons ago, then 2-10 last year, and now bowl eligible -- plus one win for good measure. They traveled to LSU and went to halftime down only 14-7 to the No. 1 team in the nation before getting blown out in the second half. WKU still won seven out of its last eight. Not bad for the newest FBS team in the country.
WKU brass started working the phones as soon as the team won its sixth game, aware how big a bowl game would be for a senior-laden team that needs all the exposure it can get for recruiting. Senior associate athletic director Todd Stewart says the school put together a marketing plan to send to 11 bowls. The program got great feedback, and hopes ramped up. This was one of the best stories of a depressing college football season.
But at around 6:30 Sunday, head coach Willie Taggert took the microphone and told the team there would be no bowl this year. Seven wins wasn’t good enough.
"It was very disappointing," says senior running back Bobby Rainey. "It didn't make a lot of sense to me."
UCLA finished with a losing record, fired coach Rick Neuheisel, and got a trip to San Francisco -- to play another team without a winning record.
Western Kentucky was staying home.
And it wasn't because of the supposedly weak Sun Belt conference. The Hilltoppers came in second, and yet the third and fourth place teams both made a bowl.
"We’re very frustrated," says Stewart. "I think if you look at the team's accomplishments, it should be enough."
Football fans lose out, too. Rainey is one of the best running backs in the nation. He ranked second in the country in yards per game with 141.3, and he rushed for 1,500 yards for the second straight season. (The others to do that since 2000: LaDanian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice, Garrett Wolfe, Darren McFadden, and LaMichael James.) Rainey will be on somebody’s fantasy team next year, but he won’t be on anyone’s TV screen this December.
He says he might not even watch the bowls. "I'm not playing," he says. "My team's not playing."
So what happened? Looks like WKU wasn't old-boy enough for the old-boy network. It's only the school's third year at the Division I-A level. "[The Sun Belt] only had two bowl tie-ins," says Stewart. "That’s what put us behind the eight-ball. The MAC has three tie-ins and four backups. They have relationships that we didn’t."
(Another theory, by way of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Paul Zeise, says WKU was penciled into the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pitt but got booted for SMU because it was supposedly a better match-up.)
Rainey tries to be classy about it. "Coach told us learn from it," he says. "That's what Western’s gonna do. There will be multiple bowl games. There will be no doubt they’ll get a bid for years to come."
But for 12 seniors, including Rainey, who suffered through a winless season and built a winning program from nothing, there will be no bowl day -- ever. They will be reading about how much wealthier programs like Oklahoma State got jobbed. (Western's athletic budget is $22 million -- about a quarter of LSU's.) All 12 of the Hilltoppers' seniors graduated, so maybe they’ll lay the foundation for success on and off the field.
For now, WKU will best be known by the blob mascot "Big Red," shown here in a SportsCenter commercial, trying to figure out which restroom to enter:
"Big Red" doesn't speak, but he doesn't need to say a word.
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