There is a certain segment of football fans who claim to love the game, but only if there is a national championship at stake.
As the number of bowl games has increased, so has the number of teams, which has yielded grumbling from those offended by those programs without winning records getting to participate in the postseason. Alabama coach Nick Saban has decried the new playoff system, for which his team might as well be an honorary participant every season, as having diminished the value of other bowl games.
Washington State coach Mike Leach hates this line of thought, saying it must come from people who “don’t like football” and questioning how any postseason game could possibly be less meaningful than one played in the regular season.
Still, anyone who was less than titillated at the Holiday Bowl pairing of WSU and Minnesota has been given ample reason to be interested in the game, what with the Golden Gophers’ threatening to boycott at one point in time.
For half of the three weeks of buildup to Tuesday’s game, which kicks off at 4 p.m., there was uncertainty about what team the Cougars would play, and even some speculation that the game could not be played at all.
To Leach’s credit, he was right to “ignore 100 percent of that” speculation, and is certainly only more secure in his opinion that “your best bet is to assume everybody is playing.”
But for fans, particularly Minnesota fans, who had booked flights, hotels and had made their holiday plans, seeing both teams walking around San Diego this past week must have been a relief.
And for the players, hanging out onboard a large naval vessel and visiting the San Diego Zoo (WSU) and SeaWorld (Minnesota) must have been fun. But the players are always reminded that these trips are business first and are undoubtedly ready to play the game.
So what should we expect?
Well, Minnesota did show up for the game, but the Golden Gophers are a depleted unit. The 10 suspensions ravaged the secondary and chipped away at the depth elsewhere.
That could mean a big day for Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, one of the nation’s top passers. Four of the suspended players are members of Minnesota’s secondary, including a pair of starters.
WSU’s passing offense averages 370 yards a game, good for No. 2 nationally.
“We all know that quarterback accuracy is important,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said when asked about Falk. “He’s extremely accurate and he makes good decisions.”
The Golden Gophers have a popular leader at quarterback as well in senior Mitch Leidner, who has been starting games for Minnesota since he was a freshman. While Leidner is a dual-threat quarterback — he has 10 rushing touchdowns this season — sophomore Rodney Smith is the team’s most dynamic offensive player.
Tuesday’s game will be the final game for a dozen WSU seniors. That includes Gabe Marks, who is so quotable that TV stations in Spokane now often run highlight packages of just him after WSU’s press conferences on Monday.
It includes center Riley Sorenson, a three-year starter who braved his senior year despite losing both parents and discovering he had cancer in the six months leading up to preseason camp.
Almost all 12 seniors are key contributors, and many played crucial roles in building the Cougars into the program that has made three bowl games over the past four years. Only two other groups of seniors have done the same at WSU.
With a win on Tuesday, they can also be just the third senior class in WSU’s history to graduate having won at least nine games in its final two seasons.
LEACH ON PLAYERS SKIPPING BOWL GAMES
No players from Washington State or Minnesota will skip the Holiday Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, but Cougars coach Mike Leach has some choice words for stars at other programs who decide to skip their bowl games.
Leach said that a player who skips his bowl game is “100 percent” selfish and mused that perhaps some players did so in order to avoid taking a drug test mandated by the bowl games.
“Those guys who don’t play in the bowl game, it appears to me they think all their accomplishments were solely theirs and theirs alone,” Leach said. “I can’t think of a more selfish point of view.”
Those who support the rights of players to skip their bowl games note that coaches frequently miss their team’s bowl game when taking new jobs. Another reason is since college players are unpaid amateurs, they have a right to avoid injury, which could hurt their NFL draft prospects.
However, the implications of this year’s rash of players avoiding bowl games remains to be seen. The bowl games, TV networks and sponsors alike cannot be happy about losing the star players who drive interest in the games, and may be wary of inviting schools in the future without assurances that the key players will show up.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Baylor’s all-time leading rusher Shock Linwood announced they would skip their bowl games earlier this month.
FALK STAY OR GO?
Conflicting statements on Monday leave Falk’s status to remain at Washington State beyond the Holiday Bowl the same as when they day began: uncertain.
Falk, a redshirt junior, is likely to be selected if he chooses to enter the upcoming NFL draft and forgo his final year of college. Whether or not Falk will leave has been a source of speculation throughout his senior season.
Leach said Falk will be back for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft. Asked if this would be Falk’s last game, and what he has meant to the program, Leach said: “Won’t be his last game. We will see what the last game does mean to the program and all the milestone stuff.”
But Natalee Falk, Luke’s sister, contradicted that thought later on Twitter.
“This has not been confirmed by Luke. He is making his decision after the (Holiday Bowl),” she tweeted.
The tweet was later deleted. Regardless of whether or not Falk has made his decision, he will most likely be asked about it following the game.
WSU (8-4) vs. Minnesota (8-4), 4 p.m., Tuesday, Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, ESPN, 710-AM