December 30, 2:30 P.M. Central
Arrive at O'Hare. Eagerly anticipating half-holiday in a city not named Orlando or Tampa. Wondering whether to expect win. Chris Emma, whom I'm traveling alongside, says yes. Still on the fence.
Seated and everything at the gate. Chris hears word that Sanjay Lumpkin has suffered a wrist injury. All the more reason to focus on football, a potential bowl win, and forget that just one day after we leave Jacksonville the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines come to Welsh-Ryan Arena. Brace.
Midway through the Packers-Vikings game, which Bears fanatic Chris is willfully trying to ignore, this weird self-proclaimed physics major in glasses sits down behind us and watches the game. He also happens to be a Vikings fan, and a bad one.
He states the obvious: "Oh, Vikings just ran a touchdown play with a draw!" "Man, he could have that pass but dropped it!" In a high, squeaky voice, he proves that he has eyes.
Then, if that's not enough, he literally begins to sing opera. Loudly enough so we can hear him. When the Vikings score, he starts screaming Vikings chants in staccato and we want to get to Jacksonville – now. First, we fly through Charlotte, because of course, traveling to cover the #JaxCats (first and last time I will use that hashtag… don't use it please) is inconvenient. But we're excited (ish) and planning coverage (ish) and one hundred percent sober.
We meet Northwestern volleyball star Stephanie Holthus, who is making the trip. Asked if she expects a win, she says something along the lines of: "They'd better." It perfectly defines the attitude surrounding this team.
The three of us know nothing about Mississippi State football. In the end, it is what makes this game so entertaining. The Bulldogs might throw for 400 yards, or 40. And this year, the diehards are convinced of the latter.
After watching the early games of bowl week, I re-remembered (Not a word. Sue me.) that despite the systemic shortcomings, this diluted postseason can be meaningful. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone hoisted the Pinstripe Bowl trophy in apparent bliss. Even Michigan State, with what seemed like minimal incentive in a down season, rallied for an ugly but impressive comeback.
I can only imagine the joy this program would experience from a bowl win.
Also, when Bo Cisek has the opportunity to celebrate, fun things happen. Like lightsabers. He is my No. 1 choice for our football guest columnist next season.
Landed in Jacksonville and made the ill-advised decision to take one of those communal shuttles. It took a while.
To the extreme annoyance and boredom of the six others on board with us, we had our hardcore semi-cerebral football discussion of the evening – about MSU's passing game.
The Chad Bumphis-Chris Smith duo reminds me of Nebraska's Kenny Bell-Quincy Enunwa combination. Although Bell was the primary deep threat and led the team with 803 receiving yards – 342 more than any other Cornhusker – Nebraska leaned on Enunwa, the possession receiver, for a great deal of production against Northwestern. In the same sense, Bumphis poses the Bell-like deep threat, but Chris Smith has only nine fewer catches this season.
Taylor Martinez dominated NU not by challenging the Wildcats to slow his top target, but instead by spreading the ball and attacking the whole of the secondary. It's just a thought, and a tired one, but I expect Tyler Russell to spread the ball – beginning with Smith.
We're thrilled to cap a great season of covering NU football by bringing readers and subscribers thorough coverage of the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl.
Tomorrow, we'll report from an 11 a.m. press conference (and tweet it). And we'll let you know whether Jacksonville is prettier by day. Hopefully, it is.
Excited for our bowl festivities to begin, and maybe that 64-year drought will come to an end.
Awake. No coffee in sight.
At Hyatt for the teams' press conferences. Southern accents are strong. And Mississippi State has approximately 90 beat writers.
The press conference begins and the usual narratives emerge.
The S.E.C. writers talk about conference superiority. Yes, I'll give them the overall edge. But if Ohio State, Nebraska, etc. were prominent top-five teams, then for Northwestern, that would seem sort of irrelevant.
Instead, it becomes a major talking point.
I'll leave it at this:
Northwestern's best wins: Vanderbilt (nine wins), Syracuse (eight wins), Michigan State (still Michigan State).
Mississippi State's best wins: Tennessee (5-7, lost to Vanderbilt by 23), Arkansas (joking), Auburn (cue explosion).
Also of note: Both coaches ranted about their love of the bowl system, Dan Mullen made a smart observation about NU's two-QB system (a change in "emphasis" rather than schemes), and Johnthan Banks (first-round talent!!!) was in the room.
Transition to writing.
Transition to Miller Lite.
Happy New Year's.
More to come ...