Dear Friends of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl,
Parity is alive and well in college football.
Last weekend nine of the top 25 teams lost, including No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 LSU and No. 5 Georgia. The overall strength of the SEC, the top-to-bottom balance of the Pac-12 and Big 12, and the rise of non-BCS upstarts like Middle Tennessee, Ohio and Louisiana Tech, have combined to make this a very exciting and unpredictable year to date.
Last week: On Saturday I attended the Arizona-Stanford shootout in Palo Alto, one of the most entertaining offensive displays I've ever witnessed. The Cardinal won in overtime, 54-48, coming back from a 48-34 fourth-quarter deficit. Both teams gained 617 yards, both quarterbacks (Arizona's Matt Scott and Stanford's Josh Nunes) played brilliantly, and the game was decided by an interception off a tipped pass. I watched part of the game with Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne, whose hiring of Rich Rodriguez is already starting to pay big dividends for his program.
In other Pac-12 action, USC won at Utah, Cal bounced off the mat to surprise UCLA in Berkeley, Oregon throttled Washington, and Oregon State beat Washington State. The Beavers' win came at a high price, however, as star quarterback Sean Mannion suffered a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely. The Conference currently has four teams in the AP Top 25--No. 2 Oregon (6-0), No. 10 Oregon State (4-0), No. 11 USC (4-1) and No. 17 Stanford (4-1), while Arizona State, Washington and Arizona also received votes. Suffice to say, the quality of play in the Pac-12 is very high this year, which is making several bowl directors happy.
Navy came from behind to score an impressive overtime win at Air Force, 28-21. The Mids were down 21-13 in the fourth quarter before rallying behind freshman QB Keenan Reynolds. Ironically, after being plagued all season by lost fumbles, Navy scored the go ahead touchdown when guard Jake Zuzek fell on a fumbled snap in the end zone. With the victory, the Mids are now 2-3 on the year as they move into the heart of their schedule. The next few weeks will be very telling relative to their potential eligibility for our game.
This week: Navy is on the road against Central Michigan (also 2-3), a team that upset Iowa earlier in the year but has allowed 105 points in its last two games. Both previous meetings between the teams have been high scoring affairs won by Navy, 38-37 in 2010 and 63-34 in 2003. Those games were played in Annapolis, however. Starting quarterback Trey Miller left last week's game at Air Force with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and his status is uncertain for Friday night's game. If he's unable to go, Reynolds will become the first freshman to start a game at QB for the Midshipmen since 1991.
The Pac-12 has three important league games and two high-profile non-conference contests. Stanford travels to South Bend to take on No. 7 Notre Dame, while Oregon State journeys to Provo to meet BYU. Points may be at a premium in both games, as the Irish and Cougars boast two of the stingiest defenses in the country. In league play, all three games have bowl eligibility implications. Arizona State (4-1) faces a very tough schedule the second half of the year and needs to pick up a win at Colorado. UCLA (4-2) and Utah (2-3) are looking to bounce back from last week's losses, while Cal (2-4) hopes to keep its momentum going at WSU (also 2-4).
Off the field: There are a lot of things that distinguish a bowl game--team matchup, host city, venue--but perhaps the most important is the people associated with the game. I say this because Friday marks the first meeting of our Host Committee, the volunteers who really make the difference for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. (We recently changed the name from Hospitality to Host Committee, as the group's duties involve not only hospitality but team operations, transportation, band coordination, media relations, problem solving...you name it). I can't mention all of them by name, but most of the folks on the committee have been with us for many years, some since Day One of the Bowl. It may sound cliched, but our volunteers and staff really have become a big family. We spend holidays together, work incredibly long hours, and have a lot of fun in the process. The committee's working philosophy can best be summarized by long-time team manager Jim Caylor--"find a way, make it work." I think the teams who've attended our game would agree that the committee does a great job of finding a way, making it work, and taking care of their entire traveling party. My sincere thanks to this amazing group, headed by chairman Steve Steinhart and team managers Caylor, Chris Johnson, and Evan Combs (who just became a proud papa). We couldn't do it without you.