Who could’ve guessed the end of 2020 would bring with it a fairy-tale ending?
2020 has been more Cruella than Cinderella ... up until now.
For one college football team — the one that likely deserved it the most — the glass slipper was a perfect fit on Monday evening.
As soon as Tennessee announced it would be forced to drop out of the Liberty Bowl on Monday, Twitter was flooded with support for Army, a 9-2 team that somehow found itself on the outside looking in at the postseason. Within a few hours, and with the support of sports dignitaries, media giants and even WVU coach Neal Brown, the Black Knights were in, set to face the Mountaineers on New Year’s Eve in Memphis, Tennessee.
Liberty Bowl Executive Director Steve Ehrhart estimated that within 90 minutes of putting it out, an official tweet that Army would be playing in the bowl had received 1.1 million interactions.
“We went from being in tears [Sunday] evening to just being elated this evening,” Army coach Jeff Monken said Monday night. “Our guys when I announced it to them, they were thrilled and excited and it just couldn’t have worked out better. Sometimes things don’t work out like you want them to but somehow, someway, they work out a different way and it almost seems like it’s even better.
“It became a great story and we’re just humbled that so many people have latched onto this and felt so strongly about our team having an opportunity that it became a big story today.”
Personally, I would need a year’s worth of columns to express my disdain with bowl games, the committee and the College Football Playoff in general. I can’t go there. My sanity and our space limitations will not allow it. I’ll just say this: If an alien species ever landed here and we needed to defeat them, all we’d have to do is try to explain how playoff teams in college football are determined. Either their heads would explode or they’d fly away immediately, writing humans off as harmless, unintelligent life forms.
Anyway, back to Army.
To be fair, the Black Knights woke up Sunday morning with a bowl destination — the Independence Bowl — and waited only on an opponent. But as teams around the country opted out of the postseason, bowl games folded and the Independence Bowl was canceled.
Yet another ridiculous part of our bowl system, conference bowl tie-ins, left independent Army high and dry as the other games filled throughout the day. By Sunday night it was clear that a team full of athletes who sacrifice so much for America off the field was on the wrong side of the chopping block in the interest of conference affiliations and the money therein on the field.
I’d love to say something like, “This isn’t a knock on Tennessee.” But it is, though it’s far from an indictment of just the Volunteers.
And look, I get it. The bowls afford teams a postseason game, and who wants to turn that down? More importantly for coaches is the extra practice time that comes with them. That can be a game-changer for young teams.
But we’re not talking about a 9-2 team from Conference USA or the Mountain West. This is Army. This is a group of men that could potentially sacrifice their lives for us, and not one team could forego a week of practice and a bowl game for them?
No, Army doesn’t play a Power Five schedule. Its 9-2 record has some wins over inferior competition to be sure. But if you’re looking for a list of teams with worse records that had bowl destinations while Army was begging for a chance at a 10th win, don’t worry, I assembled it for you.
Deep breath … here goes:
Appalachian State (8-3), North Texas (4-5), Tulane (6-5), UCF (6-3), Louisiana Tech (5-4), Georgia Southern (7-5), Memphis (7-3), Florida Atlantic (5-3), Hawaii (4-4), Houston (3-4), South Carolina (2-8), UAB (6-3), UTSA (7-4), Western Kentucky (5-6), Georgia State (5-4), Oklahoma State (7-3), Texas (6-3), Wisconsin (3-3), Wake Forest (4-4), Missouri (5-4), Florida (8-3), Mississippi State (3-7), West Virginia (5-4), Tennessee (3-7), TCU (6-4), Arkansas (3-7), Auburn (6-4), N.C. State (8-3), Kentucky (4-6), Ole Miss (4-5), Iowa State (8-3), North Carolina (8-3).
That’s 32 teams. And that didn’t count two-loss teams with fewer wins that would also have a lower winning percentage.
I’m not saying many of them should have been forced to pull out of respective bowl games. Posting a winning record in a tough league warrants a bid to a bowl, even in this year of reduced opportunities.
But come on. Nine of the aforementioned teams didn’t even reach .500. A 2-8 South Carolina team that’s about to go through a coaching change couldn’t have given up a spot for the United States Army? (On Tuesday, South Carolina opted out of its Dec. 26 Gasparilla Bowl date with UAB due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing within the Gamecocks program.)
Mississippi State, North Texas, Houston, Western Kentucky, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss or Tennessee (willingly)? Nobody?
It’s funny to me that conferences suddenly mean so much when it comes to bowl slots. They certainly don’t mean anything in terms of the College Football Playoff, since you don’t have to win a league title to win a national title. At this point, the extra-terrestrials would already be firing up the saucers.
I certainly send my best to the Tennessee coaching staff and players who are infected with COVID-19. Health comes first and I get that.
But it’s said that the night is blackest just before the dawn, and for one group of Black Knights, the dawn came around dusk on Monday evening.
And the sports world and our country is better for it.