Bowl projections coalescing around return to Arizona for KU football

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas receiver Dezmon Briscoe throws off Minnesota safety Tramaine Brock during the second quarter of the Insight Bowl Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

Fifteen years, five sponsors and one field ago, the Kansas football team earned its last bowl win in Arizona.

Todd Reesing threw five touchdown passes, including three straight after the halftime break, as the Jayhawks beat Minnesota 42-21 on New Year’s Eve in the 2008 Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium.

That same bowl, in its current form, is now emerging as a top contender to host KU once again as it looks to win a postseason game for just the seventh time ever. From a sample of 12 national writers across 10 sites who made bowl predictions this week, eight projected the Jayhawks to participate in the modern incarnation of the Insight Bowl.

It is now known as the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, it is played at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ baseball stadium in downtown Phoenix rather than Arizona State’s football field out in Tempe, and it ranks fairly low in the hierarchy of bowl games that get to select Big 12 Conference teams.

The bowl priority list, following the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six options, consists of seven games as follows:

• Alamo (San Antonio)

• Pop-Tarts (Orlando, Florida)

• Texas (Houston)

• Liberty (Memphis, Tennessee)

• Guaranteed Rate (Phoenix)

• Armed Forces (Fort Worth) / First Responder (Dallas)

• Independence (Shreveport, Louisiana)

With KU’s recent pair of home losses diminishing its luster for bowl officials, and as a logjam remains atop the Big 12, the Jayhawks seem to have fallen out of realistic contention for top-tier options like the Alamo and Pop-Tarts bowls. While bowls do not have to select strictly based on standings, KU is now eighth in Big 12 record, though tied for fourth in overall record.

The standings could still see some shake-ups with one week of the regular season and then the conference championship left to go before bowl matchups get announced on Dec. 3. Texas has a chance to make the College Football Playoff if it wins out, though thanks to losses by Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, it’s gotten much harder over the course of the year to envision a scenario where Texas makes the CFP and an additional Big 12 team gets an at-large bid into a New Year’s Six game.

More likely could be a situation like 2020 with Iowa State and Oklahoma or 2021 with Baylor and Oklahoma State, where some team that Texas already beat ends up beating the Longhorns in the conference title game, and both end up in peripheral New Year’s Six games, one as a champion and one as an at-large qualifier. That would effectively move the rest of the conference up one spot in the pecking order for the remaining bowls.

And so the permutations are vast. For now, let’s focus on KU, where it looks like the Jayhawks might head right now and whom they might play.

Guaranteed Rate Bowl

247Sports, Action Network, The Athletic, Athlon Sports, CBS Sports, ESPN and two writers from the USA Today Network all picked KU to take part in this bowl, which occurs on Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. Central Time.

Five writers picked Northwestern as the Jayhawks’ opponent, two picked Maryland and one each picked Illinois and Wisconsin.

Pros: Northwestern, Maryland and Wisconsin would be intriguing foes for KU.

Northwestern won four combined games in the previous two seasons and then fired its longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald amid a massive, wide-ranging and extremely public hazing scandal this summer. But David Braun, the previous defensive coordinator who was serving as interim coach, led his team to bowl eligibility with a win over Purdue on Saturday after getting elevated to permanent head coach last week.

It hasn’t always been pretty for the Wildcats, who are tied for 109th in scoring offense and only run the ball for 101 yards per game, but they made it to six wins thanks to players like linebackers Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller and running back Cam Porter.

Maryland won its first five games of the year and then lost five of six, including three by one score. That takes some shine off the Terps, though they still have a big name at quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa, who holds numerous program records after four years of extended action, an accomplished offensive line and a defense that has already picked off 14 passes this year.

Wisconsin would be more noteworthy for off-the-field connections, as KU coach Lance Leipold was born and raised just about 30 miles from the university and ended up spending three years there as a graduate assistant before launching his head-coaching career at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The climate also makes any of these matchups very appealing. Phoenix is the sort of place you want to be in late December and late December is one of the best possible times to be in Phoenix.

photo by: AP Photo/Erin Hooley

Northwestern linebacker Xander Mueller points after intercepting a pass from Purdue during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern won 23-15.

photo by: AP Photo/Nick Wass

Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) in action during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in College Park, Md.

photo by: AP Photo/Aaron Gash

Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen is congratulated by teammates during overtime of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023 in Madison, Wis.

Cons: Weather aside, though, Phoenix is not exactly one of the top cities for KU alumni, nor is it particularly convenient to get to from Lawrence, especially compared to the bowl games located across Texas.

In keeping with the theme, while Phoenix’s time zone is only an hour off Lawrence’s during the winter, 8 p.m. Central is still a pretty late start time for television viewers in Kansas — although it’s certainly preferable to last year’s Guaranteed Rate Bowl at 9:15 p.m. and this year’s Kansas-Nevada game at 9:30 p.m. (KU fans better get used to this, with the geographical footprint of the Big 12 how it is now, as the Jayhawks travel to ASU next year and Arizona the year after that.)

The day after Christmas, popular as it is for bowl games, will likely make the game much less accessible to those fans with pre-planned holiday trips.

One last issue with this bowl is that KU versus Illinois, as predicted by one USA Today writer, would be an ill-advised selection. They already played in Lawrence in September. Rematches in bowl games very rarely happen, unless it’s some strange circumstance like the 2016 Heart of Dallas Bowl admitting teams that normally wouldn’t be bowl eligible at all.

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels (6) and Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) congratulate each other following their win over Illinois on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 at Memorial Stadium. Kansas defeated Illinois, 34-23.

Every other option

Two pundits have the Jayhawks in the Liberty Bowl, right above the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in the pecking order. While I’m sure the KU players would love the symmetry of a chance at redemption against a Southeastern Conference foe on the very same field in Memphis after falling to Arkansas in triple overtime last season, I don’t think it’s likely or a good idea for the bowl to select KU again, just for the sake of novelty and enticing fans.

Indeed, it hasn’t featured the same team in back-to-back seasons since East Carolina in 2009 and 2010. There’s no NCAA-wide rule against back-to-back picks — Louisiana played in the New Orleans bowl five times in a six-year span — although The Athletic reported last year that the Big Ten Conference, for example, forbids its contracted bowl games from making such selections.

I’m a bit surprised the Texas Bowl in Houston hasn’t emerged as more of a favorite. Only Bryan Fischer of Fox Sports put the Jayhawks there this week, and he has them in an old-Big 12 throwback going against Texas A&M, which will be led by interim coach Elijah Robinson for the rest of the season after firing Jimbo Fisher.

photo by: AP Photo/Sam Craft

Texas A&M interim head coach Elijah Robinson walks around talking to players during warmups of an NCAA college football game against Abilene Christian on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in College Station, Texas.

The Texas Bowl is higher on the list than the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, sure, but KU has never played there before, and if it wins Saturday it’ll be 8-4 for one of the league’s top overall records (no worse than tied for fifth). The fact that Texas Tech already played in the Texas Bowl last year and every other geographically proximate team is either doing too well or too poorly to be in its range makes me think it should give the Jayhawks some consideration.

Sporting News has KU facing North Carolina in the Pop-Tarts Bowl in Orlando, and that game has indeed had representatives in Lawrence this season. Of course it would be great to see the two basketball blue bloods face off on the gridiron, and get a look at UNC’s top-tier quarterback Drake Maye (if he plays). But again, I don’t see a path right now for the Jayhawks to get picked that far up in the hierarchy.

The Independence Bowl passed out flyers to reporters at the Sunflower Showdown. I understand there’s a circumstance in which KU loses to Cincinnati this weekend and ends up as one of the lowest-ranked bowl-eligible teams in the conference, but the Independence Bowl would need basically everyone else near the Jayhawks’ position in the league to win, and would force them into a bowl on the same weekend that the KU men’s basketball team plays its only true road game of the nonconference slate. It would be an adverse outcome for all involved.


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