The 16th annual Alamo Bowl takes place this week, matching the Number 23 Missouri Tigers against the Number 20 Northwestern Wildcats. Las Vegas isn’t buying those rankings, though, as odds-makers have established Missouri as a prohibitive 12-point favorite. But Northwestern seems to possess the extra motivation that sometimes leads to surprising upsets in bowl games, so the December 29 matchup holds some intrigue.
The contest is being framed as “the Journalism Bowl,” since the competing universities field two of the top-rated J-schools in the country (although if that were a factor in athletics, Northwestern would have won a bowl game more recently than 1949). Meanwhile, the Alamo Bowl is taking on an increasingly higher profile in the nation’s annual bowl lineup as the years go by. One could even speculate that the Alamo Bowl might find itself with a chance to leap into the Bowl Championship Series mix down the road.
CBS commentator Gary Danielson has speculated recently about the Cotton Bowl in Dallas being added in a fifth BCS slot, with opponents for a plus-one title game being determined after the BCS games instead of before. If the Cotton Bowl were under consideration, San Antonians might well wonder why not the Alamo Bowl instead?
The only obvious factor that favors the Cotton Bowl is that it’s played outdoors, as football should be. The BCS Sugar Bowl in New Orleans takes place in the Superdome, though, which means outdoor play is not a requisite factor. One could even argue that the Alamodome’s sharper sight lines provide a better viewing experience than the massive Superdome, where the upper regions ought to have sherpas to guide fans to their seats.
A clue to the Alamo Bowl’s viability comes from its ascension in bowl payout rankings. Alamo Bowl President Derrick Fox, hired 18 months before the inaugural game after spending the previous seven years with the Fiesta Bowl, has guided the game from Number 18 out of 18 bowl games in terms of team payout to Number 12 out of 34 games this season ($4.5 million combined for both teams). Fox cites team-selection rights as the number-one factor in the payout a bowl can offer, as those rights dictate the television contract a bowl can get and the ticket prices it can set. The Alamo Bowl currently matches the number four teams from the Big 12 and Big 10 conferences.
The Fiesta Bowl offers a model for the Alamo, since it wasn’t always the marquee game it’s become. It started off as a lower-tier bowl, then evolved into an early New Year’s Day bowl on par with the Cotton or Gator, before ascending to top-four status as one of the BCS bowls in the 1998-99 bowl season. Could the Alamo Bowl evolve in similar fashion?
“I think it’s something everyone would like to take a look at,” says Fox, while also acknowledging that it doesn’t look like the BCS is going to change format for now. “If they decide to have a change, then there could be some movement afoot.”
Fox lists several reasons the Alamo Bowl has moved from the bottom tier to its current level, and which are instrumental for any bowl looking to move higher in the pecking order.
“You’ve got to have a great destination city, great venue, and great leadership from the community as a whole,” says Fox of three areas where San Antonio stands tall. “We think we’ve got a better destination city `than the Cotton Bowl` … and all the right assets, and look forward to having further dialogue to move up.”
Northwestern fans should take pleasure in being in the Alamo Bowl instead of the artist formerly known as the Citrus Bowl in Orlando (now the hideously named Capital One Bowl) or the Outback Bowl in Tampa — early New Year’s Day bowls that both feature Big 10 tie-ins. While being in a New Year’s Day game is generally thought of as more prestigious, appearances can be deceiving. As a Big 10 native who’s traveled to both the Citrus Bowl and the Alamo Bowl (to follow my Buckeyes after the 1994 and 2004 seasons), this reporter can assure you Northwestern fans out there that San Antonio offers a far more excellent bowl excursion than central Florida. You really do not want to spend New Year’s Eve in Orlando, a city with no distinct character.
In contrast, San Antonio’s River Walk offers an ideal location for bowl fans to mingle and frolic in one centralized and fun area, somewhat similar to partying on Bourbon Street for the Sugar Bowl (albeit without the plethora of authentic jazz). The Alamodome’s central location puts it within easy walking distance of all of downtown’s hotels and attractions, a major plus on game day. Not even the Rose Bowl can claim the same, nor can the Fiesta Bowl any more since moving from lively and scenic Tempe to the desolate outskirts of Glendale — bad move Fiesta Bowl!
Northwestern fans should be content to let Michigan State go to Orlando, and glad that the Outback Bowl took 8-4 Iowa over the 9-3 Wildcats, despite the fact that Northwestern beat Iowa 22-17 (their best victory of the season). Count your blessings for being in San Antonio instead, Wildcat fans. Missouri will make for a tougher opponent than South Carolina in the Outback, but there’s a lot more fun to be had here.
Missouri fans, meanwhile, will have a chance to directly compare San Antonio and the Alamo Bowl experience with Dallas and the Cotton Bowl, where they triumphed last season. The Tigers are making their first visit to the Alamo Bowl, while Northwestern hopes to improve upon its debut appearance when they got rolled 66-17 by Nebraska in 2000. The Wildcats are ranked higher than the Tigers largely due to Missouri losing its last two games to Kansas and Oklahoma (the latter on the short end of an embarrassing 62-21 score). Still, Missouri’s prolific passing game would seem to be a serious obstacle for Northwestern, and the bookies clearly think that the Wildcats have little chance to slow the Tigers down.
The teams have one common opponent in Illinois. The Tigers defeated the Illini 52-42 in the season opener, while the Wildcats dispatched their arch-rival 27-10 in their season finale, where they were also an underdog. While Missouri’s defense has been burned by top teams like Texas and Oklahoma, the Tigers feature three offensive stars in quarterback Chase Daniel, receiver/returner Jeremy Maclin, and tight end Chase Coffman. Northwestern has a decent passing game with senior quarterback C.J. Bacher, but hasn’t scored nearly the points that Missouri has. Their defense might be a little better, although it’s hard to tell after the 45 points they gave up to Ohio State.
A key during bowl season, however, is the motivation of the opposing teams, which is often affected by how happy they are to be at the bowl they’ve landed in. Missouri started the season ranked Number 6 and entertained notions of competing for the national title. The Alamo Bowl isn’t where they wanted to be. Northwestern, on the other hand, is eager to prove their worth. They are also desperate to win a bowl game for the first time in 60 years, a feat they’ve not achieved since that 1949 Rose Bowl victory over Cal. This could give the Wildcats a huge emotional edge.
“It’s going to sting for a while, and why wouldn’t it?” Missouri QB Daniel said of ending the season by losing 40-37 to arch-rival Kansas and then suffering the blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. “But we can finish off in style. When was the last time a Missouri team won 10 games back-to-back in history? Never. We still have a chance to make history.”
That’s technically true, but it sounds like Daniel may be having a hard time convincing even himself. The fact is that 9-4 Missouri has fallen well short of expectations this season while 9-3 Northwestern is one of the surprise teams of the year.
“I think, if anything, `the bowl drought` will provide a little extra motivation,” said Northwestern QB Bacher. “At the beginning of the year we set out to win a bowl game, and we’ve put ourselves in a position to do that.”
So who am I picking in my bowl confidence pool (which I’ve won three times in the past six years)? My first thought upon looking at this matchup and the 12-point spread is to pick Missouri for big points. Northwestern suffered a 37-20 loss to a Michigan State team that got clobbered by both Ohio State and Penn State, a 45-7 whipping from the Buckeyes, and somehow managed to lose 21-19 to lowly Indiana. None of those results inspires much confidence in the Wildcats. But then there’s that 22-17 road win over the Iowa team that handed Penn State its only loss of the season. The Wildcats are also 4-2 as underdogs this season, so it’s a position they’re used to, while Missouri is only 3-4 this season against teams with winning records. Reports also indicate that Northwestern’s star running back Tyrrell Sutton is “probable” to return from a broken wrist (suffered against Indiana on October 25) to play in the game. This would be a huge boost for the Wildcats.
In the final analysis, the extreme difference in the motivations of the Wildcats and Tigers has inspired me to choose Northwestern for one point in my bowl pool. While this means I’m not expressing great confidence in the pick, it also means they are one of my primary upset specials. Most people will pick Missouri for big points in their bowl pools, so taking Northwestern for one is a low-risk gamble that could pay big dividends. •
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