Photos courtesy of USATSI
So close, yet so far away. In a system where some 120-odd teams are told that they're effectively playing their season for nothing once they lose two games, players have to learn to fight for something else. For some, that's a conference championship, a high spot in the draft, or to simply not get injured. For others, there's the TaxSlayer Bowl, the Poinsettia Bowl, and the Sun Bowl (sponsored by The Sun. The Sun: "It's free, ya jerks!") Beyond that, there's nothing for these players. I mean, it's like there's no point in playing at all, except for that sweet, sweet Famous Idaho Potato Bowl swag. I hear this year they have a hooded sweatshirt that has the logo on the front... and it's guaranteed to fit!
So dry your tears on that tissue paper from the swag bag, and pull up a memory. Let's revisit the good times for these teams while they try to recruit a two-star safety who was committed to UAB. (The bowl they lost is in the parenthesis, just like this sentence!)
Nevada (New Orleans Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Taysom Hill-less BYU
Sure, any team can have a defining moment against a team with an awesome player, and in truth, I would have loved to have seen Hill face off against Nevada's QB Cody Fajardo. Fajardo has been through the ringer in his career, including being the backup (and tattoo artist) for Colin Kaepernick, and he deserved a signature win. Instead he beat a toothless BYU team, and gimmick-based cellar-dwellers Hawai'i and Washington State. "Fajardo" also sounds like what you'd call fajita farts, but that's a trip into the glossary for another time.
UTEP (New Mexico Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Middle Tennessee State to secure bowl birth
This is about as climactic as things get in Conference USA (besides anything that had to do with Marshall this year). UTEP versus MTSU for a chance to go to the prestigious New Mexico Bowl. Ultimately, UTEP made one less mistake than MTSU did, and won by three. Seriously, MTSU only had one turnover, and UTEP had none. Every play matters, y'all.
Colorado State (Las Vegas Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Utah State
Again, another win by three points over an opponent who had the only turnover of the game. I guess it's like they say: UTEP and Colorado State are two sides of the same coin. Somebody out there has been saying that for at least thirty years, and now it's finally true. This was actually just one of the 10 wins Colorado State had this season, not that they were ever ranked or anything. Come on, Marshall was never ranked, you think Colorado State is going to get that respect? They can't even stop someone from cutting them in line at Chipotle, that's how disrespected they are.
Western Michigan (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Idaho
Oh, foolish Western Michigan! Did'st thou thinketh that beating Idaho in the regular season would'st guarantee ye a victory in the Idaho Potato Bowl-y? Thine art naive to believe such tales of whimsy! Idaho was but a test, a challenge to see if thou were worthy of playing for the championship. And while thou'st was quite able, thine victory was not to be! The favor 'twas in the hand of Air Force all along! Huzzah, and what ho!
South Alabama (Camellia Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Texas State
After two losses in a row, the South Bama Jags needed a win to keep their season alive, and it finally came against Texas State. The Jags even successfully ran a trick play, a sweet double-pass from the QB to the receiver and back again. Of course, South Alabama lost their last three games, but they did what they could without their strong-armed Canadian superhero Brandon Bridge. I still can't get over that a Canadian QB is the best player on a small-time team from Alabama.
BYU (Miami Beach Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Texas
BYU has the dubious honor of being the team that beat Texas so bad, it made Charlie Strong poop his onesie. That's right, that turtleneck he's always wearing? Actually a one-piece bathing suit that he wears khakis over. Does he shave his bikini zone? Not until it's absolutely necessary (never). So in addition to humiliating sexual deviant Charlie Strong, the Cougars sent Texas into a tailspin, while Mack Brown drops a couple dashes of rat poison into Lee Corso's Crown & Cola. Hey, he's got more right to be on the show than Lee does. The only thing Corso ever won was the Holiday Bowl! No, really, he led Indiana to a victory back in 1979. Not that anybody cares or remembers, but it happened, and facts are facts. YO!
Northern Illinois (Boca Raton Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Bowling Green State in the MAC Championship
Like a child opening up a "do-it-yourself" chemistry kit on Christmas morning, the gift that Northern Illinois got in winning the MAC turned into a curse after facing an enraged and overlooked Marshall team, fresh off a Conference USA title win. With regards to Marshall being a DIY chemistry set, let's just say don't drink the green stuff your cousin made, even if he does say it's just "extra thick Mountain Dew". Of course, I got the last laugh when he accidentally burned both of his hands with acid. He looks like someone sewed two chicken feet to his wrists. Also, he works at Kinko's.
San Diego State (Poinsettia Bowl)
Best Win: vs. San Jose State
Did you know there are two Saints named Diego? One is Didacus of Alcala, who was one of the first missionaries to visit the Canary Islands. The other is Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, who was the first Mexican saint. I don't know who's the bigger football fan, but I'm guessing they're both pretty big futbol fans. Because they're from foreign countries, y'know? That's what they like over there.
Central Michigan (Bahamas Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Northern Illinois
Hey, anytime you can have a victory over the conference champ, it's worth a pat on the back. More importantly, however, it's getting those quality wins so you can go to better bowl games. Bowl games sponsored by the delicious chicken of Popeyes, and bowl games located in the tropical paradise of the Bahamas. Did you know the Bahamas had a football stadium? Most people living in Central Michigan didn't, but thanks to the Chippewas, now they do! College football is educating the masses here, people!
Fresno State (Hawai'i Bowl)
Best Win: Uh...
Oh come on, Fresno State. It's bad enough you actually had a losing record in the regular season, but then you had to go and lose the bowl game too? We really need a higher threshold than six wins. I mean, this is the Fresno State team that lost to 2-11 UNLV, for crying out loud. Derek Carr, where are you when your people need you? And don't tell me you're in Oakland, because we all know people get fired from there after one bad year.
Illinois (Heart of Dallas Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Minnesota
See, Illinois knows how to do a six-win season right. Lose to the great teams on the schedule, sure, but beat the ones that are noteworthy enough to make some people turn their heads. Minnesota was a legitimately good team this year, and Illinois beat them! Like, for real! They also beat Penn State, Northwestern, and gunslinging Western Kentucky, so I'd say the Fighting Illini are the first team on this list (besides conference champions) to actually earn their way to a bowl game. Godspeed, you Big Ten afterthought.
North Carolina (Quick Lane Bowl)
Best Win: vs. Georgia Tech
Hey, you beat a team that beat an SEC West team, you're set for life. Just ask Indiana. You pretty much get to call your own shots, and North Carolina played like that. The shot they called, unfortunately, was to be aggressively mediocre, with perplexing wins over GT, Duke, and Pitt, while suffering unsurprising losses against Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, and East Carolina (who probably deserve a spot in the ACC's Coastal division).
UCF (St. Petersburg Bowl)
Best Win: vs. East Carolina
UCF actually had a nice little season, pulling out a couple of nice wins after losing their first two games of the season. Of course, they could've used the help of Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson in the bowl game, but those two have bigger problems to deal with. Y'see, they both play on the Jacksonville Jaguars, and while the relatively short move from Orlando to Jacksonville would be a logical step for those two (especially if they went into the fifth season of a sitcom), they're likely regretting ever leaving college. Also, I'm not so sure Blake Bortles is actually that good, either, but who the hell can tell? He's on the Jaguars.