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January 6, 2009
Enthusiasm comes easy when the grand prize is within reach. But generating excitement could be much more difficult when settling for the consolation prize.
That's the issue facing Ball State and Tulsa.
Both had hopes of going undefeated and playing in a BCS bowl. Instead, both suffered disappointing losses, failed to win their conference title and had to settle for Tuesday's GMAC Bowl.
Bowls often are won by the team that most wants to be there. The question for the GMAC Bowl is whether the players on either team truly do.
A plague of turnovers caused Ball State (12-1) to lose the MAC title game, but whether that limited its postseason options is uncertain. Even if the Cardinals had gone unbeaten, they had no realistic chance at a BCS bowl. Plus, Ball State will be playing its first game with Stan Parrish as coach; Parrish was elevated from offensive coordinator when Brady Hoke was hired as San Diego State's coach last month.
Tulsa obviously had greater aspirations. Throughout the season, coach Todd Graham boldly asserted the Golden Hurricanes' goal was to play in a BCS bowl. But back-to-back November losses, to Arkansas and Houston, squelched that. Then, there were the seven turnovers against East Carolina in the Conference USA title game, which knocked the Golden Hurricane out of the Liberty Bowl.
"We definitely set our goals to go to the BCS," Tulsa senior running back Tarrion Adams said. "You should go into every game feeling like you can win it, so going undefeated should be expected.
"This year we felt we could have done it. We still feel that way. And next year, Coach Graham will have the same goal and the same mentality. We definitely fell short, but we're happy to go to a bowl. The GMAC treated us well last year when we went [a 63-7 rout of Bowling Green]. They had great Southern hospitality."
But having a good time doesn't necessarily mean a good performance.
A week after losing to Arkansas 30-23 ? a loss that ended any BCS hopes ? Tulsa was blown out 70-30 by Houston. Now, Tulsa has to prove it can bounce back from its 27-24 loss to East Carolina in the C-USA title game.
"Offensively, we came up short. We had a lot of mistakes," Adams said. "We know how to correct those, and we've been practicing to make sure they don't happen again.
"Nobody likes losing, but we know we beat ourselves. I'm not taking anything away from East Carolina, but with all the turnovers we had and as close a game as it was, we beat ourselves. It happens. We have to focus and get ready for the next one."
Refocusing might be easier for him than some of his teammates, though. This will mark Tulsa's fourth consecutive bowl appearance. But as a senior, he remembers when Tulsa was struggling to make it into the postseason.
Tulsa made one postseason appearance from 1992 to 2004. A second-tier bowl beats no bowl at all.
"A lot of teams don't get to go to bowls," he said. "There are only 30-odd bowl games, so not every team qualifies. Before I came to the university, we had dropped off a bit and [playing in bowl games] wasn't expected. We put it back together."
Who has the edge?
Ball State run offense vs. Tulsa run defense
Ball State pass offense vs. Tulsa pass defense
Tulsa run offense vs. Ball State run defense
Tulsa pass offense vs. Ball State pass defense
Ball State special teams vs. Tulsa special teams
Ball State coaches vs. Tulsa coaches
X-factor: How focused are these teams? Both were hoping for greater rewards and perhaps a place in a BCS bowl. Instead, neither won its conference championship and had to settle for a consolation prize. The team that most wants to play definitely will have an advantage.
Tulsa will win if: Avoiding turnovers and playing better on special teams is a must. Tulsa has committed 15 turnovers in its three losses and has allowed two kickoffs return for touchdowns. Tightening up the pass defense will be key, too.
Ball State will win if: Keeping Davis protected has to be the Cardinals' top priority. Neutralizing the pass rush will allow Davis time to find holes in Tulsa's questionable secondary. Lewis also has to run effectively, and Ball State needs to find a way to stymie Tulsa's rushing attack.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.