LINCOLN — Fiesta Bowl Executive Director Robert Shelton compares it to an afternoon at Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park. At the famous spot for public debate, one side presents its argument, then the other side gets up to refute it and present its own arguments.
We're talking about the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the choice this Dec. 28 game has among Big Ten programs Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan. Shelton and his five-person selection committee want to keep all of their options officially open, so the Hawkeyes and Gophers get a cursory mention.
But Iowa likely is headed to the Outback Bowl and Minnesota has been to the “Valley of the Sun” three times since 2006. So this really is a discussion about Nebraska and Michigan. And if you want to narrow it down even more, it's a discussion about how Michigan, which finished 3-5 in the Big Ten and lost to Nebraska in the Big House, is somehow a more attractive option than NU.
“It's the national recognition of the program,” said Shelton, the former University of Arizona president. “You could make that argument for Nebraska, too.”
The BWW bowl — especially if played against Oklahoma or Texas — would reignite Nebraska's fan base for a month after a long, strange, injury- and controversy-ridden year. West Coast Husker fans would flock to Tempe, Ariz., and the Phoenix area. Many already live there. Shelton, once a professor at Iowa State in the Big Eight days, seems very warm to NU-OU.
“Heckuva matchup,” he says.
But Oklahoma has never been to the Alamo Bowl, where a choice game with Oregon or Arizona State awaits. So if Texas, or perhaps Baylor, lands at Sun Devil Stadium, here's Michigan, with its helmets, fight song and giant alumni base — 5,000 in the Phoenix area, Shelton said — elbowing in. The Wolverines lost four of their last five. But the BWW scouts were on hand for that last loss, a 42-41 thriller to Ohio State, and were impressed by Michigan's fight.
Whether Michigan would bring that kind of energy, or that kind of fan enthusiasm, to a bowl game out West — like it does against the most-hated rival on pigskin earth — is a different question.
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The Wolverines did well with their ticket allotment to the Outback Bowl last year, selling several thousand more tickets than NU did for its return trip to the Capital One Bowl. Still, the Outback Bowl had an announced attendance of 54,527. Contrast that with the 59,712 fans who went to last season's Capital One Bowl or, better, the 57,921 fans who attended the 2010 Holiday Bowl.
Having been snubbed for Missouri by the same bowl currently in discussion — at the time, it was called the Insight Bowl — NU played Washington in a rematch of a Husker blowout earlier that season. Nebraska still sold 7,500 tickets to that game. For the 2009 Holiday Bowl against Arizona, Husker fans snapped up 11,000 tickets in hours. That game drew 64,607 fans, not far off a record. Shelton, Arizona's president at the time, joked Monday that NU's 33-0 win seemed like a Husker home game.
Does Michigan perform better in TV ratings? The Wolverines and South Carolina drew a 4.3 rating for last season's Outback game on ESPN. Its 2012 Sugar Bowl appearance — a 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech — got a 6.1 rating, less than the 6.2 Louisville and Florida got last season. Michigan drew a 1.7 rating for the 2011 Gator Bowl against Mississippi State.
NU's 45-31 loss to Georgia received a 6.6 rating and was the fifth-most-watched bowl game last season, but that's because it appeared on ABC instead of ESPN. The 2012 Capital One Bowl, featuring Nebraska and South Carolina on ESPN, garnered a 2.9 rating. NU's 2009 and 2010 Holiday Bowl appearances did well — a 3.5 rating in 2010 and a 3.7 in 2009. Those ratings are much better than last season's Holiday Bowl between UCLA and Baylor (2.0) or the 2012 Holiday Bowl game between Texas and California (2.7).
Are college football fans that conditioned to watching certain names? Not as much. The proliferation of games on TV has made fans more savvy in their choices. That savvy, at least to me, would suggest that a Nebraska-Texas rematch gets the TV rating flowing more than Michigan-Texas, whose history boils down to one well-played Rose Bowl nine years ago. These Wolverines and Longhorns bear no resemblance to those teams.
NU-UT has a history. Juice. Michigan has a name. But what's the narrative? Intersectional game? That narrative isn't worth what it used to be. There needs to be a story now. Huskers vs. Longhorns is a story.
The Big Ten will start managing bowl pairings more next season when it uses its tiered system. But the league isn't much help here; the Big Ten is ending its relationship with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. So if this game ever wanted Michigan, here's the chance. Even if Nebraska is the better fit.
Should NU fall out of the BWW slot, the Gator Bowl is comfortable welcoming the Huskers with open arms. Though Gator Bowl President/CEO Rick Catlett said his board is considering Minnesota, too, the Huskers are a strong draw. Even if they play Georgia.
“We've have no problem with that,” Catlett said. “It's not the same two teams that played last year.”
True. The Huskers and Bulldogs are riddled with injuries and not as good as they were in 2012. But Catlett said there's a chance Georgia heads to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta instead.
If that happens, Catlett thinks another Texas team might head to Jacksonville: A&M and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Wouldn't be a bad dance card.
Just don't bring Big 12 refs.
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