Every year college football teams across the country hope they are still playing in late December and early January. That is when the postseason begins for teams that are bowl eligible with one team taking home the title of NCAA National Champion. Teams are invited to play in bowl games as long as they have at least six wins and even then there is no guarantee of a team getting an invite. Most bowl games have contracts with different conferences while others have at-large bids. All bowl games are not created equal. Of the 34 bowl games played in the 2009-2010 season, five of them belong to the Bowl Championship Series which offer the highest payouts. Certain conferences such as the ACC, Big 10, and SEC, get automatic bids to these bowls while other conferences such as Conference USA and Mountain West must get an at-large bid. The bowl game system is marred in controversy every year as to how teams get bids for certain games which has lead to a movement to abolish the bowl game format and replace it with a playoff system.
The Conference USA championship game pitted my alma mater, East Carolina Pirates against the Houston Cougars. As East Carolina marched to victory, I was already on the phone buying Liberty Bowl tickets for my first ever trip to a college bowl game. The Liberty Bowl which is held in Memphis invites the conference champion from Conference USA to play a team from the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The matchup was set pitting East Carolina against the Razorbacks of Arkansas.
The Liberty Bowl has been held in Memphis since 1965. It was originally started as a bowl game in 1959 in Philadelphia, hence the Liberty Bowl logo. The game struggled in Philadelphia as attendance wavered and revenue was minimal. The only successful Liberty Bowl game while in Philadelphia was the first one when 38000 spectators watched Penn State beat Alabama 7-0. The game moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey for one year before finding its home in Memphis.
The game has been held at the 62,380 seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium since its inception. The game was such a success in Memphis, that the stadium was renamed from Memphis Memorial Stadium to reflect its connection with the Liberty Bowl. The stadium is also home to the University of Memphis, another team within Conference USA.
Our seats were in the end zone with great views of the entire field. There is not really a bad seat anywhere in the stadium due to the fact that it is a true bowl stadium design and there is little space between the playing surface and stands. The stadium was a sea of red as Arkansas Razorbacks outnumbered East Carolina fans, with good reason since Memphis borders Arkansas and it is a 14 hour drive from North Carolina. But that didn’t stop me from displaying my purple and gold attire as I mingled with the enemy.
The second largest attendance in Liberty Bowl history, 62,742 people watched the opening kickoff as Arkansas took possession of the ball first. The beginning of the game was a display of defensive skill from both teams as the first quarter ended scoreless. East Carolina then found their groove as a passing touchdown and a field goal led to a 10-0 lead going into halftime. Halftime consisted of musical sequences by both college’s marching bands and a short concert by Eddie Money.
As the temperature steadily dropped into the teens at the beginning of the third quarter, so did the offense of East Carolina. The Arkansas Razorbacks scored ten unanswered points off two straight interceptions to tie the game. East Carolina went back up 17-10 after a touchdown, but on the very next Arkansas possession, they tied it back up 17-17. The fourth quarter saw more drama than an episode of Days of Our Lives. Both kickers missed a field goal early in the quarter. With about two minutes left, East Carolina’s kicker missed yet another field goal. With a great defensive stand, East Carolina got the ball back and got into field goal range. With 2 seconds left on the clock, and two missed field goals, the third time had to be a charm. As the ball went wide, I saw the chance for victory slipping away.
The game went to overtime, the first time ever in the history of the Liberty Bowl. Both team captains met on the field to begin the overtime period. Arkansas won the coin toss and they elected East Carolina to have the ball first. Each team gets the ball with a chance to score a touchdown or field goal. After East Carolina failed to score a touchdown, the team’s fate once again resided in the kicker. The kick went wide and I wondered how it was possible. Arkansas went on to kick the winning field goal on their possession and captured the Liberty Bowl trophy.
Although the game didn’t turn out the way I envisioned it, I was still happy to be there cheering on my team in the blistering cold weather. East Carolina finished the season with a 9-5 record and although they failed to win the Liberty Bowl, the silver lining was that they were back to back Conference USA champions, a first ever for the conference.