A quick survey of the Monday landscape at AT&T Stadium offered the latest reminder that this playoff era version of our New Year’s Day extravaganza definitely is not your grandfather’s Cotton Bowl.
Heck, it’s not even your father’s Cotton Bowl. Not with a directional school from the MAC involved, a Jan. 2 date and a game-day price point of less than $20 per seat within three hours of kickoff on StubHub.com.
As for the quality of football, there should be no complaints about what transpired on the field while No. 8 Wisconsin knocked off No. 12 Western Michigan 24-16 to end the Broncos’ quest to finish with an undefeated record by upsetting their third Big Ten opponent of the season.
Instead, the Badgers (11-3) salvaged a bit of pride for college football’s bluebloods by beating Western Michigan (13-1) in front of an announced crowd of 59,615.
The attendance figure marked the lowest at any Cotton Bowl since 59,215 showed up to watch UCLA outlast Texas A&M 29-23 on Jan. 1, 1998. Monday’s attendance barely eclipsed the 54,347 that showed up in the same building to watch a 2013 Class 5A state championship matchup between Allen and Pearland.
But realize this, folks. This is the cost of doing business as part of the College Football Playoff, which mandates that the Goodyear Cotton Bowl invite the nation’s top team from its pool of Group-of-Five participants once in every three-year cycle to butt heads with a Power 5 opponent.
And in the playoff era, every bowl executive wants to be doing business with the CFP folks. Inclusion means high-profile matchups in the other two years of each three-year cycle, with one semifinal showdown in prime time that moves the ratings needle and fills the seats. That happened last year, when Alabama hammered Michigan State 38-0 amid lots of national buzz in front of 82,812 onlookers.
Monday marked the Cotton Bowl’s first time to host a Group-of-Five participant and, to be honest, the row-the-boat visitors from Kalamazoo, Mich., have been one of college football’s best stories this season. Three years removed from a 1-11 record in 2013, the school’s first season under coach P.J. Fleck, the Broncos ran the table during the regular season, won the MAC championship and still arrived in Arlington to expectations they would play the roll of piñata while Wisconsin swung its Power 5 stick.
The Broncos lost, but they were far from outclassed. After carving out a quick 14-0 deficit, WMU righted the ship (er, boat). The Broncos unleashed two 16-play touchdown marches of their own but were unable to come up with the onside kick or make a defensive stop after cutting the deficit to 24-16 with 3:27 to play.
An emotional Fleck found it difficult to say his postgame goodbyes to members of his senior class, which included both members of a prolific duo that combined for an FBS-record 51 career touchdown passes (including one Monday): quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis.
“I’m very proud of our kids’ resolve and resiliency,” Fleck said. “This senior class has done so much for this football program. They took one of the worst college football teams in the country and made it eight points away from winning a Cotton Bowl championship. It’s a legacy they’ll leave that we can build on.”
Laugh if you want but remember the last bunch of upstarts to introduce themselves to the nation in a similar setting against Wisconsin has fared well since knocking off the Badgers 21-19 in the 2011 Rose Bowl. That would be Fort Worth’s own, the TCU Horned Frogs, who now reside among the nation’s Power 5 programs.
Western Michigan, unlike TCU back in the day, is not poised to make a jump to a Power 5 neighborhood during the next round of conference realignment. But the Broncos will open the 2017 season against another pair of college football bluebloods, Southern California (Sept. 2) and Michigan State (Sept. 9), in efforts to show their combined 29-11 record the past three seasons under Fleck is no fluke.
Despite speculation about his potential interest in higher-profile jobs this off-season, Fleck stressed Monday that he has no plans to leave. Asked about the next step in his career journey, Fleck answered: “I’m going to Kalamazoo, unless 13-1 gets you fired around here. I love where I’m at.”
He also offered a parting shot for those who envision WMU as a one-and-done participant in New Year’s Day bowls.
“For all the people who thought we didn’t belong, we do belong. And we’ll continue to grow higher,” Fleck said.
Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But in the playoff era of college football, this much is certain: change is inevitable for all involved parties, including the venerable Cotton Bowl.