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Las Vegas Bowl’s growing pains continue in COVID era

On Thursday, COVID-19 permitting, it will be Arizona State of the Pac-12 against Wisconsin of the Big Ten at Allegiant Stadium.

The kickoff of the Las Vegas Bowl will mark the first time the game has been played after Christmas — a major sign the game might be nearing the red zone in bowl game hierarchy.

This year’s prestigious conference ties with two Power Five conferences notwithstanding, the game still has a ways to go before it becomes the “Granddaddy of Them All,” which is how the Rose Bowl is often referred in the context of bowl games. But it’s also apparent the Las Vegas Bowl is no longer its distant cousin.

That said, it also should be noted the new date, matchup and home stadium were supposed to go into effect last year before the pandemic hit harder than Georgia’s defense. The game’s catchy ad campaign was shelved for a year. But three weeks ago, during an informal luncheon with the media, everything was looking up.

With the right matchup, Las Vegas Bowl officials spoke off the record about the game possibly selling out the Raiders’ 65,000-seat stadium even without a Kansas City Chiefs’ presence.

But that was before Texas A&M pulled out of the Dec. 31 Gator Bowl when a COVID outbreak left the Aggies with only 38 scholarship players, 20 of whom were said to be interior linemen.

It’s hard to run a jet sweep with a guy wearing jersey No. 68.

Bowled over by COVID

But if there is a fate worse than limbo, that’s where the Gator Bowl was Thursday as 5-7 Illinois and Marshall, which lost 35-21 to Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 18, were being mentioned as possible replacement opponents for Wake Forest before Rutgers got the call.

Even worse is what happened Thursday when the Hawaii Bowl between Hawaii and Memphis was canceled on the eve of the game because of COVID-19, season-ending injuries and transfers in the Hawaii program. This came after Memphis had made the long trip to Hawaii.

What if a fate similar to what happened to Texas A&M and Hawaii happens to either Arizona State or Wisconsin? That’s a nightmare scenario for Las Vegas Bowl executive director John Saccenti, who must be having trouble sleeping at night worried about what COVID-19 could do to his game.

“Health and safety remains our top priority. We continue to follow local protocols as we prepare for our first Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium,” he said in a email on Christmas Eve. “We are optimistic our schedule of events will happen as planned, though we continue to monitor current conditions and are prepared to make adjustments as needed.”

Already, Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh has tested positive for COVID-19 and will not travel to Las Vegas for the game.

That news came about six hours after Wisconsin officials announced they had to cancel Thursday’s men’s basketball game against George Mason because of positive tests in the Badgers’ program.

One day earlier, Wisconsin officials announced the women’s game against Eastern Illinois had been canceled for the same reason.

Growing pains

In addition to potentially forcing a change in the Las Vegas Bowl matchup, the increasing threat of the COVID outbreak can’t be good news for ticket sales.

When the first Las Vegas Bowl was played in 1992, there were 18 postseason college football games instead of 44. None was named for a gardening tool in a storage shed (Poulan Weed-Eater). Capital One Bowl Week was still a twinkle in the eye of a TV executive, and NFL prospects still looked forward to playing in bowl games.

So when the California Bowl became the Las Vegas Bowl and Bowling Green of the Mid-American Conference and UNR of the Big West earned the automatic berths, it seemed like a pretty big deal.

Nearly three decades later, the Las Vegas Bowl has evolved. Instead of a three-hour infomercial for the the city, it’s now about a 3:45 infomercial for the city, thanks to the West Coast offense and TV timeouts for Dr Pepper featuring a middle-aged Brian Bosworth.

But as Brent Musburger enthusiastically proclaims on the TV and radio ads, starting this year the Las Vegas Bowl has a new date, matchup and home that, no affront to Bowling Green and UNR, should raise the game’s profile during a new era of sports and entertainment in the city that almost demands it.

Provided that COVID isn’t flagged for targeting again.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.