With the Akron football program, you always prepare for the worst.
On Halloween this year, the Zips were 3-5 after a close loss at home to Central Michigan. This was a familiar spot for Akron to be in with Terry Bowden - close to .500, maybe a slim chance at a bowl game just like last season. But this season felt different because of the remaining schedule: at UMass, at Miami, Buffalo and Kent State, which include three of the worst teams in the conference.
Surely Akron would end up losing to Buffalo and inexplicably losing to one of the bottom feeders. That's just how it happens at Akron. The Zips would end up 5-7, add another year to the bowl drought, and fire speculation whether Bowden was the right man for the job.
Except that didn't happen.
A too-close-for-comfort 17-13 win at UMass - which Akron teams of years past would have lost - sparked a bit of hope. Maybe this was the year that Akron has a winning record and goes to a bowl game. At this point, at least for me, 6-6 would have been fine.
The next week at Miami, Akron jumped out to a 34-7 lead but almost gave it all up; after a RedHawk pick six the lead was down to 34-28. You kept thinking this would be the one where the wheels fall off and the season would be ruined. But, the resilient Zips drove down the field and kicked a field goal to ice the win and improve to 5-5.
Buffalo was going to be the real test. The Bulls were also 5-5 but had a strong team that had beaten Ohio earlier in the year. The worry was that Akron loses this game, setting up a must-win against a bad Kent State team at home. This is exactly what happened last year, and, you guessed it, the Zips laid an egg, losing to the 1-9 Flashes and finishing 5-7.
So what did Akron do? They steamrolled Buffalo, using an offensive explosion to win 42-21. It was Akron's best performance of the year offensively, with Tommy Woodson throwing for 4 touchdowns and Donnell Alexander rushing for 143 and 2 touchdowns.
The feeling after Akron beat Buffalo to secure a non-losing record was euphoric. For most schools, going 6-5 is a disappointment. At Akron though, with everything the program and fans have been through, it was the most wonderful feeling ever. You can chide me for saying that, but unless you've been through what we as Akron fans/alums have been through, you don't really know what this feeling is.
When I was a student at Akron from 2008-2013, the program won a grand total of 16 games. That included three-straight 1-11 seasons, during which the football team was the laughingstock of the school. Players on campus would hear all of the jokes about the state of the team, nobody would show up to games in the newest stadium in the MAC, and there was zero optimism about maybe even winning a few games.
Going ten years without a winning season - hell even a season at .500 - just drains you. It makes you wonder why you support a team that keeps breaking your heart. But, Northeast Ohio fans are used to that with the Browns, Cavs and Indians, so maybe it really isn't that unusual. That's why that win over Buffalo was so special - we're finally going to have a non-losing season. The drought is over. Long live Terry Bowden.
After taking a day to take in the victory, my thoughts turned to the bowl game. The last time Akron went to a bowl game was the 2005 Motor City Bowl, a 38-31 loss to Memphis who featured NFL players DeAngelo Williams and Stephen Gostkowski.
Again, the doubt set in. If Akron finishes 6-6, they might be one of the last teams selected or first team left out of the bowl picture. The list of the reasons why the Zips wouldn't get picked - poor attendance, bad strength of schedule, etc. - crept into my mind. It would be so Akron for the team to finish 6-6 but get left out of a bowl game.
Thankfully, the last week of the season foiled any worry that any Akron fan would have. First, on Black Friday, the Zips smothered rival Kent State 20-0 to reclaim the Wagon Wheel and lock up a winning record at 7-5. That game was a story in itself, as yet again when Akron needed to step up and show it belonged they did, allowing Kent State just 135 yards of total offense. The Flashes didn't run an offensive play in the entire third quarter, which is an incredible statistic.
The second domino to drop was the performance of all of the other 5-6 Power 5 teams that had a chance to knock Akron out of a bowl spot. At the end of Saturday, to the delight of all Akron fans, there were five fewer bowl-eligible teams than bowl bids available, meaning the Zips were assured of going to a bowl game.
THE AKRON ZIPS ARE GOING TO A BOWL GAME.
That feels so weird to say, but it's such a great feeling. To teams like Toledo, Bowling Green, Northern Illinois - this is an expected feeling. For us Akron fans? It's pure bliss. It probably sounds stupid, but just to see your school popping up on bowl projections is an awesome feeling. Years ago the Zips were appearing on Bottom 10 lists, and now they'll be playing past Thanksgiving.
No matter what happens in the bowl game, the season has been a wild success. Bowden really is the right man for the job and did wonders with this team. The senior class really deserves this - they have been through so much losing that finishing out their college careers with a winning season and a bowl game in such a fantastic way to go out on.
Now on to the next challenge - can Akron actually win their bowl game?