Long journey for Bobcat senior class comes to huge game
Bill Peterson | On 23, Nov 2013
Texas State football fans may or may not remember these years of transition into bowl-level football. But this senior class of football players appearing at Bobcat Stadium for the last time Saturday is stamped by the transition, has fully lived it, will always be able to say it kept the train moving forward, and might, after all, be able to say even more.
Look at how far this group has come. Not to make the story long, this class hasn’t played two years in any one conference. After decades of stagnation at the playoff level, this program has been on the move, and this class has done all of it.
“They’ve been through a process that I don’t think many classes in America have gone through,” Texas State coach Dennis Franchione said. ” … In my heart, my feeling is that they have a special spot for what they’ve gone through.”
It began in 2010, when the freshman class entered a program that was solidifying as a playoff-level contender. Under head coach Brad Wright, the Bobcats were coming off two straight winning seasons for the first time since a guy named Dennis Franchione did it in 1990-91. The university’s plan to go bowl level was well in motion by 2010, with an arrival date of 2012. Despite the program’s solid performance, there wasn’t a resounding sentiment that Wright was the man to lead the transition. After a 3-1 start, Wright was on a pretty good roll, winning 18 of his last 28, going to the playoffs once and nearly doing it again. But the decision suddenly became easy. The Bobcats lost six of their last seven, sometimes lopsidedly, to finish 4-7.
The university turned the football program over to Franchione, who embarked on some kind of a career after leaving San Marcos for New Mexico and bowl level football in 1992. During the next 20 years, Franchione would see just about all that there is to see. Ten years ago, Franchione coached Alabama through two years NCAA sanctions to 17-8 and two bowl wins. He could have stayed at Alabama, which has won more than anybody, and he could have been a part of that.
Instead, Franchione chose Texas A&M, and it didn’t go well. He won more than he lost, but the results weren’t stirring, and what really got him was the ill-advised insider newsletter to paying boosters. Despite two straight winning seasons and two straight wins against Texas, Franchione was out of a job after 2007, and he stayed that way until Texas State called.
Franchione returned to Texas State in 2011, and the change was immediate. Rather than tranisition up from 63 scholarships to 85 in 2012, Franchione took some of that margin in 2011, making the Bobcats ineligible for the Southland Conference championship and the playoffs. Meanwhile, cranes worked all around Bobcat Stadium. The whole aura was a construction zone. The sophomore class literally played for nothing that year and finished 6-6.
But 2012 did arrive, the Bobcats were officially in the bowl hunt with their membership in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), and they said so their first time out, a stunning 30-13 win at Houston. Following that strong start, the Bobcats and their junior class continued exceeding expectations and won four games. Hardly anyone forecasted more than two.
This year, for this senior class, it has gotten even better. The Bobcats moved into a more stable league, the Sun Belt Conference, and they are 6-4 overall, reaching bowl eligibility after only nine games. They have beaten all of the teams that form says they should beat.
“I don’t know if I can ask much more of these seniors than they’ve given,” Franchione said. ” … They’ve stood up to the test of time. They’ve stood up to the demands of this process as well as they could.”
Now the Bobcats and their seniors are being urged, as they appear at home for the last time, to take another step up, and hang one on one of these more competitive Sun Belt Conference teams.
This senior class has brought the Bobcats all the way from where they were to where they want to be, playing in a 30,000-seat Bobcat Stadium against a good opponent with a bowl bid on the line. The athletic department has been pleading for the fans to catch up to the football team and make a show of support that would be persuasive to bowl representatives.
A bowl game might look like something of a long shot by now, and Franchione told reporters this week that the Bobcats no longer control their own direction as they did before their 38-21 loss at Arkansas State last Saturday. Their best win is against Wyoming, which has allowed 50 points per game in its last four outings and fallen to 4-6. The Bobcats are bowl eligible, but there are only 70 slots for bowl teams, the field is getting crowded, and they probably need a persuasive win or two to make the cut.
“A year ago there were 72 bowl eleigible teams for 70 slots,” Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson said this week. “This year, some of the predictions and trying to estimate guesstimate, there may be as many as 78, 79, 80 bowl eligible teams … It’s a matter of supply and demand and right now, more than likely, there are more bowl eligible teams for the number of open bowls. Every conference that is sitting here today with additional bowl eligible teams is faced with the possibility of not being able to place their teams.”
Benson offered “kudos to Texas State” for reaching bowl eligibility so quickly, adding that the increase this year from 116 bowl-level teams to 124 has helped to increase the number of bowl eligible teams.
“It speaks to the need for more bowls,” Benson said.
Franchione said he tries to not concern himself too much about bowl scenarios, adding that “I know (athletic director) Larry (Teis) is at constant work on this … To try to figure this thing out is impossible. I’m going to let Larry figure that out and I’m trying to win games.”
But even winning games isn’t enough to interest the bowls, which are, at bottom, put on by cities to promote local tourism. If people won’t even cross the street to watch the Bobcats play, then no one would expect their fans to fill hotel rooms and restaurants. The average home house for the Bobcats is 18,265, but they can hold 30,000 and the program’s next step is to be that draw. It could be that their bowl chances depend upon it happening quickly, and it could be that the fans say yes or no to the bowls depending on the numbers that appear Saturday.
“Bowls need ticket sales,” Franchione said. “They need support. If they’re going be able to meet the NCAA demand and the financial commitment they have to meet, they have to sell tickets. They need to have television revenue. This is our last and really only opportunity since we became bowl-eligible to exhibit that.”
Of course, the team has to exhibit it, too. The Bobcats are 2-3 in the Sun Belt. They have lost to Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL) and Arkansas State, which are better than the rest of the Sun Belt, and beaten South Alabama and Georgia State, which aren’t as good as the rest. The question now is how they line up against the teams with which they are stuck in the middle, Western Kentucky and Troy, in these last two weeks of the season. Against another middle team, the Bobcats gave away a 21-14 game to Louisiana-Monroe (ULM).
“I think what we’re finding out is what it’s like to play the guys that have been Division I teams in the Sun Belt for quite some time,” Franchione said. “We’re finding out what the barometer is. Like I tell our guys when they go out and recruit, remember Lafayette. I think that has been pretty vivid against Lafayette and Arkansas State … We’re finding out the physical level it takes to play Lafayette and Arkansas State, and we have to match that.”
Saturday, they’ll try it against Western Kentucky, which is 6-4 overall and 2-3 in the league. The Hill Toppers are the only team in the Sun Belt ranking top 35 nationally in total offense (31st, 462.3 yards per game) and total defense (30th, 358.3). They could be a tough team to beat in any league. But they’ve made themselves an easy team to beat in the Sun Belt because they give away the ball.
The Hill Toppers rank 121st out of 123 bowl-level teams in turnover margin at minus-1.3 per game. They have lost the ball 28 times. In their four losses, they made 16 turnovers and produced only four. Even in their six wins, their turnover margin is minus-one.
Even in their wins, the Bobcats haven’t generally lit it up offensively. Their X factor is the defense, which either keeps them in the game or doesn’t. Last week, Arkansas State ran for 358 yards against the Bobcats, who fell from 12th against the run in the national rankings to 24th at 128.4 yards per game.
But the stakes are high enough to inspire a top effort Saturday at Bobcat Stadium against Western Kentucky as the seniors make their final home appearance. With a win, the Bobcats would clinch a winning season, the first for this senior class. It would be the Bobcats’ first winning season since 2009, when they looked like they were becoming a solid playoff-level program. A winning season would bring that circle to a close. The program’s trajectory would still be straight up.
A version of this story was published in the San Marcos Mercury.