ARLINGTON – It was a situation that Mike Nealy likely would have chuckled at last winter, much like what unfolded in front of him on Dec. 26 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz.
Venture around the corner from the main stage at Big 12 Media Days each July, and it’s hard to miss the coveted jewel on display that every team in the conference aspires to hoist in January: The College Football Playoff National Championship trophy.
Only, it wasn’t the most prized possession in the sport that a steady flow of media members were flocking to for photos and up-close encounters on Monday and Tuesday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. And no, the Big 12 Championship trophy located several feet behind wasn’t the culprit.
Blame the one that TCU head coach Gary Patterson was hoisting, overflowing with everyone’s favorite cheese-flavored snack, last Holiday season.
More than half-a-year has elapsed since TCU’s interception-ridden 10-7 overtime win over Cal in the Cheez-It Bowl. And Nealy, who has served as the bowl game’s executive director since 2014 — then still the Cactus Bowl — maintains a simple outlook on the aftermath of a contest that nobody appears to be forgetting anytime soon.
“We were fortunate.”
Nine interceptions, 192 total passing yards, a botched double-pass for the ages and an overtime SID sideline interference call later, one of the more modest destinations in the Big 12’s bowl game lineup had instantly become a greater talking point than many highly-billed New Year’s Six games would be in the ensuing week. CBS Sports dared to rank it as the top game of the 2018 bowl season when the dust settled.
And all that Nealy and the rest of the bowl game committee members could do was sit back and watch as the matchup — quickly dubbed by some as the “Cheez-INT Bowl” — became a national sensation.
“I remember in overtime just sitting back and trying to enjoy it,” Nealy said. “You can’t control it. It was such a back-and-forth game where you had no idea what would (happen) next. And the sideline penalty … there was some unique stuff that happened at the end.
“The Cheez-Its were flying at the end and it was a fun event.”
And no doubt: From a publicity standpoint, what happened on the field was more than what Nealy could ever ask for in supplementing the bowl game’s marketing efforts moving forward — at least looking ahead to the 2019 edition of the game.
“In a game like that when people are there, they realize regardless of how highly ranked the teams are you’re going to have a quality game,” Nealy said. “If you were there, you got entertained, and it certainly helps as we talk and go forward selling tickets in the future.”
The 2018 game saw the announced attendance increase to 33,121 from 32,859 the previous year.
As for the immediate future, the Big 12 announced in June that the Cheez-It Bowl will remain in its slate of bowl games through at least the 2025 season, with the matchup becoming the lone Big 12-Big Ten bowl game starting in 2020.
Needless to say, the expectations for wackiness is set high for the Big 12 team that heads to the desert this December after last year’s results — though, frankly, it will be a difficult task for the Cheez-Its to be flying any more than they were amid the performance TCU and Cal put on in 2018.
“You know each conference is going to bring teams that have their fans,” Nealy said. “With the Big 12 and TCU involved, we knew we were probably going to have a good game but you never know what you’re going to get until you have it. Once the kickoff hit and the interceptions started happening, it became a heck of an entertaining game.”
The 2019 Cheez-It Bowl — the last of which the Pac-12 will be a part of before the Big Ten moves in — returns to Chase Field on Dec. 27.
Cheez-It Bowl hardware a hit a Big 12 Media Days
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