There's probably nobody happier to see this college football season come to an end than the players for the Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3), unless, of course, it's the players for the Texas A&M Aggies (6-6). Then again, with the way their hopes and dreams came crashing down to the ground at the start of this month, it can probably be argued that the Houston Cougars (12-1) are probably happy to have this season end as well. And for the Northwestern Wildcats (6-6), bringing a wildly up-and-down season to an end in the home stadium of the wildly up-and-down Houston Texans makes perfect sense.
So it's only fitting that these four teams are gathered in Texas this weekend to play in two meaningless football games that only degenerate gamblers (in the case of tomorrow's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas) or alumni hoping for better things next season care about. Yet that's the case as Houston faces off against Penn State in Dallas on Monday morning while the Aggies and Northwestern play out the string tomorrow morning at Reliant Stadium.
Playing the two-year-old TicketCity Bowl has to be somewhat of a comedown for the Cougars. It was just on December 3 that they hosted Southern Miss in the C-USA title game. The undefeated Cougars were poised to leap into a BCS bowl with the victory, and representatives from the Sugar and Orange Bowls were on hand to greet the Cougars after the win. Only there was one slight problem: the Cougars lost.
Since that time, the program has been embroiled in controversies and shake-ups big and small. The Cougars are officially leaving C-USA after the 2013 academic year to join the Big East. And they'll be doing so with a new man running the football program as, after much hemming and hawing and non-denial denials, Kevin Sumlin split for the "greener" pastures of Texas A&M.
Associate head coach and special teams coordinator Tony Levine was named as the interim head coach -- he's since been named the official head coach and will be the guy guiding them not only against Penn State but into the Big East. Levine was a well-respected coach rising through the assistant ranks, and he's the kind of coach that players will willingly run through a wall for.
His squad will be facing another team that finished out its season engulfed in change and controversy. But what Houston faced is nothing compared to what Penn State has dealt with. Houston's just changing a conference and adjusting to a new coach. Penn State's dealing with the destruction of a reputation: a reputation that it was the one major school in the NCAA that did things the right way.
The Penn State story is well-known by now: a former assistant coach who is allegedly a pedophile who conducted his atrocities inside team facilities; the assistant who reported one incident not to the police, but to head coach Joe Paterno; Paterno, who reported it to campus officials; campus officials who did nothing. It's not pretty, and it's nowhere near over, and the number of ever-emerging victims is disturbing.
So these two teams now must go out and play a football game on Monday morning in the aging Cotton Bowl -- the actual Cotton Bowl game is now played inside Jerry World in Arlington -- before a crowd that will probably be well short of capacity.
This will be the final game for Houston's Case Keenum, Bryce Beall, Marcus McGraw, Sammy Brown, Patrick Edwards, Michael Hayes, Tyron Carrier and several others. It's a high-flying, high-scoring squad that can score on just about anybody and not only wants to win one last game, but wants to show the world that it can defeat somebody more than just weak C-USA competition, especially if that victory comes over a well-regarded defensive squad from the big and mighty Big 10.
But that might not be so easy for the Cougars. Penn State's coming in with a mighty big chip on its shoulder: The current players want to be remembered for something more than just playing for a school that seemingly condoned the behaviors of a disturbed assistant coach that none of them ever played for.
And Penn State offers up that one thing that has given the Cougars fits for years. The Nittany Lions are a big, physical squad, and the Cougars have problems with big, physical squads. The offensive line struggled against UCLA and Tulsa, but was able to get leads that allowed them to negate the size problem. That wasn't the case with Southern Miss as the Cougars could never get a lead and were pushed up and down, left and right, across the field by a much bigger, much more physical squad.
Despite everything, the TicketCity Bowl promises to actually be a good football game featuring ranked squads with points to prove to each other, their fans and the country.
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That's not the case, unfortunately, with the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas tomorrow. The Aggies, who fooled numerous people into ranking them highly before the season started, imploded time and time again during the season, blowing huge second half lead after huge second lead to good and mediocre squads throughout the Big 12 and SEC. Head coach Mike Sherman has already been fired, and there are many Cougar fans who blame that firing on the UH loss to Southern Miss as it came just days before the UH/Southern Miss game.
Kevin Sumlin will not be coaching the game and the team will be run by interim coach, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter -- that's kind of strange seeing as how the Aggies' chief problem this season was stopping the opposition from scoring points in the second half -- and he's already taken the head coaching gig at Fresno State. But if things hold true to form for the Aggies, they'll jump out to a huge first-half lead, then blow it all and lose the game in heartbreaking fashion in the second half.
Northwestern's the program that Rice aspires to grow up and be, the mediocre team that manages to make it into one of the NCAA's countless bowl games on the strength of a 6-6 record. The Wildcats won their first two games, then lost five straight, then won four straight before losing their final game. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald's a Northwestern alum with a career coaching record of 40-35, which is pretty good considering his squad yearly faces the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and whoever else the Big 10 tosses at him.
Both games kick off at 11 a.m. with the Aggies and Wildcats airing on ESPN and Cougars and Nittany Lions being hidden away over at ESPNU. If you have to watch just one of these games, then go with the TicketCity Bowl on Monday as Houston and Penn State could easily have been in more prestigious bowl games but for some unfortunate circumstances. The Meineke Car Care Bowl should be of interest only to Aggies, Wildcats, their friends, family, and alumni, and those folks in various Vegas sports books just jonesing for a game on which to place a bet.