Maybe it’s because the Seahawks keep dominating the local sports-news cycle with their unpredictable performances on the field and weird behavior off it – Earl Thomas straying into the opponents locker room and lobbying for future employment after his team’s 21-12 victory: What was that about? – but I’m not detecting much Fiesta Bowl buzz this week.
Which is curious, because Penn State and Washington are traditional powers that face each other, oh, every century or so. Besides, we’re not talking about Temple taking on Florida International in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. We’re talking about the 10-2 Nittany Lions, ranked No. 9, and the 10-2 Huskies, ranked No. 11. Of the 43 postseason contests serving as side dishes before the College Football Playoff, the Fiesta Bowl belongs on the short list of Truly Delicious.
And yet, compared to the anticipation that preceded the Huskies’ 2016 Peach Bowl showdown against top-ranked Alabama, the sense of a letdown is inevitable. A year ago, a potential national championship was at stake. A year later, an 11-victory season is at stake. Big difference.
A victory won’t compel UW fans to begin their New Year’s Eve celebrating in the afternoon, and a defeat won’t be seen as a frustrating conclusion to a storybook season. If it seems difficult to muster much more than a casual interest in the Fiesta Bowl, some perspective might be in order.
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Two years ago, Washington accepted an invitation to play Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Attendance was announced at 20,229, smallest for a UW game since the Huskies’ 1989 visit to California was witnessed by a crowd the size of the Harvey Weinstein Fan Club.
The kickoff time – 11:20 a.m. CST on Dec. 26 – presented obvious conflicts for season-ticket holders whose holiday plans weren’t steeped in traveling to Dallas on Christmas. But there was another explanation for the meager UW representation: The Huskies weren’t particularly good.
A mid-November defeat at Arizona State found them with a 4-6 record, needing to beat Oregon State on the road and Washington State at home to become bowl-eligible. The 44-31 Heart of Dallas Bowl victory capped off a so-so season with a three-game winning streak that translated into momentum when spring practice convened.
During a span of a little more than 25 months, the Huskies have evolved from a team fortunate to qualify for any kind of bowl into a team that’s preparing for a marquee match-up in a major bowl. The absence of a fever-pitch mood prior to this marquee match-up tells me how high the bar has been set under fourth-year head coach Chris Petersen.
Some Huskies fans might not be fired up for the Fiesta, but Huskies junior defensive tackle Vita Vea is. Recently recognized as the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, the 6-foot-5, 340-pound Vea profiles as a first-round choice in the next NFL draft. With millions of dollars on the line, Vea could have opted out of competing on New Year’s Eve, citing the same injury fears that former Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey noted before skipping the Cardinal’s 2016 Sun Bowl against North Carolina.
McCaffrey’s decision to quit revolted old-school types, but it was financially prudent. The Sun Bowl amounted to an exhibition game, and McCaffrey already had exhibited plenty. If the final score is of no consequence in the national-championship picture, why would a player put his NFL career at risk?
It’s a question Vea was asked last week, and he didn’t hear any of it.
“We have a game left,” he said. “I’m trying to focus on that. Just focus on Penn State and the bowl game.”
Saquon Barkley, Penn State’s all-purpose version of McCaffrey, also is expected to declare for the 2018 NFL draft. Like Vea, Barkley has his eyes on the Fiesta Bowl, and nothing beyond the Fiesta Bowl.
That two certain first-round draft choices are willing – excited, actually – to extend their college careers by taking the field on New Year’s Eve says something about them, and something about a rare, East vs. West collision of college-football heavyweights.
Penn State largely recruits its talent from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Washington largely recruits from the Seattle area and California. It’s a classic Big 10-Pac-12 confrontation, the kind of confrontation that used to be settled every New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl this season will pit Georgia against Oklahoma in a playoff semifinal, and if that strikes you as bizarre, well, that’s the way of the world. For those schools denied a berth in a four-team playoff format destined to be expanded into an eight-team format, the Fiesta Bowl is the next-best thing.
Kickoff at University of Phoenix Stadium is set for Saturday afternoon at 1. Remember Saturday afternoon kickoffs at 1? They’re as ancient as telephone booths and rabbit-eared antennas on the television set, but one soon is forthcoming and I’m psyched.
As for the notion the Fiesta Bowl is anticlimactic, try closing your eyes and recalling the Wizard of Oz scene of Dorothy repeating her wish in succession.
“This is not going to be a letdown. This is not going to be a letdown. This is not going to be a letdown.”
If that doesn’t work? Remember the bowl game the Huskies played only two years ago, when they improved their record to 7-6 in an empty stadium.