December 24, 2009

Big names find themselves in little bowl games

USC endured a tough regular season, especially by the Trojans' recent standards.

Pete Carroll's team lost three of its final five regular-season games to assure the Trojans of their lowest win total (eight) since 2001. Since the season ended Dec. 5, three players - two starters and a key reserve - have been declared academically ineligible. In addition, USC is looking into the amateur status of another player, running back Joe McKnight, for his use of an SUV registered to Los Angeles businessman.

It's something of a nightmare season for USC, but it's a dream come true for the Emerald Bowl, which will match the Trojans against Boston College (8-4) on Saturday night.

"When we started this year, we never dreamed we would have USC in this game," Emerald Bowl executive director Gary Cavalli said. "Our whole experience was that USC is untouchable. Their fans probably had the same outlook."

But one team's disappointing season can be a boon for bowl games lower in the pecking order.

USC fans and players might not be thrilled about playing outside of the BCS for the first time since 2001, but the Emerald Bowl is one of several second-tier bowl games thrilled to have a national power in its game.

USC, Oklahoma, Miami, Georgia and Virginia Tech are among the 13 teams who have played in at least three BCS games. This season, those schools are playing in December bowl games of varying levels of prestige.

The Emerald Bowl doesn't have a long history (it was established in 2002), but it has had a knack in recent seasons of getting a high-profile team coming off a lean year. In 2006, that team was Florida State. Last season, Miami made the trip to San Francisco. That matchup against California gave the Emerald Bowl the highest attendance in the game's history at 42,268. The Florida State bowl against UCLA gave the Emerald its first sellout.

"In both the Florida State and Miami games, we were not looking for them to bring a lot of fans," Cavalli said. "We hoped UCLA and Cal would bring a ton of fans. What we hoped for from FSU and Miami is that it would motivate Bay Area fans to come to the game to see a high-caliber game."

Those two matchups stuck to a formula of pairing a national "brand" with a passionate local fan base. In this season's game, the Emerald Bowl hopes USC will fill both criteria while also boosting TV ratings.

The mystery is USC's psyche: Will the Trojans be that motivated to play in the Emerald Bowl when they're used to BCS appearances?

"In both previous occasions [with Florida State and Miami], the teams played very well and very hard," Cavalli said. "A lot of people think USC has things to prove now. The quotes I've been reading from papers in Los Angeles is they want to go out on positive note. I think they'll be motivated."

Familiar faces
Thirteen programs have played in at least three BCS games, including this season, since the system was introduced in 1998. Here's a look at where these programs are going bowling in 2009-10:
SchoolBCS gamesThis season
Ohio State8*Rose vs. Oregon
Oklahoma7Sun vs. Stanford
USC7Emerald vs. Boston College
Florida6*Sugar vs. Cincinnati
Florida State6Gator vs. West Virginia
LSU4Capital One vs. Penn State
Miami4Champs Sports vs. Wisconsin
Michigan4No bowl
Texas4*BCS championship vs. Alabama
Virginia Tech4Chick-fil-A vs. Tennessee
Alabama3*BCS championship vs. Texas
Georgia3Independence vs. Texas A&M
Notre Dame3No bowl
NOTE: *--denotes a team playing in a BCS bowl this season.
As with USC, Oklahoma started in the top five in the preseason rankings, but the season went sour in a hurry. Oklahoma lost star quarterback Sam Bradford and numerous others to injuries on the way to a 7-5 season. Now, the Sooners must prepare for a Stanford team making its first bowl appearance since 2001. Oklahoma also must find a way to slow Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, the Heisman runner-up.

First played in 1935, the Sun Bowl has a long history, but it hasn't had a team of Oklahoma's stature since USC was in the 1998 game.

"I know a lot of people probably think that we aren't fired up for this game," Oklahoma guard Brian Simmons told SoonerScoop.com. "But this is another opportunity to play."

It's also an opportunity for OU to end a three-game bowl losing streak. For redshirt freshman Landry Jones, it's an opportunity to solidify his hold on the starting quarterback job. And for the underclassmen, the Sun Bowl is an opportunity for them to build momentum for 2010.

Missy Setters, executive director of the Independence Bowl, hopes Georgia and Texas A&M feel the same way about the game in Shreveport, La. She doesn't like to think of her game as a place for teams finishing off disappointing seasons. Instead, she likes to think of the game as a springboard.

Both certainly can be true. Georgia was ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll this season, but finished 4-4 in the SEC. A victory over rival Georgia Tech in the last week of the regular season ensured a winning record, but Bulldogs fans probably didn't envision their season ending in Shreveport.

Still, there is a track record of Independence Bowl teams going on to bigger and better things. Oklahoma played in the 1999 Independence Bowl the year before winning the 2000 BCS championship. Missouri won the 2005 Independence Bowl before winning Big 12 North titles in each of the next two seasons. Most recently, Alabama played in Shreveport in 2006 and '07 before winning 25 of its next 27 games on the way to this season's BCS championship game.

"We understand where we are in the pecking order," Setters said. "We focus a lot on hospitality and creating a positive experience. Hopefully, it's an experience that's a springboard. I saw that [Alabama] Coach [Nick] Saban talked about the beginning of [Alabama's success the past two seasons], and he talked about leadership in Independence Bowl."

The Independence is being played Dec. 28, making it Georgia's earliest bowl since the 2001 Music City Bowl, which also was on Dec. 28. After playing six January bowl games in the past seven years, Georgia players, coaches and fans had to reschedule their holiday plans.

"It is definitely a bummer to be away from our families on Christmas day," Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. "This will be my first time away from my family, which is everything to me. ... We are honored to be invited by them and to have the opportunity to play, but normally you don't want to miss Christmas."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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