Funny thing about the 2010 incarnation of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit.
Neither team in the game was picked to be still playing come late December.
Yet here we are, as 8-4 Toledo of the Mid-American Conference and 6-6 FIU of the Sun Belt Conference find themselves excited to be in the bowl picture this season.
Most of the nation knows little about either team, but that doesn't mean that the game itself won't be exciting to watch for true fans of the sport. Each team features premier receivers/returners who can score in an instant.
With most lines on the game running at the most one or two points or even a pick 'em, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl promises to be an exciting game from start to finish.
Here, then, is an introduction to these teams to get you ready for all the action on Sunday, December 26th.
The two coaches facing off in this bowl game come from dissimilar backgrounds.
On the one hand, you have FIU's Mario Cristobal, a man who was a star tackle for the University of Miami during two of that program's national championship years.
He brings that sort of winning attitude and big-time program mentality to a school that has languished among the bowl subdivisions' lower echelons for years.
With a few years as a tight end coach on the college level, Cristobal was hired as the head man at FIU. He has turned the team's fortunes around, leading the Golden Panthers to a share of the Sun Belt title this season and earning conference coach of the year honors.
On the other hand, Toledo's head man, Tim Beckman, matriculated at NAIA Findlay of Ohio, where he did indeed play football. His résumé, however, is extensive at the college level. It includes stints at Bowling Green, where he was the defensive coordinator, at Ohio State (cornerbacks) and at Oklahoma State, where he was again in charge of the defense.
In only his second year, Beckman has brought the Rockets from 5-7 to 8-4 and a bowl berth.
Cristobal is a class act.
The 2010 incarnation of the Florida International University Golden Panthers is almost a tale of two seasons.
The first half was dismal. The team went 2-4 in its first six games, including losing the first four right out of the gate. The only bright spot was a seven-point loss to Texas A&M. It looked like a repeat of last season's 3-9 campaign.
Then, in the second half of the season, it all flip-flopped; the team went 4-2 and won its first Sun Belt championship. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl berth is the first bowl game in team history.
The team turned things around this year thanks to the hiring of new coordinators on both sides of the ball; former Toledo assistant Scott Satterfield became the new OC, and Geoff Collins took the reins of the defense.
It worked. At the end of the regular season, FIU ranks 44th in total offense after ranking 100th in ‘09. On defense, FIU ranks 57th in the country after ranking 119th in ‘09.
Cristobal has his team primed for building on a bowl game win and that win helping recruiting in the ultra competitive Florida recruiting market.
Morgan Williams is a capable runner.
The Rockets are bowl eligible for the first time since 2005. They accomplished that feat on the strength of an 8-4 record and an impressive 7-1 mark in the Mid-American Conference.
One reason for its success this season is that Toledo is second in the nation in takeaways and in the top 10 in turnover margin.
But on the offensive side of the ball, there were major hurdles the team had to overcome to succeed this season. The first one was the loss of the team's starting quarterback halfway through the season.
The Rockets' losses include getting bested in the season opener by Pac-10 power Arizona and also being beaten up by a one-loss Boise State Bronco squad.
On the other hand, Toledo beat the Big Ten's Purdue this season and played well during conference play, ultimately having the second best record in the MAC.
Beckman hopes to parlay a win here into getting higher-caliber recruits in the talent-laden Ohio and Pennsylvania high school football landscape.
There is no question who the star is on Toledo's roster.
It's Eric Page, and he's Mr. Everything to the Rockets.
The second-year wide receiver was a Biletnikoff and Hornung candidate and this week was named a Walter Camp All-American First Team kickoff returner.
Already, after only two seasons, Page sits in the top 10 in team history in every major receiving and returning category.
Not bad for a guy 5'10" and only 180 pounds.
The running backs aren't bad either. Adonis Thomas leads the team in rushing with over 75 yards per game on average; he only got better as the season progressed. He finished the year with over 900 yards rushing and averaging over six yards per carry.
Terrance Owens is the redshirt freshman backup quarterback who came in when the Rockets' starter went down. All he did was throw for more touchdowns and for more yards per game than his predecessor.
On defense, look for Toledo to rely on Archie Donald, a 6'2" linebacker and the team's leading tackler, and Isaiah Ballard, a strong DB, for leadership.
Like Toledo, FIU has a record-setting multiple-threat wideout.
His name is T.Y. Hilton, and he's a dandy. He was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year, and, like Page, he's a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
The surrounding cast is somewhat the same as the Rockets have too. In the backfield, the Panthers feature RB Darriet Perry, whose 14 touchdowns are a school record for one season. The team has racked up almost 2,300 yards on the ground.
Under center is a first-year starter in Wesley Carroll; he is already tied for the single-season passing touchdown record with 15. His 2,483 passing yards are only 11 yards short of a new record for a season. His completion percentage is already the highest in program history.
Defensively, FIU is led by cornerback Anthony Gaitor. This guy can blitz and disrupt the offensive backfield as well as cover with the best of them. He is helped by strong safety Jonathan Cyprien, who leads the team in tackles.
Coaches always say special teams is one-third of the game, but they usually practice it like it's only about one-eighth—unless you're these two teams.
Does that aspect of this game deserve some extra attention? Well, when special teams are such a large part of each of these team's success this year, then sure.
As we've seen, both teams have that awesome return guy: Page for Toledo and Hilton for FIU.
Page averages 32 yards per kickoff return and has run back three for touchdowns. Hilton averages 28 yards per return with one score. Hilton has a slight edge in punt returns.
But what about on the kicking side of the ball?
There, FIU has a clear advantage in placekicking. The FIU kicker, Jack Griffin, is 15-of-18 (83 percent) on field goals with a long of 50 yards. He's also a perfect 41-of-41 on extra points. And he's just a sophomore.
On the other hand, Toledo has had placekicking by committee, featuring two kickers who have come up short at times. Combined, they are 5-of-13 with a long of 38, including one blocked kick. If that doesn't give a coach nightmares, they have also missed three extra points on the season.
Perhaps any advantage Toledo might have with Page may be offset by the lack of a consistent kicking game.
2009 was the year the college bowl game played in Detroit was renamed the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. It had been called the Motor City Bowl before that.
In an effort to keep importance to the area of automobile manufacturing, the Ford Motor Company has maintained partial sponsorship of the game.
Until 2002, the game was played in the Pontiac Silverdome, but since then it has been played at Ford Field (home of Super Bowl 40).
The bowl game is the only postseason game in the bowl subdivision played in the Midwest.
The conference tie-ins to the game are supposed to be with the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten. That makes perfect marketing sense, since teams from those conferences should travel well to Detroit.
But with no qualifying team available from the Big Ten this season (Big Ten team No. 8), the second tie-in went to the Sun Belt Conference.
Thus, we have the matchup before us.
We like FIU, and we'll tell you why.
Toledo's offense, a run-first spread, worked better when Austin Dantin was their quarterback. Owens may be a better passer, but he isn't the threat to run that Dantin was.
Page may get his yardage and is a threat to break a long return or two, but we feel that the FIU defense will contain him for the most part.
The second half of the season saw dramatic improvement in the FIU defense as the new scheme took hold. Toledo probably won't do anything new, and the FIU D is faster than the linemen the Rockets have facing them.
With Hilton running, catching and returning and Carroll getting him the ball, plus Perry carrying the load near the end zone, we think the Golden Panthers have the edge.
Special teams will factor in there somewhere too; there's simply too much talent in that area for it not to.
We think FIU will prevail, 31-20.