Western Michigan will be rowing from Kalamazoo to the Cotton Bowl.
The 12th-ranked Broncos (13-0, No. 15 CFP), the Mid-American Conference champions and the only FBS team other than top-ranked Alabama still undefeated, will play Big Ten runner-up and eighth-ranked Wisconsin (10-3, No. 8 CFP) on Jan. 2 in the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium.
Coach P.J. Fleck said Sunday that it “really is surreal right now. Surreal to know Western Michigan University, a team that I coach, is going to play” in one of the historic New Year’s games that he used to watch with his dad when he was growing up.
The 36-year-old Fleck, who has infused the Broncos with that “Row The Boat” mantra, revealed that he had a large piece of cotton in his pocket during the MAC championship game on Friday night. He showed that cotton to the WMU players and fans gathered for the bowl announcement inside while it was snowing outside.
“Well, there’s a lot of cotton falling from the sky here in Kalamazoo today, a lot accumulating on the ground,” Fleck said during the ESPN selection show. “How ironic.”
During a team meeting last January, just weeks after the Broncos’ first-ever bowl victory, Fleck displayed to his team a logo of the Cotton Bowl, the destination this season for the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five.
Wisconsin is also going to its first Cotton Bowl. The Badgers lost the Big Ten championship game and a chance to get back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since going to Pasadena at the end of three consecutive seasons (2010-12).
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said while his team was disappointed with their Big Ten finish, the Cotton Bowl and the opponent will be make it easier for them to get re-focused.
“One of the stories of the year, and that will grab our kids’ attentions,” Chryst said of WMU. “It will be a challenge for us.”
While the West Division champion Badgers are officially the Big Ten runner-ups, they are behind three of the conference’s East Division teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings and AP Top 25 — trailing Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.
The Badgers’ 15 consecutive bowl games is the longest streak in the Big Ten.
Some other things to know about Western Michigan and Wisconsin going to the Cotton Bowl:
SMALL SUCCESSES: This is the third season of the College Football Playoff, which offers a spot for the highest-ranked Group of Five champion in one of the New Year’s Six games. The first two have won their games. Boise State beat Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago, and Houston beat Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl last season.
BEATING THE BIG TEN: Western Michigan has played — and beaten — two Big Ten teams this season. The Broncos opened their season with a 22-21 win at Northwestern, and two weeks later won 34-10 at Illinois. Western Michigan has played Wisconsin four times before — all of those early-season games in Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers won the last meeting 19-7 in 2000, two years after Western Michigan got its only win in the series.
THIS WAS THE GOAL: Wide receiver Corey Davis had already had three standout seasons for Western Michigan, and could have possibly been a high NFL draft pick had he left after his junior year. But Fleck said Davis returned “to finish the job he started with his teammates, to become a MAC champion.” Davis has 91 catches for 1,427 yards and 18 TDs this season, and 325 receptions for 5,205 yards and 51 TDs overall.
NOT FIRST VISIT: Wisconsin previously played at AT&T Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, in losing its 2015 season opener 35-17 to Alabama. While this will be Western Michigan’s first game at the stadium that started hosting the Cotton Bowl seven years ago, Fleck coached there as a receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, and attended the first CFP championship game there two seasons ago.
BIG TEN IN COTTON: Before Michigan State played in the Cotton Bowl the last two years, including the national semifinal game loss to Alabama last season, the only Big Ten team that had ever played in the Cotton Bowl had been Ohio State. The Buckeyes beat Texas A&M in the 1987 Cotton Bowl.
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