Despite its well-documented struggles this season, the Michigan football program remains a commodity to holiday bowls.
The majority of national publications project the Wolverines (7-4) to play in either the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz., or the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl on Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla., and bowl organizers will announce matchups Sunday night on ESPN, ending the flood of speculation that comes with the final weeks of the regular season.
“They probably have not had a season that everybody thought of at the beginning of the year,” Rick Catlett, president of the Gator Bowl, said of the Wolverines. “They’re still a quality football team, and it’s obvious in the way they played last weekend. Teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, those are the teams that have a national prominence that makes it easier to figure out some of the variables that go into selecting teams.”
The Wolverines lost four of their last five games, yet bowl organizers say several factors have kept Michigan desirable in spite of its struggles: the program’s national visibility, the fact that it’s the winningest program in college football, the willingness of Michigan’s fan base to travel, as well as the possibility of enticing matchups against either a Big 12 team in Arizona or an SEC team in Florida.
The Fiesta Bowl oversees the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and sent representatives to the Ohio State-Michigan game Nov. 30 to consider Michigan as a candidate.
“The feedback came back extremely positive about Michigan, about the profile of the team and the energy they brought to the game,” Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said. “They’re excited about playing more and haven’t given up on the season, at all.”
But how do bowl committees get to the point of selecting teams to play in holiday-season games?
Mike Schulze, the director of communications and sponsorships for the Outback Bowl, said there’s one universal truth in the process.
“You can’t marry yourself to one scenario or one team,” he said. “To try to figure it all out ahead of time, it’s often a labor of futility.”
The Gator Bowl committee met Monday to begin formulating Big Ten-SEC matchups for the New Year’s Day game in Jacksonville; it will formally meet again Sunday afternoon to prepare to make its selection.
Catlett said a three-pronged formula goes into determining candidates for the Gator Bowl: first, look for teams that will have a draw on national television; second, how a team’s fan base travels; third, will this team sell tickets?
One team, Catlett said, never delivers all the elements. A combination of the two teams likely will.
There’s also the “it” factor that a player or a group of players could bring, such as the rock-star persona of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, and pairing two teams that are not traditional opponents — for example, January’s Outback Bowl between Michigan and South Carolina.
“Each team had very high-profile players [Michigan’s Denard Robinson and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney],” Schulze said. “They both had exciting offenses. Both fan bases as well as the teams themselves were excited about the opportunity to play the other team. That’s always the key component. You want the teams that want to be there.”
The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl has to craft a bowl matchup that is both fan-friendly and television-friendly; the Dec. 28 bowl in Tempe doesn’t kick off until 10:15 p.m. Eastern time.
“You think about what’s on paper and who’s turning on the TV sets, but you want to sell tickets,” Shelton, the Fiesta Bowl executive director, said. “We have to think about what will keep people tuned in. Maybe it’s Michigan-Texas, or maybe it’s an old Big Eight matchup in Nebraska-Oklahoma.”
One thing that doesn’t sway committees, Catlett said, is electronic lobbying.
“Vanderbilt wanted to come to the Gator Bowl one year, and I got over 1,000 emails about it,” Catlett said. “All it did was clutter my computer.”
With respect to Michigan, bowls are also taking note of the Wolverines’ 42-41 loss to Ohio State, which came down to the Wolverines’ failed two-point conversion attempt. While Michigan limped through its final month of the regular season, few expected the showing that it posted against the No. 2 team in the country.
“You look at how a team finished the season, and how it played against its archrival,” Catlett said. “That game Saturday certainly sent a message to bowl directors that they’re to be taken seriously.”