Viable & Relevant

By Troy Phillips,

Generally, the football part of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl takes care of itself. More often, competitive matchups and intriguing fourth quarters - including Houston’s wild comeback a year ago to win 35-34 - have kept the game more than watchable at home.

But as the event moves well into its second decade, keeping a bowl game established and fresh continues to be a challenge. With the count of bowl games now at 40 and the need to add 5-7 teams this year to fill them all, bowl saturation is here.

Air Force (8-5) faces California (7-5) in the 13TH LMAFB on Tuesday at 1 p.m. at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium.

It’s up to those more proven commodities, including those owned and operated by ESPN Events like the LMAFB, to remain viable and relevant.

“When the players come here, most of the time they’ve not been here before,” LMAFB executive director Brant Ringler said. “We can replicate things that we might have done for teams that had been here before. My main concern is that we evolve in and around the game for our fans.”

The goal, as always, is to keep fans returning (12 previous games have averaged around 36,000 in attendance) during the holidays, and keep military active-duty and veterans and their families engaged in the event. The bowl has served as a tribute to military service since 2006.

“We want them to have a good time,” Ringler said. “We want them to make this a tradition. It’s great to be thanked, but come out and spend time with like members of your service.”

Creating a gameday experience through military-themed tailgate and interactive areas, as well as other places around Amon Carter Stadium meant to show appreciation for service, will continue to enhance the bowl.

“The football game is an added bonus in a lot of ways,” Ringler said.

No 5-7s, please

The LMAFB, as well as its nearby partner bowl, the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, had their choice of Pac-12 teams this year in Cal and Washington after the Big 12 and Big Ten didn’t have enough bowl teams.

It was determined Washington was the better fit in Dallas, and Cal’s having played Air Force in Fort Worth in 2007 would be beneficial for that game.

That played out as some bowls were forced to take 5-7 teams after a ranking of their Academic Progress Report scores, which Ringler addressed at Monday’s LMAFB media conference.

“In my general opinion, you need to be 6-6 or better,” he said. “There are circumstances, where say, Georgia Tech went to its conference championship and became 6-7. That shouldn’t be held against them. They achieved what they were supposed to do by winning their [ACC] division. It wouldn’t have been fair to keep them out of a bowl.”

Teams that go 5-7 within conference play and don’t reach a league title game are a different story, Ringler said.

“If we do 5-7, is it going to continue to creep and then we take 4-8 teams?” he added. “This was a unique year, and in the off-season, it’s really going to be looked at hard by a lot of people to a make sure it’s corrected down the road.”

Ringler said he’s confident that “in the long run, they’ll get it right. They want to maintain the bowls games being special. Coaches love it for recruiting, but you’ve got to earn it to be there.”

Big 12? One of these years

Kansas in 2005 was the last Big 12 teams to play in the LMAFB, and that was the year before the bowl adopted its military-tribute theme.

That said, the bowl has an ongoing relationship with the Big 12, including a current six-year contract that rotates Big 12 and Big Ten teams between the LMAFB and Zaxby’s HOD Bowl. Both bowls are in the second year of the agreement.

Big 12 teams have yet to make it to Amon Carter after regular-season visits to TCU. The league has 10 teams and no championship, and this year again, the LMAFB didn’t pick high enough to nab a bowl-eligible Big 12 team.

Ringler said his and the bowl’s strong desire to take advantage of that regional tie-in will continue. Navy is due back in the game in 2016, and the Big 12/Big Ten agreement rotates, bringing the latter to Fort Worth if one is available.

“We feel like the Big 12 will get there,” Ringler said. “Just a few years ago, they had nine teams qualify for bowls, but we weren’t aligned with Big 12 that year. It’s something new, because we haven’t had the Big 12 aligned with us since the first three years of the game.”

As part of growing a bowl, the pecking order when it comes to choosing teams in a conference often starts at the bottom.

“We’ll get there,” Ringler said. “If Texas wins one more game [this year], we’re there. It doesn’t mean we get Texas, but we probably get a Big 12 school. We have a shot.”

If struggling programs at Texas, Iowa State and Kansas can rebuild and find stability, more teams should qualify in the next few years. That, coupled with the Big 12 not qualifying a CFP team as it did a year ago, would also benefit the LMAFB/ZHODB agreement.