The good news is that both Arizona State and University of Arizona have picked up bowl bids. The better news is that both destinations are not far from home.
That’s extremely important in these times of budget constraints in college sports. More often than not, playing in a football bowl game will cost a school more in travel expenses than they will receive in their pay-out for participating.
Arizona State (7-5) accepted Sunday’s invitation to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, where they will take on the Naval Academy (7-4) at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Wildcats (7-5) will play Nevada (7-5) in the New Mexico Bowl, which is played in Albuquerque. (*Navy still has one game to play, it’s season finale against Army)
It’s about 750 miles to San Fran and a little more than 400 to Albuquerque. The New Mexico Bowl is close enough that the Wildcats could even hop a few charter buses, head east on I-40, and be there in about six hours.
“I know the University of Arizona will be well-represented by our fans, staff, and student-athletes at the Gildan New Mexico Bowl,” said the school’s ever-optimistic athletic director, Greg Byrne, after the bids were announced Sunday.
And that’s another important factor in playing in a bowl that’s not located across the country. Fans can caravan for the drive to Albuquerque and be home the next day. And the 11-hour car trip to the Bay Area would just mean a long-weekend jaunt for Sun Devil fans.
But Byrne is actually wedged between a rock and a hard place here. He wants to see the school well represented in Albuquerque, but that’s the same night that he needs to pack the house at McKale Center when No. 6 Florida arrives in Tucson to take on the No. 8 Wildcats.
Both teams are going to get valuable recruiting benefits since the bowl games will be televised to a national audience, with Arizona’s game scheduled for broadcast on ESPN and Arizona State on ESPN2. That exposure, of course, ups the stakes and increases the pressure on winning.
The Sun Devils will enjoy the added benefit of playing in California, which is a prime recruiting area for the program and the school has more than 26,000 alumni and what it calls ‘related associates’ in the Bay Area.
ASU’s first-year head coach, Todd Graham, is familiar with the Naval Academy and its style of play, having coached against the program a few times in the past. But their triple-option attack requires some serious preparation for an opponent’s defense.
“Obviously, it’s completely different (than what the Sun Devils have faced in the regular season) and defensively it’s tough,” Graham pointed out in his pre-bowl assessment of the Midshipmen. “It’s a very difficult scheme to defend. We’re preparing for it… but we’ll get it done.”
Fortunately for Graham, he has an abundance of time to prepare for the Navy offense. The Sun Devils don’t play their bowl game until Dec. 29. On the flip side, 25 days is a long time to try to keep the players focused.
However, Arizona’s new head coach, Rich Rodriguez, has just 11 days to prepare his team for its meeting with the Wolf Pack – a team in a downward spiral after losing four of its final five games. It will be the third time the two teams have met, but you have to go back to 1941 to find the last time. The Cats won that one, 26-7, in Tucson.
This will be the 26th bowl appearance for ASU and the second in the past two seasons. Arizona has been invited to 17 bowls over the years, including four in the last five seasons; they stayed home last year.
The last time the Sun Devils won a post-season game was 2005 when it beat Rutgers in the Insight Bowl, while the Cats go back to 2008 when they upset No. 17 BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
ASU’s Graham sees the opportunity to play in a bowl game as an important part of the progression up from the losing seasons of recent years. “The bowl experience is a great experience,” he says, “but we’re going for our eighth win and winning a bowl championship.
“It’s another step for our football team to take.”
And, fortunately for the school and its fan base, it’s a step that’s not too far down the road.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)