A bowl game is, in theory, a reward. A reward for the program, which gets a share of its conference’s bowl game earnings. A reward for the coaching staff, which gets an extra couple weeks of NCAA-sanctioned practice. A reward for the fans, who get an excuse to travel to a (usually) warm-weather city around the holidays. And, of course, a reward for the players, who get another national TV game … and some neat party favors.
Sometimes, though, a bowl game can feel more like a chore than a prize. Perhaps a team feels it should be playing in a better bowl, or just lost its head coach to a bigger program or otherwise just wants this year to be over. As one might imagine, these circumstances can diminish one side’s motivation and lead to some unexpected outcomes.
Here are six teams at risk of playing at less than their best in their bowl game—for whatever reason.
The playoff near-misses
Michigan: This year was going to be different. The favored Wolverines were going to go into Columbus and beat Ohio State for the first time 2000. In the process, they were going to clinch the Big Ten East and move within one game—against Northwestern—of a spot in the College Football Playoff. What a catharsis it was going to be.
Until it wasn’t. Ohio State did what Ohio State does to Michigan, hanging 62 on Michigan’s vaunted defense and ensuring that, while successful, this Michigan season wouldn’t be anything historic. Instead of a Big Ten title game berth and a likely playoff spot, Michigan will play in the Peach Bowl against Florida. It’ll mark the third time since 2008 that the two programs have faced off in a bowl game.
Michigan has no realistic gripe with the committee for leaving it out, so there’s not much we’ll-show-them motivation here. And while 10 wins is a successful season by nearly every standard, the shellacking in Columbus will sting for quite a while. With no disrespect meant to the Peach Bowl, this is not where the Wolverines saw themselves just two weeks ago.
Georgia: Georgia sees Michigan’s painful loss to Ohio State and raises. Just like last year’s title game, the Bulldogs jumped all over Alabama and were in control for the majority of the SEC championship game. And just like last year’s title game, the Tide made a switch at quarterback that made all the difference.
This time Jalen Hurts replaced Tua Tagovailoa—while last year it was the other way around—but it had the same effect: Alabama received a huge spark on offense and eventually overcame a double-digit, second-half deficit to crush Georgia’s national championship hopes. Next up for Georgia is Texas in the Sugar Bowl, an intriguing matchup between blue-blood programs in a prestigious bowl game. But it ain’t the playoff. And as most Georgia fans will tell you, after the start to that SEC title game, anything less than the playoff feels second-rate.
Plus, Georgia will be without defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who was introduced this week as Colorado’s next head coach. Unlike Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who was hired to be Maryland’s head coach, Tucker will not stay on staff through New Year’s Day.
The interim crowd
Appalachian State: The Sun Belt champions were dealt a blow when Louisville announced it would hire Scott Satterfield as its next head coach. Under his guidance, the Mountaineers made the FCS-to-FBS transition and started winning almost immediately. Over the past four seasons, Appalachian State has 40 wins and is 3–0 in bowl games. It’s a terrific hire for Louisville and a painful loss for Appalachian State.
Mark Ivey will coach the Mountaineers in the New Orleans Bowl, where they’ll face off against Conference USA runner-up Middle Tennessee. Ivey has been with the program for seven years, serving mostly as defensive line coach before a promotion this season to assistant head coach. He has little chance of staying as head coach, as athletic director Doug Gillin has indicated he’ll conduct a national search for Satterfield’s replacement. That’s not to say Appalachian State won’t play hard for Ivey—it certainly will—but a team in between coaches runs the risk of looking directionless.
Utah State: Just two weeks ago, Utah State found itself in a tremendous position. The 10–1 Aggies had a chance to win the Mountain West’s aptly named Mountain Division by beating Boise State. A win in that game, followed by a win in the MWC title game, would have pulled Matt Wells’s team one UCF loss away from a possible New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
Fast forward to now: Utah State lost its chance at a Mountain West title and will play North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl instead, and Wells won’t be joining them in Albuquerque.
Wells is off to replace Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, and he’s bringing coordinators David Yost and Keith Patterson with him. Interim coach Frank Maile has said that all three will be involved in preparing for North Texas, but it’s doubtful any of them will be on the sideline. It’s hard to imagine a more significant turnover staff-wise before a bowl game.
The losing streaks
USF: To say USF is limping into bowl season is a true understatement. Charlie Strong’s 7–0 start to the season saw them reach as high as No. 21 in the AP Poll. Then came five straight double-digit losses: at Houston (57–36), vs. Tulane (41–15), at Cincinnati (35–23), at Temple (27–17), vs. UCF (38–10). That streak has relegated the Bulls to the Gasparilla Bowl against Marshall. That game will be played at Raymond James Stadium, USF’s home field. From the losing streak to the location, not much about this game will feel special for USF.
Louisiana Tech: Louisiana Tech’s two-game losing streak isn’t as gnarly as USF’s, but both losses came to teams with below .500 records at the time. The Bulldogs will travel roughly 4,000 miles Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, which is pretty awesome for the players’ enjoyment—Hawaii! In December!—but might lead to a sub-optimal performance. Skip Holtz is 4–0 in bowl games as Louisiana Tech’s head coach, but the team with the longer trip to Oahu has not won the Hawaii Bowl since Rice routed Fresno State in 2014.