Miami is — along with New Orleans — one of the great winter party destinations for American football fans. The city has served as the longtime host of the venerable Orange Bowl game, and it has also hosted 10 Super Bowls. Miami is a city made for postseason football, so it might be easy to think that the Brigham Young Cougars and Memphis Tigers want to live it up in South Florida before their bowl game on Monday.
Forget that notion — this is a business trip for both teams. The Cougars and Tigers find themselves in positions that demand a loud statement on Monday afternoon in Marlins Park, the new home of the Miami Marlins and the creation of an obscene amount of cronyism and corruption in Miami’s political and financial communities.
(Marlins Park is also a stadium in which the football configuration is quite snug, enough to perhaps make it dangerous for receivers to catch passes in the back of the end zone on the dead run:
— LostLettermen.com (@LostLettermen) December 17, 2014
… we’ll see what the view looks like from the TV cameras on Monday.)
For the Memphis Tigers, this is the program’s biggest and brightest spotlight since the 2008 season, the last time the school participated in a bowl game. The man responsible for the program’s resurgence is Justin Fuente, the former Gary Patterson assistant at TCU who took over a sad-sack outfit that had gone 2-10 under then-coach Larry Porter in 2011.
Memphis moved upward on the conference ladder, from Conference USA to The American, which meant a limit on improvement in terms of wins and losses in 2013. Fuente had to preach about the virtue of patience to his players, and this is the year that approach bore fruit. Memphis might have tied with UCF and Cincinnati in The American standings, but since the Tigers beat Cincinnati and did not play UCF, they won “more” of The American than the Knights or Bearcats. They may or may not have been the best team in the conference this season — that point is debatable. What’s not debatable is that Memphis made the biggest breakthrough and enjoyed the most productive season within the conference.
Last year’s American champion, UCF, throttled Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Memphis, carrying the banner for the AAC this year, won’t get to play in a New Year’s bowl against a Power 5 foe, but Brigham Young is a recognizable brand name in college football and the larger whole of college sports. A win over a program that schedules on a national level would validate everything Memphis and Fuente have done this season. Winning this game would dramatically increase the amount of respect Memphis will receive in the offseason.
Yet, as much as Memphis wants this game — and needs it both for its own reputation and the emerging identity of The American — BYU is the team facing an even more urgent situation in Miami.
There is a crisis — not of confidence, but of identity — in BYU’s football program. Cougar fans are not only torn on the subject of head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the kind of coach who is good enough to make a bowl game but never good enough to hit an 11-1 home run; they’re divided on the matter of where BYU should plant its flag in college football.
For some BYU fans, staying independent is the way to go. For others, Big 12 membership should be the desired goal, a goal — it should be pointed out — that has received a lot more discussion over the past two weeks, ever since it became known that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee punished the current Big 12 for not having a conference title game. That story on Dec. 7 — with TCU and Baylor being left out of the semifinals — created an explosion of hopeful chatter about the possibility that the Big 12 might want to expand to 12 teams.
It doesn’t seem likely that the Big 12 will expand, but for BYU fans, any immediate shifts in the larger landscape of collegiate athletics are not the main focus. The Cougars are involved in a long game, one in which they need to make their football brand as robust as possible. BYU did not manage to secure a lock-in provision for the Gang Of Five conferences in relationship to a New Year’s Six bowl. This would seem to be a necessity for the school, since it doesn’t have a conference affiliation.
No matter what else you might think of BYU’s situation, winning respect — built on the strength of winning games — is the Cougars’ ultimate priority in these uncertain years for the program. Memphis might want to legitimize its season. BYU wants to gain added political clout in the long run.
One team is playing for immediate validation, the other for the future. One team is trying to represent its conference with distinction, the other for the ability to be treated better in various discussions and negotiations among conferences and bowl games.
Memphis just wants to be the best in the present tense; BYU wants to recall the glories of the 1980s and claim enough primacy in the college football world that it can be given a level of bargaining power it currently doesn’t possess.
For a bowl game’s inaugural edition, Memphis-BYU rates as an 11 on a 1-to-10 scale. We’ll see if the quality of the game lives up to the delicious nature of the confrontation. If both teams play with the competitive desperation their respective situations seem to warrant, the first Miami Beach Bowl could create a lasting college football memory.