This year, seventy bowl slots were open.

This year, seventy-two teams qualified.

And, you figure with those numbers, there was a good chance someone from the Sun Belt would be left out.

And, this year, that someone was Western Kentucky.

Cajun fans know how the Hilltoppers are feeling.  Flashback to 2008.  The Cajuns were 6-6 and being courted by the Texas Bowl.  The Cajuns found out a week before the bowl bids were handed out that a Memorandum of Understanding the Sun Belt Conference had with the Independence, St. Petersburg (now Beef O’Bradys) and (now  Compass Bowl) were only valid if a team from the Sun Belt Conference had seven wins.

The Cajuns were 6-6.

But Texas was on the table.  And, right until the final hour it looked as though the Cajuns were headed to Houston to play Rice.

And then they weren’t.

Western Michigan was taken instead.  And, the Cajuns were left with no place to go.

Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters took a lot of heat about that MOU.  And, rightfully so.  It was probably his biggest mistake in the twelve years he’s been the head man in New Orleans.

But, at the end of the day, the UL administration said, correctly, that the Cajuns wouldn’t have had that problem had they just won one more game that season.  Back then, 7-5 teams had to be placed before 6-6 teams.  That rule was changed two years ago.

And Western Kentucky got bitten by the change this year.

I personally would have loved to have seen four Sun Belt teams in bowls.  This league is getting better.  Not only were there four bowl-eligible teams in the SBC, all four won at least seven games.  Western, incidentally, won the fewest at seven.  FIU and Louisiana won eight.  Arkansas State became the first SBC team to win ten in the regular season.

I have friends in Bowling Green.  Good friends.  And I’m sorry they won’t get to experience a bowl game this year.

The Hilltoppers certainly had a legitimate case to make for a bowl bid.  On the field, at least.  They finished 7-5 and in sole possession of second place in the Sun Belt.  They did it in their third year in the league.  They won seven of their last eight games.  They feature a premier running back in Bobby Rainey.  And, they’re a good story, going from 2-10 a year ago to 7-5 this year.

But, bowl bids aren’t handed out according to where you finish in the league.  Bowl bids are handed out according to who is going to sell tickets.

And, that’s where the Hilltoppers fell short.  Woefully short.

Let’s go to the conference finish for a minute.  And, let’s take the Mid-American Conference as an example.

This year, the MAC had three bowl tie-ins.  They had six bowl eligible teams.  Their champion, Northern Illinois is headed to the bowl to face Arkansas State.  Their runner-up, Ohio, is eating potatoes in Boise.  Their third team, Toledo, did not get one of the MAC tie-ins.  Western Michigan is going to Detroit.  Why?  They’ll sell more tickets.  Toledo and Temple found a place in open bowls in Washington, D.C. and Albuquerque, respectively.  Temple won eight games last year…and stayed home.

This year, the Sun Belt champion, Arkansas State, is headed to Mobile.  Who got the other designated spot?  Louisiana.  Why?  Well, they shattered the Sun Belt attendance record, averaging over 29,000 per game.  And, there’s no question they were going to sell more tickets than anyone else in the league to the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.  In fact, they’ve already sold more tickets to the bowl than Western Kentucky averaged for its home games this year.

So, to put it simply, second place doesn’t mean squat.   Not when it comes to bowl games.

The bowls are in business to make money.  They make money through corporate sponsorships and attendance.  The New Orleans Bowl has put on a happy face for a decade while averaging only 25, 795 for their ten bowl games.  This year,  they’ll shatter the record for attendance thanks to a passionate fan base of Cajuns who are ready for their first appearance in a bowl in modern history.

The fact that bowls aren’t obligated to follow conference standings and are in business to sell tickets hasn’t meant anything to WKU.  They’ve lashed out at everyone they can think of for their bowl snub.  It’s the New Orleans Bowl’s fault.  It’s the league officials’ fault.  It’s the Commissioner’s fault.

No, Western.  It’s YOUR fault.

Now that might seem a little harsh.  But it’s the truth.  Let’s look at things WKU could have done differently that might have gotten them to a bowl game this year.

GAIN A FOOT ON FOURTH DOWN—They had Arkansas State beaten.  Late in the game with WKU leading, the Toppers thought they had the first down to ice the game.  But the spot was wrong and on replay, was pushed back (the way officials spot the ball in the Sun Belt was abysmal all year, but that’s another blog).  Faced with fourth down and a foot, the Toppers failed.  ASU marched down the field and scored with :22 left.  If WKU makes a foot, they are the undefeated conference champions, they’re on the way to Mobile and ASU is fighting to go somewhere…anywhere.  Louisiana would still have been in New Orleans.

DON’T LOSE TO AN FCS TEAM BY FOUR TOUCHDOWNS—When looking at WKU’s resume, there’s no doubt the bowls who had openings looked at the fact WKU lost to Indiana State, an FCS school that finished 6-5.  And, they didn’t just lose.  They got drilled 44-16.  Western Kentucky failed to win a single game out of conference.  And, the bowls noticed.

SELL SOME SEASON TICKETS—You’re not going to impress bowl committees when your attendance is next to last in the Sun Belt Conference.  Beating Louisiana-Monroe in the attendance race is nothing to hang your hat on.  After having 19,409 for its Smith Stadium opener against Navy, the best the Toppers could do in their other games was 15,793 against the aforementioned team from Indiana State.  Even after the Toppers got on a winning streak, they couldn’t beat that figure.  They drew just over 15,000 for Senior Day against Troy.

Personal accountability.  What a concept.  You don’t do the things under your control.  You take responsibility.

WKU athletics director Ross Bjork was quoted as saying the Sun Belt needed to look at its policy of allowing bowl invitations to go out early.

Say what?

Should the New Orleans Bowl have waited until WKU locked up second place before inviting the Cajuns?  Because that’s what was going to happen regardless.  And if, as expected, the bowl shatters attendance records on December 17th, they’ll invite the Cajuns next year too, if they’re winning.  Yes, even if WKU finishes ahead of them in the standings.  And if New Orleans doesn’t take the Cajuns because they need to take the champion, godaddy will cast a roving eye toward Acadiana after seeing how many make the trip to the Crescent City.

No, WKU, it’s not on the conference office.  It’s not on the New Orleans Bowl.  It’s on you.

Commissioner Waters hasn’t done everything right.  But when he became the leader of this league, he had a mantra that has been consistent.  If you ask him, he’ll repeat it for you.

Win non-conference games.  Put people in the seats.  Handle things with class.

And for Western Kentucky in 2011, that’s strike one, strike two and strike three.

And, this year, you’re out.