Being a conference commissioner must have its moments. You can’t play favorites. You have to love all your schools equally. It turns out, though, that what’s good for all the schools isn’t necessarily good for the conference, even if what’s good for the conference is good for all the schools.
So, forgive Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson if he lets loose an “Eat ’em up!” now and then during the next five or six weeks. To the gist of something Benson said earlier this week, the league has a bit riding on the Texas State football team.
The Bobcats are 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the Sun Belt as they leave the sun belt Saturday to play at Idaho, one of college football’s beleaguered programs. Idaho is the nightmare scenario in college football. The Vandals were a pretty reliable team at the playoff level in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s under such coaches as Dennis Erickson and John L. Smith, going to the playoffs much more often than not, four times advancing to the quarterfinals and twice going to the semifinals. But Idaho made the move up to the bowl level in 1996, and it has not gone well.
During the 21st century, Idaho is 40-124, including 1-7 this season. When the Western Athletic Conference broke up last year, Texas State was one of the first off the sinking ship, but Idaho had nowhere to go. Geographically, the Mountain West Conference would make sense, but the Mountain West turned up its nose, refusing to admit Idaho or New Mexico State, another dog orphaned by the WAC.
“We’ve informed them that they will not be members of the Mountain West. Go onto Plan B whatever Plan B may be,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said during his annual state of the conference address at the league’s football media days last summer.
The Sun Belt already had ruled out further expansion by then, but no conference truly rules out expansion these days. So, Idaho will join the Sun Belt Conference for football in 2014. The price of staying bowl-level for Idaho is playing in a league where Jonesboro, AR, is the shortest road trip. This year, Idaho is really roughing it as an independent.
Making the Idaho nightmare so much more haunting is that the dream is so near by. Boise State jumped to the bowl level in 1996, the same year as Idaho, and bounded to national prominence. Boise State is so far ahead of Idaho now that their Governor’s Trophy rivalry has been discontinued since 2010. Boise State has become a national player, and Idaho can’t even find a home in its own region.
Even if Idaho were in the Sun Belt Conference this year, Benson would have an interest in seeing Texas State win. For a league struggling to draw eyeballs, it’s better to have two, three or four teams good enough for national exposure than to have all ten teams evenly matched. Balance and unpredictability might be good for an established league, but it’s poison for a league trying to move up the chain.
So, Benson was pretty forthright about it on his media conference call this week. At that point, Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL), Troy and Texas State were the three Sun Belt teams with five wins. If you’re Benson, those are the teams you really want to see kicking it in now, because those are the teams best positioned to bring national prestige to the league in the bowl selections.
Said Benson: “Last year, we were lucky enough to have good teams with eight, nine, ten wins, and this year we’re hoping that those three teams that currently have five wins can continue to put themselves in position to have quality records at the end of the year. That’s important.”
That’s a cue for the Bobcats. And it points to why Saturday’s game at Idaho, obscure as it might be, is very important. A win would make the Bobcats bowl eligible. It also creates a situation in which the Bobcats could reasonably come out of the regular season with eight wins. They will finish their season with Sun Belt games against Arkansas State (1-1 in the Sun Belt, 3-4 overall), Western Kentucky (1-3, 4-4) and Troy (3-2, 5-4). It’s not obvious that any of those teams are better than the Bobcats, who would reach a bowl-solid eight wins by beating two of them.
Moreover, the Bobcats could position themselves as high as second in line within the conference when it comes time for bowl selections. Since Benson spoke, Troy lost Thursday night, 49-37, to ULM (3-1, 5-4), and both of those teams now have five wins.
ULM and Troy may stay ahead of Texas State in the league standings, but Texas State could still be the only team among them to reach eight wins. ULM finishes the season against Arkansas State, South Alabama and ULL, needing to win all three to reach eight. Troy finishes with games against ULL, Ole Miss and Texas State, needing to win all three to reach eight.
One advantage for Texas State is that it already has played ULL, which is clearly the best team in the league. ULL is 3-0 in the Sun Belt and 5-2 overall, beating every league opponent it has faced by at least 16 points. The Bobcats experienced some of that in a 48-24 loss at ULL on Oct. 5. Following ULL, there appears to be a pretty even scrum involving Texas State, ULM, Troy and Arkansas State, along, maybe, with South Alabama (1-2, 3-4) and Western Kentucky (1-3, 4-4), if they can turn it up in November.
“The balance of this league is pretty vivid, I think,” Texas State coach Dennis Franchione said on the league’s teleconference. “Lafayette right now might be a little bit ahead of us, all of us. They’re certainly ahead of us; I know that. But there’s a lot of football to be played and teams’ seasons get identified in this last month.”
Since the Bobcats took their licks from ULL, they lost an error-filled game against ULM and followed that with a one-touchdown win against winless Georgia State (0-3, 0-8). But their season is back on track after last Saturday’s magically hard-fought 33-31 win against South Alabama, and they will attempt to build on that after a long trek to Moscow, ID.
Since the start of the 2011 season, the Idaho Vandals are 4-28. They have a new coach this year, Paul Petrino, the younger brother of Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino. The new coach is supposed to take Idaho to the space age offensively, as he has as the offensive coordinator at Illinois, Louisville and Arkansas. But the Vandals rank only 101st in the bowl level at 350.3 yards per game.
“They’ve had to play a brutal schedule,” Franchione said, and it’s true that the Vandals have played Wyoming, Northern Illinois, Washington State, Fresno State and Ole Miss. But they only stayed within 30 points of Northern Illinois, losing 45-35. Idaho’s offense struggles, but its defense is even worse, ranking 122nd out of 123 bowl-level teams at 544.8 yards per game.
That should open up some possibilities for the Bobcats, even if they are playing a freshman quarterback, Tyler Jones, who is learning the ropes.
But this game doesn’t shape up as a matter of whether the Bobcats have the right components to win a football game. It’s a matter of whether they have the will to impose themselves on some opponent when they must. Other games might depend on the Bobcats proving they are better than the opponent. But we already know the Bobcats are better than Idaho, because the Bobcats are better than they were last year and, last year, the Bobcats beat Idaho, 38-7. The betting lines have made Texas State an 11-point favorite.
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