Dashing through the bowl season
From the mother of all motivational tools to advice for Anna Kournikova's bowl pool, The Dash runs through the entire bowl season.
Welcome to Bowl-der-Dash, a celebration of 40 names, games, teams and minutiae-making news in college football this postseason ("I Miss The Garden State Bowl" T-shirts sold separately):
When bowl season starts with a story like this attached to the very first game, you know it's going to be a fun few weeks.
Check the Southern Mississippi (1) sidelines during the (Not) New Orleans Bowl, live from not New Orleans (relocated this year to Lafayette, La.). Look for the guy in the Roman collar holding a stick in the air during dozens of plays. Yes, you heard The Dash correctly: Look for the father wielding the Mother of all Motivational Tools.
He's Father Tommy Conway (2), the Golden Eagles' team chaplain and keeper of the unofficial team talisman. It's an Irish walking cane -- not a shillelagh, the padre is quick to point out. It was plucked from a blackthorn hedge and given to Conway by an old man when the priest left his native County Galway in Ireland to do missionary work in Mississippi 19 years ago.
Today it is the "I Believe Stick" (3) in Golden Eagles terminology, now in its third year of work in sideline symbolism.
"I hold it up early in the game for each play," Conway explained, in a rich Irish brogue, "so the offensive and defensive players can see it and believe in themselves. It's just a little fun on the sidelines."
The fun started in 2003. That was Conway's first year as Southern Miss' team priest, and in that role he offers faith-based motivational words to the team before each game. In November of that year, the TCU Horned Frogs came to Hattiesburg 10-0 and ranked 10th in the nation, so Conway figured he'd better break out the good stuff.
Seizing upon an amphibian motif, Conway read the team the scripture in Exodus that described the plague of frogs God sent down upon Egypt to convince the Pharaoh to let Moses and the Jews go free.
"In the end the frogs all died, and they put them in a big pile and they began to stink," Conway said. "I told the team, 'We're not going to let these stinking frogs come in here and beat us. Now, I'm not Moses and I'm not Jesus, but I do have my own staff. Every time you take the field, I want you to look at the staff and believe in yourselves.'"
Sure enough, Southern Miss shocked the stinkin' Horned Frogs, 40-28. And a tradition (superstition?) was born. Ever since then, Father Football and his stick have been a sideline presence.
"[The cane] travels with the rest of the team equipment at this stage," Conway said.
Conway had never seen American football when he arrived in Hattiesburg, but the wife of one of the USM coaches took him to a game and answered his endless questions. The pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas was quickly hooked. He's even been a guest of St. Thomas congregant Brett Favre for a Packers game in Green Bay.
Conway, who has that endearing Irish quality of quick and infectious laughter, says his assignment to Mississippi was "punishment for all the sins I committed before the age of 20." But he's come to love living in Hattiesburg.
"It's challenging these days, with the hurricane and all that has come with it," he said. "But it's a great place to be."
For the record, The Dash believes that Southern Miss will break out a whuppin' stick on Arkansas State and win the (Not) New Orleans Bowl, 29-7. With that, let's get to the rest of the
The anchorwoman in the season-long Dashette relay, Anna Kournikova (4), was asking for advice before entering her bowl pool. So The Dash laid it all out for her as follows:
GMAC Bowl (5), Dec. 21: Mike Price's coaching a game in Alabama makes for a juicy plot line, but there's more to this game than that. UTEP-Toledo should be explosive enough offensively that this game is worth putting off your last-minute Christmas shopping for one more night. The pick: Toledo, 41-35.
Poinsettia Bowl (6), Dec. 22: Colorado State has not been able to stop anybody's running game. That's a bad sign when Navy is across the line of scrimmage. The only potential drawback for the Midshipmen is fighting fatigue: Kickoff is at 10:30 p.m. Annapolis time. The pick: Navy, 35-28.
Las Vegas Bowl (7), Dec. 22: After the Holiday horror show of 2004, California coach Jeff Tedford will not oversee a second consecutive bowl collapse -- certainly not against BYU. And the Mountain West did not have a great year. The pick: Cal, 30-21.
Fort Worth Bowl (8), Dec. 23: Good offense (Houston) against a very good defense (Kansas). The Dash is such a nonfan of the Big 12 North that it's taking the Cougars. The pick: Houston, 21-19.
Hawaii Bowl (9), Dec. 24: Nevada-Central Florida isn't exactly Florida State-Penn State when it comes to bowl heritage. Combined bowl games in the schools' combined history: five, all belonging to Nevada. That list includes three in-state trips to the Las Vegas Bowl, plus the 1948 Harbor Bowl vs. Villanova and the '47 Salad Bowl vs. North Texas. The Dash believes the Wolfpack will be able to take this trip more seriously, since it visits Hawaii every other year for a league game (caveat: they've lost the last three there by a combined 67 points). The pick: Nevada, 42-37.
Champs Sports Bowl (12), Dec. 27: Colorado football is on a negative roll the likes of which The Dash hasn't seen since the Dukakis campaign. Ask Notre Dame how well it works to come into a bowl game off a blowout loss and a firing, and playing for a lame-duck interim coach. The pick: Clemson, 45-10.
Insight Bowl (13), Dec. 27: Hello, Rutgers. How odd to see you still playing at this time of year. Enjoy the sunshine and the freebies, because you won't enjoy the game. The pick: Arizona State, 37-16.
MPC Computers Bowl (14), Dec. 28: After comatose Colorado, Boston College might be the most likely team to be sulking this bowl season. The Eagles are angry that their 8-3 season and co-championship in the ACC Atlantic Division earned them nothing better than a chance to pack their long underwear and play Boise State on its own turf. But now the Broncos might be in a funk, too, with coach Dan Hawkins on his way out the door to Boulder. The Dash (and presumably many NFL scouts) will be interested to see BC defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (15) go up against Boise senior left tackle Daryn Colledge (16) (and promising Boise freshman right tackle Ryan Clady). The pick: Boise State, 35-34.
Alamo Bowl (17), Dec. 28: The game we should have seen played for the national title in 1997, when both Nebraska and Michigan were undefeated and forced to share the title. It's not the same nine years later, but it's good bowl fare. The pick: Michigan, 27-21.
Emerald Bowl (18), Dec. 29: Of this year's bowl teams, these two have the best bowl winning percentages, with at least 10 previous appearances. Utah is 7-3, Georgia Tech is 22-11. The pick: Georgia Tech, 24-10.
Music City Bowl (21), Dec. 30: Minnesota's third trip to this bowl in the last four years should guarantee a low Gopher fan turnout. But with 6-5 Virginia strangely becoming the hottest coach producer in America (three assistants are leaving for head jobs), you have to figure the Cavaliers are unsettled. The pick: Minnesota, 23-14.
Independence Bowl (22), Dec. 30: The Dash is waiting for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier to arrive in Shreveport and say something like, "I know I used to take shots at bowls like this, but it's good to still be playing while the Volunteers are back home." Given the choice between Spurrier and Missouri's Gary Pinkel with a month to prepare, The Dash is pretty sure which way to go with this one. The pick: South Carolina, 30-17.
Peach Bowl (24), Dec. 30: Hopefully neither LSU nor Miami is pouting after losing a chance at a BCS bowl, because this game should be terrific. There should be excellent foot speed at all 22 positions on the field at any given time. The pick: Miami, 20-16.
Meineke Car Care Bowl (25), Dec. 31: North Carolina State should definitely have more fans in the stands, but South Florida should be stoked to make its first-ever bowl trip. The Dash likes coach Jim Leavitt and believes he'll have his Bulls ready. The pick: South Florida, 22-21.
Liberty Bowl (26), Dec. 31: Fresno State-Tulsa should be another fireworks game. The Bulldogs used to own the Golden Hurricane when they were in the WAC together -- but they haven't played since coach Steve Kragthorpe took over and remade the program in Tulsa. He might not be there much longer. The pick: Tulsa, 37-34.
Houston Bowl (27), Dec. 31: Who takes it away, who gives it away? TCU is No. 2 nationally in turnover margin at plus-20. Iowa State is No. 5 at plus-15. Father Conway's stick has no jurisdiction here, so The Dash says a plague of Frogs will be visited upon the Cyclones. The pick: TCU, 27-20.
Gator Bowl (28), Jan. 2: Virginia Tech will be another team that merits an attitude check: How excited are the Hokies to be here? Best competition could be seeing which Dwight Freeney knockoff wreaks more havoc off the edge, Tech's Darryl Tapp (29) or Louisville's Elvis Dumervil (30). The pick: Virginia Tech, 34-21.
Outback Bowl (32), Jan. 2: Iowa gets an early wake-up call, with kickoff at 10 a.m. CST. Better be ready, because Florida coach Urban Meyer figures to have a few wrinkles in the game plan. Both he and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz come in with two-game bowl winning streaks. The pick: Florida, 22-19.
Capital One Bowl (33), Jan. 2: Coach Barry Alvarez's going-away present at Wisconsin will be a thumping in Orlando from what might be the SEC's best team. The pick: Auburn, 37-18.
Fiesta Bowl (34), Jan. 2: Irish coach Charlie Weis gets a month to prepare Notre Dame for Jim Tressel, whose Ohio State team has won three straight bowl games as an underdog. This time the Buckeyes are favored -- and should be. The pick: Ohio State, 31-27.
Sugar Bowl (35), Jan. 2: This boils down to Moses vs. Mozes (36), to see who leads his team to the Promised Land: West Virginia offensive guard Dan Mozes leads a line that opens holes for the Mountaineers' pulverizing running game. Georgia defensive end Quentin Moses keys a defense that was a last-minute breakdown against Auburn short of brilliant all season. The pick is The Dash's upset special of bowl season: West Virginia, 25-24.
Rose Bowl (38), Jan. 4: You'll hear enough in the next two weeks about all the star power and sexy matchups in this game, but here's what The Dash wants to see: Texas' 355-pound defensive tackle, Marco Martin (39), taking on USC's 361-pound offensive tackle, Taitusi Lutui (40), in an Eat 'Til You Die competition at one of the pregame functions. The pick: USC, 38-35.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.