Rust Belt Bowl Blues

First, the good news: A hearty four college football teams from the state of Michigan were invited to play in bowl games this winter: the University of Michigan, plus Eastern, Western and Central Michigan. The only top-tier team not to qualify: Michigan State, which fell all the way from a top-four spot in last year’s playoffs to a dismal 3-9 record.

Now, the bad news: All the teams from Michigan lost.

And they had company: The Big Ten sent ten teams to bowl games, and only three of them won. The worst was supposed to be the best: Ohio State, which made it to the playoffs, only to get blown out in the first round, 31-0.

In fact, the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan sent a total of 11 teams to bowl games – and every single one of them lost.

But there are some lessons we can draw from this meager showing. From the top:

Baby, it’s cold outside. And that’s where these cornfed teams play their football. It breeds a different style of football, built more on size than speed. This works better in the north than in the south, where almost all the bowl games are played.

Here’s another: Not in my backyard. Because most of the bowl games are played in the South, the organizers often try to pit a northern team – to draw their fans and tourist dollars – against a southern one, to make sure the locals buy the tickets.

Does that make a difference? Well, just imagine the warm-blooded warriors of Georgia, Florida or Alabama traveling north to play a January bowl game in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan. There’s a reason the Green Bay Packers almost never lose a playoff game at home: They’re used to it, and their opponents aren’t.

And there’s the issue of mismatches: Six Big Ten teams were underdogs, and seven Big Ten teams lost. Eastern, Central and Western Michigan were all underdogs, and they all lost. When you’re supposed to lose, you usually do.

Michigan teams also face systemic obstacles to success. As the jobs go south, so does the population. The bigger the base, the higher the pyramid.

In the Midwest, the best high school athletes often bypass football to focus on basketball, soccer, lacrosse, or even hockey. Not so down South, where football is their first, second and third favorite sport. They like it so much, during the spring, thousands of Southern players skip baseball to play in organized seven-on-seven football leagues.

But what matters most, I believe, is coaching. Just a few years ago, the Big Ten could boast only one surefire Hall of Famer, Urban Meyer, who made his name coaching Florida. Now there are probably three in the Big Ten East Division alone.

And that’s why, for all the hurdles they face, corn fed football will be back next year.

There. One less thing to worry about.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong.


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6 comments Leave a comment  

  • Phil January 6, 2017 at 8:37 am

    Happy New Year John, As I read this piece I thought about the snow bowl game at the big house with Indiana. The SEC teams don’t get to make snow angels after their games. How about that?

  • Superfun Happy Slide January 6, 2017 at 9:02 am

    Are we “allowed” to make the nuanced argument for this type of topic? I mean, isn’t it more fun/credible/incendiary to say/scream that the sky is falling for mid-western football and then try to diminish the place of the region’s most cherished/loved/hated programs?

    I wonder how the Paul Finebaum crowd are taking it.

    Great post, Bacon. As usual.

  • T. R. Shaw January 6, 2017 at 9:56 am

    John, great points. I too was disappointed in the North’s performance. I like your comment about the tourist angle to bowl games. I heard one sports commentator refer to the plethora of bowl games as “Chamber of Commerce” Bowls where cities put together slick TV ads in front of national audiences promoting their cities like Mobile, Jacksonville…and Detroit!

    Also, if memory serves me the term “Rust Belt” was coined in the 1970’s book MEGATRENDS which laid out the case for the coming economy in the new century. Just wondering if our region will ever escape that moniker? Happy New Year!

  • Frank Vaydik January 6, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    Message (Required)

  • Kathy January 6, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    Wait Wisconsin didn’t lose, and they are Big Ten last time I looked. So not every team lost

  • johnubacon January 7, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    No, 3 of 10 Big Ten teams lost, as I wrote. But all 11 of the teams sent from PA, OH and MI lost, as I also wrote. Hope that clears it up.


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