Nothing confirms a football program's resurrection like a long-awaited bowl bid.
The Kent State football program's 40-year postseason drought officially ended on Sunday, when the Golden Flashes accepted an invitation to play in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., against Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State (9-3) on Sunday, Jan. 6 -- one day before the BCS National Championship Game. Kickoff is set for 9 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.
The 25th-ranked Flashes (11-2), who earned a school-record 11 wins and captured the Mid-American Conference East Division title with a perfect 8-0 MAC record this season, will make just the third bowl appearance in program history. Kent State lost to Tampa 21-18 in the 1972 Tangerine Bowl, and fell 19-7 to Delaware in the 1954 Refrigerator Bowl.
"I'm so excited for our football program that's going to the Godaddy.com Bowl," said second-year head coach Darrell Hazell. "It's a great bowl and a fantastic football team we're playing their. I'm excited for this university and for our football team."
The bowl bid caps an amazing turnaround for the Flashes, who started out 1-6 last year before winning 15 of their next 17 games. They clinched a bowl berth with a 31-24 victory at Bowling Green on Nov. 17 that gave them the MAC East Division title, their first crown since Kent State captured its one and only overall MAC championship in 1972.
The Flashes have enjoyed just three winning seasons since 1978.
"Obviously we knew a couple weeks ago we were going to a bowl, so it's not as though it was a surprise tonight that we were selected," said KSU Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen. "But I think it really did surprise a lot of us once it did happen, that our name was up there after 40 years. I just know it's a great payoff for our student-athletes and our coaching staff."
The bid comes just two days after Kent State suffered the most gut-wrenching loss in program history, falling 44-37 in double-overtime to defending champion Northern Illinois in the 2012 MAC Championship Game in Detroit. The Flashes overcame a 14-point deficit with under five minutes left in regulation, then nearly won it in the first overtime before the Huskies clinched the victory with an interception in the second extra session.
"After a few days to step away from it and look back and reflect on all the accomplishments these guys have made over the last year, it is just absolutely amazing," said Hazell, whose Flashes remained in the AP Top 25 Poll at No. 25 despite the loss. "To think how far these guys have come in such a short period of time ... when you're in the middle of it you can't appreciate it, but now that you've had a few days away from it and your head can clear it's an absolutely amazing accomplishment."
However, in a cruel twist of fate that only the world of sports could concoct, the Flashes found themselves bumming a bit -- or perhaps a lot -- after watching BCS events unfold on Sunday.
That's because Northern Illinois became the first team in MAC history to earn a BCS bowl bid. The Huskies (12-1) will take on ACC champion Florida State on Jan. 1 in the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla. They became the first school from a non-automatic BCS qualifier conference to earn a BCS bowl bid without a perfect record.
Had the Flashes defeated Northern Illinois they would have received the coveted BCS bowl bid, since they entered last weekend ranked 17th in the BCS standings -- four spots ahead of Northern Illinois.
Hazell chose not to speak of what-ifs.
"I'm happy for those guys," he said, referring to the Huskies. "They played well, and I think they'll represent the MAC well in that game. They deserve to go."
The Huskies actually vaulted to No. 15 in the final BCS standings, earning a spot because they finished among the top 16 and ahead of a champion from an automatic BCS-qualifier conference -- Louisville of the Big East. Meanwhile, Kent State wound up No. 25.
"It's a little bittersweet probably for the Kent State people because we know now that that could've been us, but that's why we play the games," said Nielsen. "I'm so proud of these guys, the way they fought back and how we were in that championship game the whole way. I couldn't be more proud."
The the GoDaddy.com Bowl is a great consolation prize in many ways, according to Nielsen.
"We will see some warm weather and beaches in early January," Nielsen chuckled. "Obviously any of the bowls would have been great for us, but this is a bowl that our fans can get to. They have plenty of time to plan their trips, and it's a climate that I'm sure in early January they'll be interested in."
The MAC will send a record seven teams to bowl games, as every team that was bowl eligible received a bid: Toledo, Ball State, Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Ohio along with Northern Illinois and Kent State.
Teams from the MAC have won the last three Go.Daddy.com Bowls: Northern Illinois, Miami and Central Michigan.