The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 24, 2012

WVU going bowling... But where?

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

BECKLEY — It took six games to get one win, but West Virginia University’s football team finally clinched a holiday road trip with its 31-24 win at Iowa State on Saturday. The Mountaineers are going bowling. The only question now is where?

WVU fans got used to the bowl destinations in the Big East — although rewards like the Gator Bowl were slowly slipping away as the conference lost more and more of its respectability — but the bowl locations in the Big 12 provide some new trips.

Providing Baylor wins one of its last two games, the 10-team Big 12 will have nine bowl-eligible squads, a testament to the strength of the league. Officially, the league has eight bowl tie-ins, but a number of conferences will fail to qualify enough teams to fill their slots, so its likely every Big 12 team other than Kansas will have a postseason game.

With a win over that 1-10 Kansas squad Saturday in Morgantown, WVU is likely to finish seventh in the Big 12. The conference’s seventh selection is slated for the Dec. 29 New Era Pinstripe Bowl in the Bronx, N.Y., against the fourth selection out of the Big East. That game will be played at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN, and WVU could face a former Big East opponent, likely Syracuse, if it was selected to make the trip to the Big Apple.

But the seventh selection doesn’t necessarily mean the seventh place team in the league. Bowls do not have to pay attention to the standings when making their selections, and there are a number of factors that could make the Mountaineers more attractive than other Big 12 squads.

First, bowls like new matchups. WVU hasn’t played in any of the Big 12 bowls, so bowl officials might want to bring the Mountaineers to town, just to provide something different for its fans.

WVU also has a reputation for traveling well, bringing a lot of fans — who spend a lot of money — to follow the Mountaineers to bowl games.

Attendance at last year’s Orange Bowl and the Champs Sports Bowl the year before has caused that reputation to take a slight hit, but WVU still brings more fans to bowls than a lot of other teams. A new location might prompt a few more to hit the road, or the air, to follow their team, and that’s a huge draw when bowls are making their selections.

The Mountaineers are also an attractive option for television purposes. College football fans, whether they regularly follow WVU or not, love to watch the Mountaineers play, largely because of their explosive offense. WVU will put Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith on the field at that same time, and all three are among college football’s elite players. That draws a lot of eyeballs.

For all of those reasons, WVU has a great chance of being picked ahead of some teams — Texas Tech and TCU, for example — that will actually finish ahead of the Mountaineers in the standings.

The top four Big 12 bowls are out. WVU isn’t going to pass Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Texas, but all of the others are in play.

The fifth selection goes to the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl, which will be played Dec. 27 in San Diego, Cal., and broadcast on ESPN at 9:45 p.m.

Officials from the Holiday Bowl were in Morgantown for the Oklahoma game, and they indicated that if WVU ended the season with wins over Iowa State and Kansas, it would certainly be high on the bowl’s radar.

That might be the best scenario for the Mountaineers at this point, especially considering they would be matched up against the Pac-12’s third selection.

Stanford and Oregon will likely be the top selections out of that league, unless, of course, UCLA wins the league’s championship game. If not, UCLA will probably make the trip to the Holiday Bowl. If the Bruins pull the upset, Oregon, Stanford and USC could be in play for a journey to San Diego. Any of those matchups would have to be intriguing for Mountaineer fans.

If the Holiday Bowl takes a pass on the Mountaineers, the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, played in Houston at 9 p.m. on Dec. 28, and aired live on ESPN could be in play, although it would be difficult for that bowl to pass on issuing an invitation to TCU or Texas Tech, considering their fans wouldn’t have far to travel.

If WVU did wind up in Houston, though, it would face the sixth selection out of the Big 10. That matchup against a team like Northwestern, Minnesota or Wisconsin likely wouldn’t draw quite the same interest from the WVU faithful.

Of course, there’s also the chance that the Mountaineers get upset on Saturday against a Kansas team that has had a forgettable year but did take Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech to the wire.

If that happens, WVU could end up anywhere, in one of the bowls not filled by its conference affiliation — the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., The Military Bowl in Washington, D.C., the Little Caesar’s Bowl in Detroit, Mich., and the New Orleans Bowl all look likely to end up in that position — or in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which will pit the Big 12’s eighth selection up against Big Ten’s No. 7 team.

That could be the worst-case scenario for the Mountaineers. The Big Ten isn’t likely to have seven bowl-eligible teams, meaning WVU could be matched up against just about anybody in the Jan. 1 game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at CamHuffmanRH.