The reactions to the announcement of Wisconsin's bid in the Champs Sports Bowl this evening have been decidedly mixed. Wisconsin will face Miami December 29 in Orlando. Let's take a look at some of the factors that went into determining the Badgers' bowl destination and give some of our impressions as well.
Losing to Northwestern hurt. Wisconsin lost to Northwestern by two points in the final week of conference play in a game that, frankly, the Wildcats looked like they wanted more. The boys from Evanston were subsequently rewarded for their effort by leapfrogging the Badgers into the Outback Bowl. You could easily make the case that Wisconsin belongs in Tampa over Northwestern. The Badgers finished with a better overall record (9-3 to 8-4) and played a tougher schedule than the Wildcats did. In addition to playing an easier non-conference slate that featured a loss to Syracuse, Northwestern did not have to play Ohio State. Still, since both teams finished with identical conference records of 5-3 and the Wildcats beat the Badgers head-to-head late in the season, the argument on Northwestern's behalf could be considered just as strong. The bottom line is that if Wisconsin had simply taken care of business in a winnable game at Northwestern, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. The Badgers might have been neck-and-neck with Iowa and Penn State for a possible BCS bid or in Orlando's better bowl, the Capital One Bowl. They certainly would not have fallen lower than the Outback and, thus, would have been guaranteed to play in January.
Travel considerations. There is absolutely no doubt that several important travel considerations led to the Outback Bowl taking a pass on Wisconsin. First, Wisconsin's fan base has already been tempted by a bevy of attractive travel options this year. I wouldn't be surprised if Hawaii were officially renamed South Wisconsin after thousands of Badger fans spent the past couple of weeks on separate trips to see the men's basketball team play in the Maui Invitational and the football team play the University of Hawaii. The basketball team has made 11 consecutive NCAA tournaments and figures to be in the running for a bid yet again. Plenty of fans will want to travel with Bo's squad this spring. And, next September, the football team plays UNLV in Las Vegas, a destination that has become wildly popular with Badger backers. The Athletic Department has been encouraging fans to travel to that game for, literally, years. Wisconsin's inordinately high number of travel opportunities combined with an economic recession means the fan base is likely to be split several ways. As such, a replication of the 1994 Rose Bowl, at which the color red made up 75% of the stadium, will not occur at any of these sites. Very few fans have the time and money to go to Hawaii, travel to NCAA tournament games, head west to Las Vegas and make a bowl trip all in one year. It is Wisconsin, of course, so there will be a nice contingent of Badger fans at any bowl game, but plenty already blew their wad in Hawaii or are saving up for March Madness or Vegas in September.
Additionally, Wisconsin has played in Florida bowl games in each of the last five years. Two of those seasons ended in Tampa. There is the perception, fair or not, that Badger fans are sick of Florida and would be less likely to shell out the money to revisit the state yet again for a non-BCS game.
Many are perturbed that the Outback Bowl would pass Wisconsin over in favor of a team that can't even fill the smallest stadium in the Big Ten for home games. Wouldn't the bowl and the surrounding community make more money by choosing the Badgers over the Wildcats? Not necessarily. In addition to the overabundance of Badger vacation possibilities limiting the number of Wisconsin fans who might make this trip, Northwestern travels surprisingly well for bowl games. There were a ton of Wildcat fans at the Alamo Bowl a season ago. Northwestern's alumni base may be small, but it is very well-dispersed geographically and generally wealthy. And, because its football program isn't exactly carrying a tradition of excellence, Northwestern's fans are more likely to get excited about seeing their team win its first bowl game since 1949.
The Outback Bowl selection committee was still out of line. There are, of course, TV ratings, game quality and other factors to consider, and here is where I absolutely do not understand the selection of either Northwestern or its opponent, Auburn, by the Outback Bowl. While the selection committee bypassed Wisconsin as the Big Ten representative, it also declined to take teams like Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas from the SEC. Based on both decisions, it seems the Outback Bowl's number one goal this season was to manufacture a unique matchup. Wisconsin-Tennessee and Wisconsin-Georgia were both played in the Outback Bowl within the last five years. Auburn and Wisconsin played each other in the Capital One Bowl following the 2005 season. So the committee pitted a team that hasn't been to the Outback since 1996 (Auburn) against a team that has never been (Northwestern) in a game that has never been played. Outback Bowl president and CEO Jim McVay even said he likes the matchup for its "freshness."
It is easy to fundamentally disagree with this method of choosing teams. Not only is Auburn-Northwestern far from a sexy game from a "name brand" standpoint, it is also a much less interesting game than what the Outback Bowl could have given us. These are two unranked teams, one of which finished 3-5 in its conference. To decline the opportunity to invite better teams from bigger schools to play each other on New Year's Day is an abuse of the selection committee's power and further demonstrates how the complete lack of adequate guidelines in the selection process leads to poor results. Why a January bowl game would decide to leave teams like Wisconsin, Tennessee and Georgia on the table is perplexing.
Wisconsin may end up better off, despite all this. In the end, what really matters to anyone who cares about the Wisconsin football team is what this means for it. The Badgers may have ended up very fortunate. Wisconsin gets a marquee opponent in Miami. Sure, "the U" isn't what it used to be, but it is still ranked 14th in the country. Auburn isn't even in the top 25. People still doubt the Badgers because, despite winning nine games, they lost their only two against ranked opponents. Playing Miami gives the team what it desperately craves, the opportunity to win a big game over a highly-regarded foe. Wisconsin is a young team and, after a relatively successful season, big things will be expected in 2010. This game can serve as a barometer of where this team is right now and what improvements it must make to compete at a high level next season. While the Outback Bowl is played on New Year's Day, it is a morning game that starts while most people are still sleeping off their damage from New Year's Eve. As the day progresses, it quickly becomes overshadowed by bigger games. The Champs Sports Bowl is the game that Tuesday night in December and, with two highly-ranked football schools facing off, the spotlight should be big.
All in all, while it is never fun to be snubbed, the Badgers and their fans should look forward to a tremendously challenging and entertaining game down in Orlando.