When LendingTree Bowl officials sent out a press release Sunday night noting the teams participating in this year’s game, it was as much a pronouncement as it was an announcement.
The headline to the press release could have read: We’re still here.
While other postseason bowl games across the country — 10 at last count — have decided not to play this season, the LendingTree Bowl will take place as scheduled on Saturday, Dec. 26 at 2:30 p.m. at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
In a season that has, if nothing else, seen its share of changes and adjustments and even outright cancellations, the LendingTree Bowl will march on, but not without a number of changes as to how the game is presented and even the number of days the game will take center stage in the city.
“It’s a culmination of the whole season of COVID,” LendingTree Bowl President Jerry Silverstein said. “We’re happy to still be in existence, and we’re happy that we will be able to host the game and that two teams will be able to come here and showcase themselves and play in a bowl game.”
As announced Sunday night, the game will feature Sun Belt Conference representative Georgia State against Conference USA representative Western Kentucky. But even that is a change. Usually, the bowl game matches a team from the Sun Belt against a team from the Mid-American Conference. But this year, while keeping the Sun Belt tie-in, ESPN, which owns the rights to several postseason games, decided to select opponents for some games based on the available pool of teams with which the network has contractual obligations.
Also, because of COVID-19 restrictions and protocols and the desire to, when possible, create more regional matchups in the bowl games with which it has an association, ESPN decided to step away from the usual matchups to cut down on the long-distance travel required by some teams to play in a bowl game.
The LendingTree Bowl matchup pits a 5-6 Western Kentucky team against a 5-4 Georgia State team. The Hilltoppers were 4-3 in C-USA play while the Panthers posted a 4-4 record in Sun Belt games. In keeping with the changes this season, teams were not required to meet the minimum of six wins to be bowl eligible, a rule put into effect because few teams were expected to play the usual 12 regular-season games this year.
“It’s an intriguing matchup,” Silverstein said. “These two teams played each other about three years ago [in the 2017 Cure Bowl] and played pretty close. Both teams have had really interesting years. Western Kentucky has played all 11 of its games. Both of them have played well in their last few games. The competition will be very equal and it should provide us with a good, close game. So, yes, I’m very interested in seeing them play and I’m happy to have them both here in Mobile.”
Silverstein said not only is it a plus to be playing the game this year, but it’s an added advantage to know the teams participating in the game on Dec. 13.
“To go ahead and know who we have coming to the game and to have conversations with both of the universities — with their administrations and their athletic departments and making plans to have them here and what we can do to accommodate them and be able to put on the game — that’s good,” Silverstein said.
“We’re two weeks away and there are some bowl games that are being played [before the LendingTree Bowl] that don’t even have their teams [announced] yet, so we’re fortunate to finally get [our teams] and we’re happy and we’re moving forward.”
The LendingTree Bowl is moving forward, unlike other games, including the Bahamas Bowl, Fenway Bowl, Hawaii Bowl, Redbox Bowl, Pinstripe Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, Los Angeles Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Quick Lane Bowl and Sun Bowl.
“It’s a mess, a real mess … California is shutting down, some other places. There are a lot of moving parts [to trying to put on a bowl game this year],” Silverstein said.
Other changes include the fact there will be limited seating capacity at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, based on COVID-19 protocols and state and local restrictions. There will be none of the usual activities and events associated with bowl week taking place, and the teams, instead of spending their usual week in Mobile, will be in town for considerably less time.
“More than likely [the teams] will only come in the day before the game and stay one night, maybe two nights at the most, and they will stay in their own bubble at the hotel,” Silverstein said. “There’s nothing that we can even do for them at the hotels. We have to test ourselves and our staff, any volunteers, the [first-down] chain gang. Everybody will have to follow the same procedures that South Alabama has taken this year.
“Those credentialed to be on the field will have to clear the bubble to get on the field and we’re limited in how many can be on the field. The press conference after the game will be via Zoom like they have done at South Alabama this year. The referees have to be tested; everybody has to be tested.”
Silverstein said it is equal parts frustration and disappointment the events associated with the game and other activities can’t be conducted as they have been every other season. But he noted that’s the reality of the current football season in the time of COVID.
“It’s frustrating because you work all year to put on a week of events that showcase the city and the attractions that we have here, to entertain the kids and give them a little bit of a reward so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor from the season,” he said. “And then you end up with this situation where we can’t do anything for them. We’re going to do what we can, and we’re very happy that they are going to be here and that we are still in existence and that we still have a bowl game.”
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