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Western Pickings May Be Slim for Freedom Bowl Recruiters

Times Staff Writer

The objective is simple and so is the game plan. Tom Starr, Freedom Bowl director, wants to put local fans in the Anaheim Stadium stands Dec. 30 and to do that, he knows he needs to enlist the help of at least one college football team from the West.

But as Starr is finding out, finding a Western team worthy of consideration in isn’t that simple.

“How many Western teams are ranked in the Top 20? UCLA, Air Force and BYU,” Starr says. “And two of those are probably in New Year’s Day bowls.

“That leaves one Western team for the rest of us to fight over.”

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Actually, there are a few more. USC, Washington, Arizona and Arizona State still have mathematical chances of winning the Pacific 10--and, thus, still have appeal to bowl-game directors.

But realistically, USC, 4-4 after last weekend’s upset loss to California, is on the verge of dropping out of the bowl picture. And Tempe’s Fiesta Bowl seems the most likely postseason destination for either of the Arizona schools.

“The winner of this week’s USC-Washington game will still be on our ‘look list,’ but we’ll scratch the loser,” Starr said.

USC figures as the the underdog there and against UCLA next week. The Trojans close their regular season against Oregon in Tokyo’s Mirage Bowl Nov. 30.

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Should USC split its next two games, it would enter the Oregon game 5-5--and a massive gamble for any bowl game director. According to NCAA rules, a team must have a winning record to participate in a postseason bowl.

“That would be living on the border, Twilight Zone time,” Starr said. “If they (USC) didn’t win, you’d be left scrambling. The only way you could make them an offer is if you had a backup (team). And it’s tough to line up a backup. The A.D. and coach can tell you, ‘No thanks, friend, we have a firm offer from this other bowl.’ ”

So, USC has dwindled to a Freedom Bowl long shot. And UCLA, the probable Pac-10 winner, seems untouchable. If the Bruins don’t qualify for the Rose Bowl, they figure to opt for the Aloha Bowl.

That brings us back to BYU and Air Force--which will bring Starr back to Salt Lake City this weekend. BYU plays host to Air Force Saturday afternoon.

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Starr has been courting both schools for weeks. Problem is, so have about a dozen other bowl games.

“If we get either, we’ll have to climb over a lot of bowls,” Starr admitted. “If we have an edge, it’s because we started scouting them early. We showed interest in them right away.”

At 10-0, Air Force still holds the major bowls’ interest. If the Falcons beat BYU, they could be headed to the Orange or Sugar bowls. A loss to BYU could change that.

BYU (8-2) would have to beat Air Force, in addition to Utah and Hawaii, to play on New Year’s Day. Then, the Cougars would be candidates for the Fiesta Bowl, but probably not the Orange, Sugar or Cotton.

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“They have two losses and that loss to UTEP hurt BYU’s chances a lot,” Starr said. “The big bowls also don’t like BYU’s schedule, which they consider weak.”

That would seem to bode well for the Freedom Bowl. If BYU loses and the Fiesta Bowl backs off the Cougars, Starr believes his game would have the next crack at Robbie Bosco and Co.

Starr said both BYU and Air Force “are attractive. We’d come out ahead either way.”

And so, Starr insists he has no rooting interest Saturday. “What would really be fun,” Starr said, invoking Murphy’s Law, “is if Air Force and BYU tie. Then, it’d be back to the drawing board.”

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