The bowls that win by losing

Updated: February 16, 2011, 4:29 PM ET
By Ryan McGee

Welcome back to Going Bowling, where we hope to Discover (Orange) that wearing Pinstripes will help us look slimmer after eating all of that Little Caesars while waiting on our Hyundai (Sun) to be ready down at Meineke Car Care.

Before we get started, a quick tip of the helmet to all of the fine folks from Minnesota and Wisconsin who were kind enough to point out that I accidentally listed your rivalry as the game for the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana-Purdue) instead of your actual trophy, Paul Bunyan's Axe. I particularly appreciated the photo of Paul Bunyan giving me the "you're No. 1" salute.

That's what I get for trying to write a blog while still nursing a gravy hangover.

Winning By Losing

All season long, I have taken a least a few minutes in the press box and mingled with the bowl scouts in attendance, typically sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in their matching blazers, sponsor-powered lapel pins a'shining.

I've been fortunate that most of those games have had serious bowl implications, especially in the wild and wacky ACC, in which we've seen more teams up and down than these guys. Miami, NC State, UNC, Clemson and Georgia Tech entered 2010 talking about a potential conference title. None of them will be in the game on Saturday night. Same goes for other enormous yet disappointed names, such as Georgia, Nebraska, BYU, Michigan and the newest edition to the list, Boise State.

And while those nice people in the Technicolor sport coats don't want to admit it publicly, I'm sure I saw a few of them drool a little as they watched some big-time programs struggle to pedestrian records.

Why? Because to a low-to-midlevel bowl game, a marquis team is still a marquis team, even if that team is 6-6.

There are schools that sell all of their tickets whether they're playing in our game or the BCS championship. We don't get to see them very often, so yes, we'll take them.

-- a bowl official

"You never pull for anyone to lose," admitted one small bowl executive director, who asked not to be identified so as to not offend any of his game's partner conferences. "But there are schools that sell all of their tickets whether they're playing in our game or the BCS championship. We don't get to see them very often, so yes, we'll take them. And we'll do everything we can to make their disappointment vanish by presenting them with a good time."

What are we talking about? Let's take a trip down to Shreveport, shall we? Just three years ago, the Independence Bowl was in desperate financial straits. In 2008 the situation was made worse when its solid conference tie-ins, the Big 12 and SEC, put teams into the BCS title game and weren't able to produce enough bowl-eligible schools to fill their I-Bowl slots. So the game ended up with Louisiana Tech and Northern Illinois. La Tech was good for local ticket sales, but the game was nonexistent nationally.

Then came 2009, when the Georgia Bulldogs, a preseason top 15 team, stumbled to 7-5. Meanwhile, Texas A&M fought to a 6-6 record. Both ended up in the I-Bowl, as did nearly 50,000 fans and a 2.36 TV rating, nearly 2.5 times the audience from '08. The game's title sponsor, AdvoCare, came on board in '09 and was so impressed with the experience it re-upped for 2010 and beyond.

This year the I-Bowl tie-ins have changed, shifting to the Mountain West and ACC. On Wednesday, Air Force accepted an invitation to the game. On Sunday, it will find out its opponent, which will likely be one of two schools that are relatively local and known to travel well, Georgia Tech or Clemson.

What other second-tier bowls look to be big winners in this strange season of struggling superpowers? Put on your chroma-blazer and read ahead. The matchup projections are my own:

Biggest Potential Bowl Matchup Winners