In a sea of too many minor bowl games that nobody beyond the participating fan bases care about - and sometimes not even then - one has a great chance to make itself noticed this year. It's the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., a post-season soiree with a long history and fading relevance. For the Indy Bowl folks to put their game back on the map, they need to seize a golden opportunity that is about to walk right up to them and punch them in the nose. It's Iowa State vs. Auburn in an Independence Bowl that people will actually notice.
The storyline is so obvious that it barely warrants a rehash. But in case you and the entire Independence Bowl committee have been sequestered on jury duty since last December, here's a recap. Former Iowa State head coach Gene Chizik is now the head coach at Auburn. He left ISU unexpectedly, because no one could have possibly expected a 5-19 head coach to move up the college football food chain. But he did, causing great head scratching from Ames, Iowa, to Auburn, Alabama, and all points in between (and not in between). It's one of the great it's-who-you-know hires in the history of western civilization.
And for an irresistible Louisiana lagniappe, one of Chizik's first orders of business upon arrival at Auburn was to fire all of the assistant coaches there, including a very passionate, talented and likable fellow named...wait for it...Paul Rhoads.
And in case you don't know who Paul Rhoads is…oh, please, of course you know who Paul Rhoads is. He's the first-year Iowa State head coach who has the Cyclones one win away from bowl eligibility in a season where most pundits thought ISU football likely to match its two-win total from 2008. When Chizik was head coach…in case you lost track. At best, maybe Iowa State would get back to 3-9…where it was in 2007…when Chizik was head coach…in case you lost track.
So Rhoads' 2009 ISU team has already won as many games in eight tries as the previous two outfits won in 24…when Chizik was head coach…in case you lost track. I know, I know, it's almost too good to make up let alone be true.
And it's not like the good folks of Shreveport will have to color way outside the lines to make this dream match-up (for a game like the Independence Bowl) come true. The Indy Bowl gets the seventh pick from the Big 12 and the eighth pick from the SEC and both teams appear to be on a collision course to land right about there in their respective conferences. Even if one or both is actually a rung above or a rung below on true merit, it wouldn't take a whole lot of wheeling and dealing for the Independence Bowl to secure them both.
And it would be, by a country mile, the very best that Shreveport could do for its local economy (nearby Bossier City is like Vegas, with humidity, and gators) and its pride and joy, the Indy Bowl game. The locals there really do roll out the red carpet for the visiting teams and fan bases. And there would be more fans in town for Iowa State-Auburn than there would be for Iowa State-Kentucky, Kansas-Auburn, Missouri-Auburn, Kansas-Kentucky, Missouri-Kentucky, or any other plausible match-up.
Would Chizik and Auburn be excited about the draw? No, but when you're 6-6, it doesn't matter. Perhaps the Tigers will beat someone else besides I-AA Furman yet this season but it's highly unlikely. After a 5-0 start that fooled everyone who didn't know any better, Auburn has slumped to 5-3 and there's no basis for expecting the Tigers to do anything but lose out in their remaining SEC games. Ole Miss, Georgia, Alabama? Sure, Auburn could win one of those. But it probably doesn't. And even at 7-5, it would not necessarily deserve a call from any of the SEC-affiliated bowls above the Indy.
There's a lot of football to be played and a lot of sorting out to do, but the prevailing winds are blowing AU straight towards a 6-6 finish. Fortunately for Chizik, he seems to have convinced most Auburn fans that it's the players' and former coach's fault (sounds familiar) and so 6-6 will be good enough to get a fair amount of War Eagle loyalists to make the 500-mile drive west to Shreveport.
For the Iowa State community, any bowl this season will be embraced. Cyclone Nation will travel this year. Any city, any game, any time…ISU fans will be there. But more will go to Shreveport if it's Iowa State vs. Auburn as opposed to Iowa State vs. not. And more will go to the Indy Bowl vs. Auburn than if it's Iowa State vs. anyone else in the Texas Bowl.
Now, if ISU plays well enough down the stretch to get to the Insight Bowl in Arizona…disregard this entire column. There will be 30,000 Cyclone fans booking flights to Phoenix International faster than you can say "but it's a dry heat." Short of that scenario, however, nothing will produce more Iowa State fans this bowl season than these two words: versus Auburn.
Listen up, Shreveport: your choice is obvious. Don't blow this and then wonder why you didn't sell out that charming historic stadium on the fairgrounds. You'll have no one to blame but yourselves. Unless one of these teams falls flat on its face and doesn't win again, your work has been done for you. You truly couldn't have cooked up a better pot of bowl gumbo had you tried. Get on the phone now with the Big 12 and SEC offices and talk to the honchos of the other bowls closest to you in the pecking orders. Get the details worked out now so you don't get caught with your britches down six weeks hence.
If an Iowa State vs. Auburn match-up is there for the taking and you don't take it, then the Independence Bowl deserves to keep sliding farther and farther down the bowl ladder. If you want to host one of the most talked about and most watched minor bowl games of 2009, then set the table now to make the obvious and easy choice come December 6th. It's your last Big 12 vs. SEC go-round. For the love of (Shreveport native) Terry Bradshaw, get it right.