The college bowl schedule is set, and five Texas teams get to play bonus games later this month and early next. Baylor heads to Florida to take on North Carolina in the Orlando Citrus Bowl; TCU battles the Oregon Ducks in the Alamodome; and Houston and Florida State tangle in Atlanta’s GeorgiaDome.
Tough, intriguing matchups one and all. And then there is the one that got away…
To the disappointment of most fans in Lubbock, and some in College Station, the once-chippy Texas Tech-Texas A&M rivalry will not be revived this December in Houston. Instead, the Aggies will be making their second trip to Nashville in five weeks, where they will play Louisville in the Music City Bowl, while the Red Raiders will play LSU in Houston’s NRG Stadium.
What the what?
Back before the trip to Nashville was set in stone, TexAgs.com’s Billy Liucci explained that the powers-that-be in College Station wanted to avoid a return trip to Houston, where the team opened the season with a 38-17 win over Arizona State in September. Liucci added that the Texas Bowl didn’t need the Aggies to sell out, as LSU and Tech would be just as hot a ticket.
So unselfish, those Aggies, putting the interests of a third-tier bowl committee ahead of their own! And, no, the Texas Bowl doesn’t need a 12th Man-Tortilla battle to sell out. But Houston is home to more Aggies than anywhere else on the planet, and Raider fans here are plentiful as well. It seems that it’s in the interest of both teams to duke it out in their home state. So are the Aggies ducking Kliff Kingsbury’s potent Air Raid(er) offense, or, as seems more likely, bending to the SEC’s will to create favorable matchups for the conference as a whole? Or both?
Welcome to the brave new world of college bowl selections.
Unlike other conferences, which allow their teams to accept lower-tier bowl bids on their own, the SEC has ultimate authority over which of its teams go where since last year, or at least after the big shows are settled. When the four-team National Championship playoff is scheduled, and the Sugar and Orange Bowls make their picks, the SEC then decides where to dispatch every other remaining bowl-eligible school.
Two years ago, outgoing SEC president Mike Slive explained that decision:
“This bowl process gives us the best opportunity to address several issues that impact SEC fans, including the creation of intriguing matchups, the accommodation of travel for fans, reduced ticket obligations for our schools and a variety of assignments to help prevent repetitive postseason destinations.”
But is Louisville a more intriguing matchup than Tech? Are Aggie fans better accommodated by traveling to faraway (and potentially chilly) Nashville for the second time in five weeks than they would be in playing what pretty much amounts to a home game in a better winter climate?
No and no. Maybe this does reduce ticket obligations, but that whole repetitive destination thing is out the window as well.
What Slive didn’t say, but what many believe, is that the SEC uses this system to enhance conference prestige by creating favorable matchups for its teams, or at least for its blue-blood programs. According to this theory, the SEC brass wants its teams first and foremost to win outright, but if there’s a good chance that they might lose, that they do so somewhere the negative effect on recruiting might sting the least. Like, say, Nashville, the capital of a state that produces very few Texas A&M recruits, and relatively few SEC recruits in general.
Take last year, when it looked for a few days that Texas and A&M might meet in what was then known as the Houston Bowl. Given their dreadful performance against Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, Texas likely dodged a bullet, but it was the Aggies, not the Longhorns, who shied away.
Officials for the Texas Bowl expressed interest in matching the Longhorns and the Aggies in a renewal of one of the best rivalries in college football that ended up with the move of A&M to the SEC.
But a report from Chip Brown of Horns Digest indicated that the SEC wasn’t interested in that game happening — there was too much to lose, especially in recruiting.
The Aggies are dominating the current landscape of the state and a loss could have given Texas and new head coach Charlie Strong a head-to-head win on the field that could have resulted in some head-to-head wins on the recruiting trail with the state’s top prospects considering both schools.
That same rationale seems to be at play this year. The SEC would love for LSU to come to Houston and get a win. After all, the Tigers are perennial national title contenders and are already pillaging Houston and southeast Texas for recruits at a rate alarming to Aggie fans, or fans of any Texas school, for that matter. And if you’re a Tiger fan, your team’s strengths pair with Tech’s weaknesses like jambalaya and Abita beer. It’s a classic matchup of irresistible force meeting, well, an object even more flaccid and porous than merely “movable.” Tech’s “ability” to stop the run ranks ahead of only those of the mighty Idaho Vandals and Eastern Michigan, the pride of Ypsilanti, in all of top-tier NCAA football. (And top-tier is applied loosely to the latter two teams.)
Arrayed against that rickety, slapdash mess is LSU’s strength—a crude and brutal 1970s-style rushing attack led by force-of-nature power back Leonard Fournette. If UT freshman Chris Warren III could shred Tech’s wretched defense for almost 300 yards, Fournette could well spring for something close to a quarter-mile, thus placing him firmly in the lead for next year’s Heisman Trophy.
On the other hand, the Aggie rushing attack (and offense in general) has been mediocre-to-bad this year, and since moving to the SEC, the Aggies have retooled their defense to combat run-first offenses. Aggie nemesis Kliff “Coach Bro” Kingsbury’s teams bested the Aggies two out of three years he was Tech’s starting QB in the early aughts, including 2001’s infamous goalpost game. Tech’s current iteration, which Kingsbury now directs from the sidelines, would be a nightmare for A&M to defend.
And Tech just has their number. Since 2000, the Aggies have beaten the Red Raiders five times and lost eight, and that was back when they were still in the Big 12, fielding a defense designed to attack the spread offense.
Apparently the SEC league office would rather see an almost certain Tiger victory in Houston rather than run the very real risk of an Aggie debacle against an in-state rival. And A&M was willing to play along, even with possible serious consequences to their high school recruiting, and no enhancement of their own.
Call it a conspiracy theory if you want, but it makes a lot of sense. The Texas Bowl pays out $3 million, $250,000 more than the Music City Bowl. (Yes, the SEC pools its teams bowl money, but A&M can’t claim Music City Bowl prestige is worth more than the cash.) The Aggies first said they wanted to avoid playing in the same city twice in one season, but now they’re doing just that in a city about 700 miles further from campus than Houston. It’s hard to sell this as a recruiting trip for A&M, as Tennessee and Kentucky annually duke it out for the most feeble high school talent in SEC country, and what little those states produce more often that not ends up at nearby schools like Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. The Aggies and Louisville are not rivals by any stretch of the imagination, whereas Tech vs A&M was one of the best (and most evenly-matched, over time) in Texas NCAA history.
In the end, it looks like LSU is the only winner here. They are coming to a prime recruiting honey hole, one absolutely vital to A&M’s program year-in and year-out, where they will be able spotlight a transcendent talent in a sold-out stadium against the football equivalent of a Washington Generals defense. Meanwhile the Aggies are forgoing the renewal of a traditional rivalry in their own backyard to take less money to play a faraway game against a mid-major opponent (who might very well beat them) in a wasteland for blue-chip talent.
Well-played, Bayou Bengals. Well-played, indeed.