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STAFF REPORT

You wanted bowl-level football, and you’ve got it. Now that the Texas State Bobcats are bowl eligible, the next step is getting into a bowl.

It must be nice for Texas State football coach Dennis Franchione to reflect on how all of this has happened as quickly as it has. Except he really doesn’t have time for that.

Following a bye week to savor bowl eligibility, the Bobcats embark on the last three games of their regular season — Saturday at Arkansas State, the following Saturday at home against Western Kentucky, then Nov. 30 at Troy. The Bobcats could do nothing else for the rest of the season and it’s already a success, considering where this team has been. But why not do more? Every win from here on moves the Bobcats into higher consideration for a bowl invite.

A hard-boiled observer can (and should) point out that four of the wins feeding Texas State’s 6-3 record won’t impress anyone trying to fill a bowl game. Three of the wins came against bowl-level foes Southern Mississippi, Georgia State and Idaho, which are a combined 1-27 this year. Another win came against Prairie View A&M, which is 5-5 at the playoff level.

It remains, though, that the Bobcats are a second-year bowl-level team and, as such, they probably should be well behind the likes of Southern Mississippi and Idaho, which have been at this for a while. Texas State right now is well ahead of both those programs. And of the five teams that moved up to the bowl-level in 2011, including Georgia State, Texas State has the best record this season.

The closest competition, in more ways than one, is Texas-San Antonio (UTSA), which is 5-5 playing in Conference USA. Four of those wins have come against New Mexico, Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), Tulsa and Texas-El Paso (UTEP), which are a combined 8-29. The Roadrunners did pick up their best win of the year last weekend, defeating 6-4 Tulane, 10-7, at the Alamodome.

UTSA technically is ineligible for a bowl this year, being only a third-year program in its second year at the bowl level. However, a provision allows UTSA to enter a bowl without an appeal if it wins six games and there aren’t 70 other teams attaining eligibility to fill out 35 bowl games. Presently, 59 teams have earned bowl eligibility, and 16 others have won five games, needing one more win between now and the end.

If the number of bowl-eligible teams doesn’t reach 70, then Texas State definitely will go to a bowl game. However, if that number climbs above 70, then a 6-6 Texas State team with an average home crowd of 18,265 probably isn’t going to make the cut.

Then again, the Bobcats still could wind up a 9-3 team averaging 20,000, and that becomes a more attractive package. That would require the Bobcats to win their last three games, and the fans to sell out Bobcat Stadium to the tune of 30,000 when the team plays Western Kentucky on Nov. 23, the final home game of the season.

So, those are the goals now, and they have made the football season much more interesting than originally anticipated.

Which gets us back to Franchione and the quite impressive job he has done with this program, taking a team that was getting hammered at the playoff level and making it bowl eligible in less than three years.

“We set goals to do things like this, but, realistically, it’s happened probably a little faster than I think we could have projected,” Franchione said this week on the Sun Belt Conferene media call. “I’ve kind of said all the way through this move up that it’s a process. I’ve rebuilt programs, but never rebuilt and moved up a level at the same time, so how many steps are pretty hard to define. But we’ve taken a pretty big step in getting to be bowl eligible our second year.”

Truth be told, Franchione said, he had no idea how long this would take. The dual task of moving up to the bowl level and making the team good enough for bowl eligibility was always too large to accurately scope.

“I don’t think I set out a time line,” Franchione said. “I hoped it would happen in my tenure here. But this was not an easy process to define and identify. The part of inheriting a 4-7 team, only having about 45 or 50 guys on scholarship that had played FCS football, rebuilding a roster, moving up, playing now in our third conference in three years. It would have taken a real visionary to be able to define the whens and hows completely on it. I do think it’s safe to say it’s probably happened as quick as it could have happened.”

Making the rest of this a little more intriguing is that all three remaining Texas State opponents are on the verge of bowl eligibility with five wins each. The first comes up Saturday, when the Bobcats venture to Jonesboro, AR, to play an Arkansas State team defending the Sun Belt Conference championship.

The Red Wolves are 5-4 overall and 3-1 in the Sun Belt. They lost the game they needed to defend their league title, falling, 23-7, against Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL) on Oct. 22. But they have come back since then with two road wins, nudging past South Alabama, 17-16, on Nov. 2, and slamming Louisiana-Monroe (ULM), 42-14, on Nov. 9.

These last couple of games have shown a marked change in Arkansas State’s approach offensively, as the Red Wolves have shifted hard to the run. In September and October, the Red Wolves ran 37.2 times per game and averaged 137.6 rushing yards. In their two November games, they have rushed 52.5 times per game and averaged 224.0 rushing yards. In that same stroke, Arkansas State has thrown 24 passes per game for an average of 197.5 yards in November after averaging 37.7 passes and 259.7 passing yards in September and October.

But the Bobcats don’t worry too much about teams that run the ball. They rank 12th nationally and first in the Sun Belt against the run, allowing 106.2 yards per game. The Bobcats also lead the Sun Belt in turnover margin (plus-0.8), pass defense efficiency (118.4) and scoring defense (23.3 points per game).

The Bobcats are 2-2 in the Sun Belt, so they need two wins in their last three games to finish with a winning record in the league.

But two wins for the Bobcats in their last three games would mean much more than that. They would mean credibility for a team that’s bowl eligible, and working on bowl invited.

 

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