Bowl situations surprisingly clear

by Dan McDonald

One weekend remains in college football's regular season, but the bowl situation is already crystal clear for Louisiana's teams.

It's down to one week and counting in college football's regular season, with the conference championship games and a few otherĀ scattered contests remaining this weekend. After next Saturday, it's down to Army-Navy on Dec. 10, and one week later the bowls hit with a vengeance.

But forĀ Louisiana's three bowl-eligible teams, the bowl situation is already abundantly clear.

It's also reasonably clear for the Sun Belt Conference, which now has the possibility of having an unprecedented four teams take part in postseason play. It's not likely, but it could happen.

At the top of the bowl chain, impressive holiday weekend wins by LSU and Alabama set up an almost-certain rematch in January for the national title. LSU's big Friday 41-17 win over third-ranked Arkansas cemented the fact that there are two upper-echelon levels in college football this year LSU and Alabama on one level, and everybody else on the next one down.

Barring something unforeseen, Bama locked up its spot in the title game opposite LSU when it overwhelmed Auburn 42-14 on Saturday in its regular-season finale. The Tigers still have to play Georgia in next weekend's SEC title game, but even a close loss to the Bulldogs probably wouldn't drop LSU past the No. 2 spot in the BCS poll and would likely keep them in an all-SEC national title game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in six weeks.

Between now and then, there will be 34 other bowl games, and the teams locked into bowl berths not games, but berths -- are more set now than in most past seasons. Along with UL's appearance in the Dec. 17 R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Louisiana will have three teams bowling for the first time in almost two decades. Louisiana Tech accepted a berth in the San Diego-based Poinsettia Bowl on Saturday after clinching the WAC title in a 44-0 win over New Mexico State.

The Cajuns will have company from both the state and the Sun Belt in the postseason, with Sun Belt league champion Arkansas State playing in the Bowl in Mobile one evening before the national championship game. UL, LSU and Tech are the only bowl-eligible teams in the state, but there are two others in the Sun Belt and both have a chance at a berth.

UL's opponent in New Orleans will likely be determined this week, but it probably won't be a member of Conference USA as the traditional other half of the New Orleans Bowl field. With UTEP losing on Saturday and Houston getting within one step of a likely BCS berth (the Cougars only have to beat Southern Miss at home in Saturday's C-USA title game to clam that spot), the league is going to be
two teams short of fulfilling its bowl quota, and that means that N.O. will be searching for an at-large team to pair up with the Cajuns. It's noteworthy that Conference USA is the only league in the country not to fill all of its contracted bowl slots.

It won't be Tech now, despite those rumors. It could be a team from the Mid-American Conference, which has three bowl tie-ins and six eligible teams, and that's what happened last year when Ohio played in the New Orleans Bowl. But the N.O. Bowl folks are probably hoping for a Big 10 Conference team, one that would bring national television ratings, and the Big 10 has 10 bowl-eligible teams
and only seven tie-ins. It would be a feather in the game's cap to get a Purdue, Illinois or Northwestern in the Crescent City.

There aren't that many at-large teams to go around, for the same reason that there could be one or even two more Sun Belt teams in the postseason. Bowl invitations have suddenly become a numbers game a nightmare for bowl representatives, but a good thing for almost every bowl-eligible team in the country.

With the weekend results, 71 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams are bowl-eligible for 70 slots. That number will increase by one next weekend when Pitt and Syracuse, both 5-6, face off at Pitt. But that number may stay at 72 since only three other teams can reach bowl eligibility in their final games UConn (5-6) is at Cincinnati on Saturday, South Florida (5-6) hosts West Virginia on Thursday and Hawaii (6-6 with a 13-game schedule) hosts BYU on Saturday. All three will be underdogs.

If there are only 72 bowl-eligible teams, only two of them will get left out of the bowl scene. The four most likely possibilities to be snubbed are Sun Belt members Florida International (despite an 8-4 record) and Western Kentucky (a co-league champ despite a 7-5 mark), and Mid-American Conference members Western Michigan (7-5) and Ball State (6-6).

Both FIU and WKU can make arguments for inclusion over Western Michigan and Ball State, FIU on its record and WKU with its share of the league title. But neither has a bowl tradition and neither will take a large following on the road exactly the reasons UL director of athletics Scott Farmer wanted New Orleans as his team's home and has been pushing fans to buy tickets through official UL outlets.

The SEC will have all its bowl-eligible teams playing in bowls somewhere, since the league has nine such teams and its eight locked-in slots becoming nine this year with two teams certain to play in BCS bowls. That number stayed at nine on Saturday when Kentucky kept Tennessee from getting its sixth win.