Middle Tennessee went into the regular season’s final week 8-3, playing Arkansas State with the winner claiming the Sun Belt Conference championship. After losing to the now two-time reigning Sun Belt champion RedWolves, insult was added to injury — the Blue Raiders were excluded from bowl season.
“This is devastating for those seniors and our entire team,” said head coach Rick Stockstill in a release on the university’s athletic website. “They did what they had to do on the football field and were not rewarded. It was very tough facing my team and telling them their season was over. We had a great year and we will not let the momentum of our 8-4 season be derailed by other people’s decisions that I don’t agree with.”
Western Kentucky earned a bowl invitation with an inferior conference (4-4) and overall (7-5), not to mention a 34-29 loss to MTSU. Perhaps more egregious is Georgia Tech heading to the Sun Bowl. MTSU blasted the Yellow Jackets, 49-28. Georgia Tech finished 6-7, but following the precedent set when UCLA backed into the Pac-12 championship en route to a sub-.500 finish a season, the Jackets were given a bowl bid.
What possible motivation could there have been for leaving out the second place team in a conference that sent four teams to bowl games? Or rewarding a sub-.500 opponent that lost by three touchdowns to the snubbed Blue Raiders?
Something stinks. MTSU accepted a bid to leave the Sun Belt for Conference USA earlier last week, three days before its bowl snub. Then on Monday, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson issued a statement of support for the Blue Raiders’ bowl bid; perhaps not support, so much as denial of tampering.
“I am…disappointed to hear that there is public opinion that I worked against schools in our conference – that could not be further from the truth. In fact, a great deal of work was done with our member institutions in an attempt to get the best possible outcome for bowl games.”
“I also understand that there is frustration that Middle Tennessee was not selected since they finished in a tie for second place in the league standings, but it is important to note that between our two bowl agreements only the league champion must be accommodated. Arkansas State as league champion will be playing in the Godaddy.com Bowl and the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, which by contract had first selection regardless of standings, chose Louisiana-Lafayette. The AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl and Little Caesars Pizza Bowl are not bowls that the Sun Belt Conference is contracted with, thus they were free to take whichever school they wanted. The same is true with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and their desire to take Iowa State. Those bowl games chose the teams that they wanted the most.”
“There has also been a lot of talk about Middle Tennessee being left out of a bowl game because they have announced that they will be leaving the Sun Belt Conference. At no point in time was that ever part of any conversation between Sun Belt officials and a representative of a bowl game. It truly was a nonfactor in how the selections were made. “
MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro issued a statement via an open letter on GoBlueRaiders.com, which focuses heavily on the decision to move to C-USA. He addresses the timing, just days before the de facto conference championship game, and a possible increase of exit fees to $10 million. Most interesting to me was the following:
Against the backdrop of conference realignment, we continued to make our case for a bowl invitation. We were assured by the Sun Belt that our decision to move to C-USA would not affect how it negotiated on our behalf for bowl placement. When the dust settled on Sunday, we learned that despite playing for the Sun Belt Championship, we would not be among the teams heading for post-season play.
There’s no sense in bowls like the Independence, which invited La.-Monroe, and the Little Caesars Pizza, which took Western Kentucky bypassing MTSU. The Blue Raiders played in the early incarnation of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the Motor City, in 2006. This season’s MTSU team was the fourth under Stockstill to reach bowl eligibility.