Bowl games: Minnows swim with the sharks

Normally, as the New Year approaches, the college football mind does not linger in Memphis, Tenn. Even for those aficionados who see nothing at all superfluous about the Continental Tire Bowl, Friday's Liberty Bowl is often passed over as little more than an hors d'oeuvre for the New Year's Day football feast.

The Liberty Bowl, after all, has no ties to mighty Michigan or garnet helms of Southern Cal. It is the playground of teams in far-flung conferences with alphabet-soup names that could be mistaken for Depression-era work programs.

But this year, a peculiar thing happened on the way toward crowning a national champion. Louisville and Boise State became as sexy as "Desperate Housewives."

How this most modest of bowls got one of the weekend's can't-miss matchups is, on one hand, yet another turn in college football's ever more Byzantine effort to hold a title game without abandoning the bowl system. But it also points to a far more important trend: Teams once cast off as minnows from minor conferences are increasingly closing the gap on the sport's elite.

In some respects, the Liberty Bowl and Saturday's Fiesta Bowl amount to debutante balls for America's overlooked football conferences. Since the bowl calendar was established, the premier games have been the province of teams in conferences that stirred thoughts of gridiron royalty - from the Big 12 to the Pac-10. But the buzz around a few relative unknowns is a sign that things might be changing.

"This is a huge year for the [smaller conference] teams," says Matt Hayes of The Sporting News. "If they win, I think people will pay more attention."

That starts with Friday's Liberty Bowl, with Louisville playing Boise State. Louisville already knows how much attention can come from one game - even a loss. Earlier this year, Louisville was just one dropped interception away from toppling No. 3-ranked Miami. After that, Louisville won its remaining six games by an average score of 57-21, finishing with only that single loss - and a new measure of respect.

Boise State, meanwhile, rolled to an undefeated season, averaging 50 points a game - and scoring 53 against Oregon State, who recently crushed Notre Dame in the Insight Bowl.

"Everybody is just sort of slack-jawed," say Bill Curry of ESPN. "I would have thought it would have been impossible to build a real power at those schools ... and they're beating people badly that they're not even supposed to be on the field with."

Clearly, though, the mantle of giant-killer falls on the University of Utah this year. As the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, Utah became one of the few small-conference teams ever to be invited to a major bowl - the Fiesta. Against a weak Pittsburgh team, many experts say, Utah must not only win, but win impressively to carry the case for college football's lower caste.

"Utah has to put a big number on Pitt to show that it is one of the top teams in the nation," says Hayes.

Yet the Liberty Bowl has managed to steal some big-game glitz. Part of that has to do with the Bowl Championship Series, the system designed to determine a national champion under the current bowl format. This year, the BCS seems to have gotten the title game right: Southern Cal vs. Oklahoma in Tuesday's Orange Bowl. But the rest of the bowl slate looks a bit odd.

Curiously, No. 4 Cal played Thursday in the Holiday Bowl. Texas will play in Saturday's Rose Bowl, denying the traditional Big 10 vs. Pac-10 rivalry for the third time in four years. And Pittsburgh managed to qualify for the Fiesta Bowl despite losing three games. By the numbers, the Liberty Bowl - with Louisville at No. 8 and Boise State at No. 10 - is the fourth-best game on the three-week, 28-game bowl calendar.

To many, that's no surprise. Increased interest in football and improved training techniques mean that there are more good football players than ever before. And as sports networks like ESPN expand their coverage of college football, small-conference teams are gaining more clout and credibility.

As a result, Hayes adds: "The Louisvilles and Boise States of the world are getting better."

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