The Hilltoppers will not play in a bowl. That’s how it is. It’s not their fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s circumstantial. That’s life. It’s unfair.
The writing has been on the wall for a about a week now. It appeared about seven days ago when the GoDaddy Bowl announced it had selected Arkansas State – a 7-5 team Western Kentucky beat 34-31 on Nov. 30 – to play in its game Jan. 5.
But the writing on the other side of that wall had been there for months. As teams from bigger conferences with more bowl tie-ins piled up wins, WKU athletic director Todd Stewart knew trouble was ahead.
“Certainly for our football program it’s a very disappointing day,” Stewart said Sunday evening inside E.A. Diddle Arena. “I don’t think there’s any question that this year’s team had a tremendous season in many ways and it’s certainly a resume that is bowl-worthy.”
Stewart worked hard to sell his 8-4 football program, harder than he had to last season when the Hilltoppers were 7-5, lost five of seven to end the season and finished fifth in the league standings. The team’s sixth win, however, came Oct. 27, which put the WKU name out there two weeks earlier than this season.
Last year, WKU was part of a 72-team field for 70 spots, and options for bowl games seeking at-large teams were limited. A 9-3 Louisiana Tech program gaffed on the process and was passed over. An 8-4 Middle Tennessee team was the unfortunate victim of a snub.
“With Mobile (the GoDaddy Bowl), that was probably the biggest disappointment,” Stewart said. “I really felt like winning that last home game would get us in.
“With Detroit (the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl), we were the runner-up there. If they didn’t take Pittsburgh, they were going to take us. I don’t think we were as close in Shreveport (for the Independence Bowl), but we were in the mix.”
This year, 79 teams met the FBS requirement of six wins, and that number doesn’t include a transitioning Texas San Antonio team that went 7-5. Eight other teams, including four others from the Sun Belt Conference, are feeling the same pain WKU feels today of being told to go home. The situation is not specific to Bowling Green, Ky.
Looking back, could WKU have helped itself further during the course of the season? Sure.
A demoralizing defeat at South Alabama on Sept. 14 and a loss at home to Troy on Oct. 26 hurt WKU in its chances when all the dust settled to compete for the league title. Those were games, on paper, the Tops knew they should have won. Perhaps they finish 9-3 (or dare I say 10-2?) overall and a spot or two higher in the league standings. We’ll never know.
Did the fact that WKU is leaving the Sun Belt for Conference USA hurt the Tops this postseason? Absolutely not.
There’s a foolish theory out there that the Sun Belt and commissioner Karl Benson worked against the Hilltoppers going bowling. As Stewart said last week, “That’s ludicrous.” And, as Benson detailed in a statement released by him and the conference Sunday night, the Belt had even gone above and beyond their financial parameters to try and get the Tops to a bowl. They had, perhaps, even suggested WKU head to Mobile instead of Arkansas State.
But Benson’s suggestions have as much value as yours and mine. The bowls choose who they want to choose.
“It doesn’t help having only two bowl tie-ins, obviously, when every other conference has five and six – eight, nine, 10. That’s not helpful. “ Stewart said. “It’s not Karl Benson’s fault. Karl Benson did not keep Middle Tennessee out of a bowl game last year, he did not keep Western Kentucky out of a bowl game this year.
“If you don’t win the league, you’re behind the eight-ball – and that’s just the reality of it.”
Does any of this mean a lick to the team’s seniors? Nope.
There are some great talents that won’t get a chance to shine in a 13th game – Antonio Andrews, Andrew Jackson, Luis Polanco, Hendrix Brakefield, Xavius Boyd, Chuck Franks, Tyree Robinson, Nick Baisch and Arius Wright just to name a few. That’s a shame. They deserve it.
In 2014, the Hilltoppers will compete in Conference USA, a league with nine direct tie-ins to bowl games. There will be no worrying, stressing, praying or finger-nail biting next winter should WKU be bowl-eligible for the fourth time in seven FBS seasons.
The journey toward that goal begins today, a bittersweet beginning to a deflating end to the 2013 season. As absurd as it is for me to write this sentence and as infuriating as it is for you to read it, it was a bad year for the Hilltoppers to have a good season.