Marek Warszawski

No slight to Las Vegas Bowl, but this 11-2 Bulldogs team deserved better

Trent Dilfer talks about how both Jeff Teford and Herm Edwards helped his career

Former Fresno State and NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who served as the keynote speaker at the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl kickoff luncheon, talks about the influences both Tedford and Edwards had on his growth as a quarterback.
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Former Fresno State and NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who served as the keynote speaker at the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl kickoff luncheon, talks about the influences both Tedford and Edwards had on his growth as a quarterback.

These Fresno State Bulldogs deserve better. Much better.

Better than to finish their season in a bowl game that will be of interest to hardly anyone living outside the San Joaquin Valley or Phoenix metro area.

In an antiquated stadium with rickety metal bleachers far from the bright lights of The Strip and even further from the national college football consciousness.

Against a 7-5 Arizona State squad that wound up sixth in the Pac-12’s bowl pecking order following one of the least-impressive seasons in that conference’s history.

Sixth! Is it too much to ask for the Mountain West champion to play the fourth-place team from a Power 5 conference, or even fifth?

Evidently so.

Even though it’ll be taken as such, none of this is meant as a slight to the Las Vegas Bowl. The game is well-organized, packed with cool events and does tremendous things for local non-profits and charities.

The quarterbacks from Fresno State and Arizona State who grew up together and will face each other in the Mitsubishi Las Vegas Bowl, talk about their Las Vegas helicopter ride.

Or to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which rolls out the red carpet to Red Wavers who make the 400-mile drive. (Although unlike 2013, the last time Fresno State played in this bowl, there is no in-house TV station playing season highlights on a continuous loop.)

Or even to Arizona State and loquacious coach Herm Edwards, whose praise of an 11-2 and nationally ranked Bulldogs squad came across as completely sincere.

“One of the best college football teams in the country,” Edwards said of Fresno State during Friday’s press conference. “They’re ranked 21st in the country for a reason.”

It’s just that these Bulldogs deserve better than to cap this stellar and memorable year on the opening day of bowl season in a game that will be gone and forgotten before anyone wraps their Christmas presents.

Certainly, the word “deserve” is a tricky one. Every time I use it, in my head I hear the voice of Clint Eastwood (playing the old gunfighter William Munny in the movie “Unforgiven”) uttering the phrase, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Clint is right, of course, and that line is a great metaphor for life. The only thing any of us, individuals or college football teams, deserve is the opportunity to go after what we want.

So I use that word guardedly. Still, it’s hard not to feel Fresno State is getting the short end of an extremely long stick.

Oh, so you won the Mountain West? Congrats. Enjoy being an hors d’oeuvres. We’ll save the main course for bigger, brand-name programs – even though they didn’t accomplish nearly as much.

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Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards, left, and Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford chat before the start of a Las Vegas Bowl news conference at the Hard Rock Cafe & Casino in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. The Bulldogs and Sun Devils play Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

What’s irritating, not to mention unfair, is there’s likely nothing Fresno State could’ve done to land in a bigger, better-paying bowl. Even if the Bulldogs had gone undefeated, my guess is they still would’ve been behind UCF in the College Football Playoff rankings and thus shut out of a New Year’s Six bowl.

Why? Because UCF went undefeated last season as well, giving the Knights a leg up on every other Group of 5 team. Plus their strength of schedules are relatively equal.

As long as UCF keeps winning – and that’s 25 straight now – the Las Vegas Bowl against the Pac-12’s sixth choice is the best this Fresno State team could do.

Certainly, the standards change every year. In 2014, Boise State got to the Fiesta Bowl with an 11-2 record and a No. 21 national ranking. The Broncos were fortunate that no Group of 5 team had a better season.

Lady luck didn’t smile on these Bulldogs.

I’d like to be able to tell you it’ll soon get better for future MW champs. Unfortunately, it’s more likely to get worse.

The MW’s contract with the Las Vegas Bowl expires after next season, and there is already talk that starting in 2020 the game will move from Sam Boyd Stadium to the new domed stadium being built for the Oakland Raiders at a cost of $1.8 billion.

When that happens, the bowl is expected to drop the MW tie-in and go with a Pac-12 vs. SEC matchup. Where will that leave the MW? No one is certain.

Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford talked up the Red Wave and a Las Vegas Bowl matchup against Arizona State the day after the Bulldogs won a Mountain West title with a 19-16 overtime win at Boise State. The Las Vegas Bowl is Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

The Las Vegas Bowl could maintain a MW tie-in by adding a second contest, which would feel like a JV game. Or the MW could send its champion to another destination, such as Tucson, Ariz., where the opponent would be a Group of Five team.

Which is even less desirable than facing the Pac-12’s sixth choice.

Losing the Las Vegas Bowl tie-in would strip the MW of its only Power Five bowl opponent. The American Athletic, by contrast, has three (Armed Forces vs. Big 12, Birmingham vs. SEC and Military vs. ACC).

Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford didn’t want any part of that conversation Friday, leaving those discussions up to the conference’s athletic directors, presidents and Commissioner Craig Thompson.

“That’s not for me to say,” Tedford replied when asked about the Las Vegas Bowl’s future plans.

Well, it is for me. And I say this Bulldogs team, which won a classic overtime battle in the snow on Boise State’s blue turf and can notch the first 12-win season in program history, deserves better.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
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