Get the Max with Minium: Even After the Victory over Virginia Tech, ODU Faces an Uphill Road to a Bowl Bid
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
When I asked a prominent Old Dominion booster last Saturday night whether he would prefer a victory over Virginia Tech or a bowl bid, he didn’t hesitate.
“Beat Tech,” he said.
It was early in the first quarter. Neither I nor the booster, who will remain anonymous, thought an ODU win was possible.
We, like so many others, were of course wrong. The heretofore 0-3 Monarchs, who were 29-point underdogs and were given a 1.8 percent chance of winning by ESPN, outscored the No. 13 Hokies, 28-7, in the fourth quarter to claim a 49-35 victory, the most momentous triumph in school history.
Yes, adding a bowl game, and a bowl victory would be nice, too. Conference USA sends teams to some awesome bowl sites, including New Orleans, New Mexico, Hawaii and two games in Florida.
I was there when the Monarchs defeated Eastern Michigan in their first bowl in the Bahamas in 2016. That was a great moment for the program and the school. The game was televised on ESPN and garnered the Monarchs significant national recognition.
But I agree with the booster that beating Tech was much bigger and better than any bowl, other than ones associated with the College Football Playoff.
The reality is only a small number of your fans can travel to see a bowl game live. There were perhaps 1,000 ODU fans in the Bahamas two years ago.
Saturday night, there were 20,532 in Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium. Thousands ran onto the field and celebrated. Coach Bobby Wilder called it a “mosh pit” at midfield.
While beating a team such as Troy in New Orleans would be a good victory, it would not do nearly as much for the program as the victory over Tech did.
ODU is now a certified giant killer. The Monarchs join Appalachian State, known for its 2007 upset of Michigan, and UMBC, which knocked off No. 1- seeded Virginia in last year’s NCAA basketball tournament, as Cinderella teams that millions adore.
All that leads me to the point of this column: there's still a lot of football to play this season, and ODU faces a difficult battle to claim a bowl bid. The quest resumes Saturday at East Carolina (3:30 p.m., ESPN3), another team desperate for a victory.
ODU’s season has been one of contrasts. There was the 52-10 season-opening loss at Liberty. In spite of that score, I still think the Monarchs are better than the Flames.
ODU played horribly, yet midway through the third quarter trailed by just four. The defense fell apart in the final minutes when it was obvious the Monarchs were going to lose.
ODU led FIU 17-0 before losing 28-20 and missed three conversion attempts in a 28-25 loss at Charlotte.
Interestingly, ECU (1-2) has also been a team of contrasts. The Pirates opened with a 28-23 loss to North Carolina A&T, an FCS team, but I would add, an outstanding team. It’s the third year in a row that the Aggies have knocked off an FBS team. And everything that could go wrong for ECU, from fumbles to poor clock management, did go wrong.
A week later, the Pirates pounded North Carolina 41-19 before a deliriously happy home crowd of nearly 40,000.
Then, after a game with Virginia Tech was canceled because of Hurricane Florence, the Pirates played well in a 20-13 loss at South Florida, which is 4-0.
"They dominated the game, but just couldn't score," Wilder said.
Assuming the game with Tech isn’t rescheduled, and that appears highly doubtful that it will be, the Pirates must win five of their last seven games to go to a bowl. And with Houston, Central Florida, Memphis and Cincinnati yet to play, ODU is a virtually a must-win game.
The same could be true for ODU, which must win five of its next eight to go to a bowl. The Monarchs are seven-point underdogs at ECU.
In fact, ODU will almost certainly be the underdog in its next six games.
“We realize we’re playing the toughest schedule we’ve ever played,” Wilder said.
After ECU, the Monarchs travel to Florida Atlantic, the defending Conference USA champion. And while the Owls aren’t quite as prolific as they were last season, facing a Lane Kiffin team on the road is never easy.
Then comes a home game Oct. 13 with Marshall, which was picked to finish second to FAU in the Conference USA East Division. The Herd is 2-1, and turnovers hurt them in a 37-20 home loss to North Carolina State last week.
ODU goes on the road on Oct. 20 to play Western Kentucky. The Monarchs are 0-3 against WKU, which is 1-3 but lost at Louisville by three, then beat Ball State 28-20 for an impressive road win.
Then come a pair of really rough home games.
On Oct. 27, ODU hosts Middle Tennessee, another team the Monarchs have never beaten, including a 41-10 blowout last season in Murfreesboro, Tenn. MTSU is just 1-2, but both losses came on the road against SEC teams.
Next comes the most difficult game of all, at home against North Texas on Nov. 10.
The good news for ODU is that the Monarchs have an open date to get ready. The bad news is that North Texas is likely the best team they will play this season.
Led by standout quarterback Mason Fine, the Mean Green are 4-0 after beating SMU 46-23, upsetting Arkansas on the road 44-17 and crushing Liberty in Lynchburg 47-7.
North Texas appears to have a realistic chance of going unbeaten and perhaps becoming the first Conference USA team to claim a bid in a New Year’s Six bowl since the College Football Playoff system began.
ODU closes at home against VMI on Nov. 17 and at Rice on Nov. 24. ODU likely will be favored in both, but needs to go into VMI with at least four victories to have a shot at a bowl.
If ODU gets to six victories, and there aren't enough bowl bids to go around, don't fret. Because of the victory over Virginia Tech, ODU is now a national name and a team that would draw good TV ratings. Everyone is talking about ODU. So if the Monarchs get to six wins, it's likely they'll have several bowls seeking them.
And let me stress that going to a bowl is very important to the program. After beating Virginia Tech, it would be a disappointment for ODU’s players, coaches and fans if they didn’t go. It would especially be disappointing to ODU’s 22 seniors, who want to play their final game in a tropical location.
That means ODU must continue to play with the kind of intensity, heart and poise it did when it won the greatest game in school history.
And as I said, that starts Saturday at ECU.
Conference USA bowl games
Dec. 15, Gildan New Mexico Bowl vs. Mid-American, Albuquerque, N.M., 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 15, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl vs. Sun Belt, New Orleans, La., 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 18, Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, vs. American Athletic or MAC, Boca Raton, Fla., 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 20, Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, American Athletic vs. ACC/C-USA, Tampa, Fla., 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec 21, Bahamas Bowl, vs. MAC, Nassau, Bahamas, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 22, Hawaii Bowl, vs. American Athletic, Honolulu, Hawaii, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 26, Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, vs. Big Ten, Dallas, Texas, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)