I do my best to view sports as a refuge from divisive subjects like religion and politics. But after the bowl pairings were announced for the 2023-24 football season, it's impossible for me to do this.
The main reason is that the University of Oregon, which lost last Friday to Washington (again) by a measly three points (again) was chosen to play on New Year's Day in the Fiesta Bowl. So yay, say we Oregon fans.
(A secondary reason is a Florida senator, Rick Scott, wanting an inquiry into Florida State being left out of the four-team national championship playoff.)
But the Fiesta Bowl opponent chosen by the College Football Playoff selection committee is Liberty University. So, boo, say we Oregon fans. There's a lot wrong with this, but also one thing I love. First, the wrongness.
Oregon is #8 in the final college football rankings. Liberty is #23. That's a big difference. By contrast, Oregon State is #19 and their bowl game opponent is Notre Dame, #16. That's a small difference. So Oregon gets a virtually unknown opponent, while Oregon State gets a very well known opponent, even though Oregon is ranked much higher.
Today sports writer John Canzano shared some questions and answers about Liberty University in his Bald Faced Truth column that I subscribe to.
Q: Who the #%$# is Liberty and why are they in the Fiesta Bowl? — @RickBakas
A: Liberty University is a private evangelical Christian university located in Lynchburg, Va. It was founded in the 1970s by Jerry Falwell Sr. The school boasts an enrollment of 16,000 students on campus, but has online courses that enroll another 115,000 students. Be clear, it’s an educational cash cow.
Jamey Chadwell is the team’s head coach. This Fiesta Bowl vs. Oregon will be the highest-profile football game in the university’s brief history.
The Flames play in Conference USA, where they went 13-0 this season playing opponents such as New Mexico State and Western Kentucky. Liberty played the weakest schedule in the country. It didn’t play a single Power Five opponent and half the teams in Conference USA finished with eight losses or more.
Liberty is in the Fiesta Bowl because it’s the highest ranked Group of Five conference champion. Oregon would have played Tulane, but it lost to SMU in the AAC Championship Game. So the Ducks get Liberty. The loser of the Pac-12 Championship game is 0-11 in its subsequent bowl game. Something tells me Oregon breaks that trend.
Q: Does the Fiesta Bowl automatically get the No. 2 team from the Pac-12? — @johnniethek
A: The College Football Playoff selection committee makes the pairings for the six New Year’s Day bowl games. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl are semifinal games this season. The Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Peach Bowl aren’t semifinals. Those bowl bids go to a handful of highly ranked teams this season (No. 5-11) that missed the semifinal cut and the top-ranked champion from the Group of Five (No. 23 Liberty).
Last year, the Fiesta Bowl was a semifinal (TCU vs. Michigan). Two years ago, the Fiesta Bowl featured Oklahoma State vs. Notre Dame. I wonder if all those ‘home-schooled’ Liberty fans make the trip. I’m skeptical that Oregon fans will bother given the disappointment. If you’re going, tell me in the comment section.
Now, here's what I love about the Oregon-Liberty matchup. Even though many Oregon players are religious (I've heard quarterback Bo Nix praise God in remarks after games Oregon won; I didn't hear that praise after Oregon lost to Washington last Friday), the state of Oregon is highly irreligious.
Only four states have a majority of residents who identify as "none's." Meaning, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. In 2022, Oregon's percentage was 53%, ranking second highest in the country, behind only Maine at 54%. Virginia, where Liberty University is located, is only 35% none's.
But Liberty, as a religious institution, seemingly would be 0% none's. The Wikipedia page for Liberty University says:
Liberty, whose website and officials speak of "training Champions for Christ", requires undergraduate students to take three Evangelical Bible-studies classes. The university's honor code, called the "Liberty Way", prohibits premarital sex, cohabitation, any kind of romantic relationship between members of the same sex, and alcohol use.
Described as a "bastion of the Christian right", the university played a prominent role in Republican politics under Falwell and his son and successor Jerry Falwell Jr.; in 2021, Liberty interim president Jerry Prevo said getting conservative candidates elected to office was "one of our main goals".
So as a progressive atheist, I can't help but view the Fiesta Bowl as not only a contest between two opposing football teams, but also as a clash between two political persuasions. For while Liberty students and faculty will be doing a lot of praying before the game, Oregon fans are more likely to be doing some serious marijuana imbibing.
Who knows, Liberty might pull off a highly unexpected upset. I sure hope this doesn't happen, because that would be viewed as a miracle by the true believing Liberty fans. My dream is that Oregon crushes Liberty. That would ease the pain of the loss to Washington and give me hope for Oregon's future in the Big Ten.
But if that dream becomes a nightmare of a Liberty victory, I've always got my supply of quality Oregon pot to raise my godless spirits.