Bowl Bite

The recent announcement of the addition of the Naval Academyu to the 2006 pool of candidates for a bid to the Meineke Car Care Bowl does nothing to help the Big East Conference or West Virginia – or does it?

The announcement came out of the (Navy) blue – the Midshipmen, if bowl-eligible, will take the #3 Big East team's place in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. While that doesn't figure to affect West Virginia this year, remember that the Sugar Bowl's move to Atlanta certainly didn't figure to affect the Mountaineers a year ago, until Pat White and Steve Slaton became freshman sensations. And even if it ends up not costing WVU a spot in a bowl game, it could well cost another Big East member its spot in Charlotte.

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be much in this agreement that benefits the conference. All Navy has to do is win six games, and it will knock the Big East team out of the Charlotte bowl game. (The ACC's spot is guaranteed, which pretty much tells you all you need to know as to how the two conferences rank in the eyes of the bowl committee.) Navy's task doesn't look too difficult, as the Middies have very winnable games against East Carolina, Massachusetts, Tulsa, Duke, Eastern Michigan, Temple and Army on this year's schedule. So why would the Big East agree to such a deal, if it had much to say about it at all?

First, it should be noted that this is a one-year deal. While the potential does exist for an extension of the pact, the current announcement covers this year only. Should this end up being a one-and-done contract, it probably won't end up being a big negative for the league. If, however, the agreement gets extended, it will raise some very serious questions as to the Big East's long-term viability with the bowl.

Should the agreement continue, a very negative light is cast over the Big East Conference. If the league can't keep an agreement with the bowl game that is in closest proximity to its teams, it spells bad news for the league's ability to keep or attract desirable bowl games for its fans. South Florida fans didn't flock to Charlotte last year (they don't exactly flock to their home games either). Pitt's fans, who apparently don't travel anywhere outside the Steel City, were likewise unimpressive in their showing at the bowl in 2003.

The Big East barely managed to hang on to its Gator Bowl bid by agreeing to a deal that ships its teams west to the Vitalis Sun Bowl every other year. And while El Paso is a fun place to visit (we had a ball during our 1987 trip to face Oklahoma State), the fact is that the Sun carries less prestige than it did 20 years ago. It will also be attendance death for any team other than WVU or Louisville that gets invited. The Big East is also part of two new bowls (the International and the Birmingham) that are about one step above the New Orleans Bowl. Its sixth affiliation, the Houston, is on life support, and has just 29 days to come up with financing before losing its approved status. None of those locations figure to attract many fans other than those wearing red and black or gold and blue.

Add all these items up, and the bowl picture, despite the best efforts of the Big East, is an out of focus and jittery scene at best. And the Navy announcement does nothing to help that image.

Understand, I have nothing against Navy. In fact, one of the best road trips I've ever taken was to Annapolis when West Virginia visited in 1998. The atmosphere there was tremendous – watching the Midshipmen march down the field on their way to the stands, seeing a Navy jet fly by low enough to cut my hair, reading the names of famous naval battles on the stadium façade, meeting one of the crews of the USS West Virginia – it all combined to make a great trip. However, the fact that only two of the Big East's teams are a better draw than the Middies speaks volumes about the drawing power of Big East schools.

The Big East probably didn't have much choice in accepting this proposal by the Meineke Bowl. The conference powers have to do what they can to stay in the good graces of the bowl committee, which has made noise in the past about dropping the Big East from its game. By agreeing to allow Navy to bypass the Big East this year, the conference gains a marker for future negotiations – one that might have to be played in order to keep the league in the Queen City.

From the bowl's perspective, it's understandable that it would want to host teams with good drawing power. The pitiful travel showing of schools like Pitt and South Florida certainly had an impact on the decision to chase Navy for this year. And unless things change, it will likely cause future "one-time" deals to be developed as well.

This doesn't mean all is lost for the league in terms of bowl affiliations, of course. It's not likely that the Big East will qualify more than five teams for in any one year, so the number of bowl slots it has should be sufficient. There have also been open spots in other bowl games as well, caused when leagues were unable to fill all of their contracted spots. However, with only a 6-6 record required for bowl eligibility this year, the number of those spots could be lessened. And in any event, if the Big East wants to move up in the bowl pecking order, its members have to improve their national image.

To do so, first and foremost, Big East teams have to win out of conference matchups, and win its bowl games. WVU's win over Georgia was a nice start, but it was merely a drop in the bucket. Big East teams have to win marquee matchups (i.e., Louisville-Miami, WVU-Maryland, Pitt-Virginia, Pitt-Michigan State, Syracuse-Iowa) and put together winning records in bowl games. Rutgers and USF were competitive in their games a year ago. This year, and in following years, Big East teams have to win those games.

Second, fans have to go to bowl games. WVU and Louisville can't carry the banner for the league in this regard. Connecticut, which had a good showing at its bowl game in 2004, appears to have the base to join the Mountaineers and Cardinals. Rutgers, which finally got back to the bowl picture last year, needs to go back to back and show that its fan base can be counted on to buy 15,000 tickets. And Pittsburgh and Syracuse fans, despite their hideous history of traveling support, must show they are capable of selling seats as well. (You can't tell me that those cities are so attractive in wintertime that fans can't be persuaded to travel outside the city limits for a couple of days.)

Meeting these challenges won't be easy. Birmingham isn't the first place many would choose to spend a December weekend, and despite the fact that Toronto is an excellent cosmopolitan city, it remains to be seen if it will be a prime bowl destination. However, if Big East fans want to improve their bowl lots, they are going to have to look past the negatives and support their teams in person, no matter where they land.

With all this information, it's not easy to decide whether or not the Navy announcement helps, hurts or is neutral to the Big East cause. In the short term, it could possibly bump a Big East team from a bowl slot, assuming Notre Dame takes one of the Big East spots this year as well. However, in the long term, agreeing to this short-term deal could solidify relations with the Meineke bowl, and pay off in further affiliations with the committee. While there's no way to predict which way it will come out, one thing is for sure. The Big East is scrambling to keep respectable bowl affiliations, and doesn't have much ammunition at present with which to fight.

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