Two seasons ago, the notion of San Jose State playing in a bowl game was ludicrous. Four games into the year, a bowl destination for Bowling Green seemed a winter fantasy.
But momentum is a powerful thing, and after righting a program and a season, both teams are flying high headed into today's Military Bowl at RFK Stadium, creating arguably the best matchup in the postseason game's history.
The Spartans enter the game at 10-2 and ranked No. 24 in the AP, coaches and BCS polls, a stunning season for a team that was on the brink of irrelevance not that long ago. Bowling Green turned around a 1-3 start to finish 8-4 in the highly competitive MAC. Picking up a win at the Military Bowl would be a feather for either program going forward.
After going 25-35 under Dick Tomey over five seasons, the Spartans hired former defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre to rebuild the program in 2010. But San Jose State had a brutal schedule that season and went 1-12, its only win over Southern Utah while being hammered in paycheck games against Alabama, Wisconsin and Utah.
"Opening at Alabama and Wisconsin, you say, 'Wow, you're taking some lumps,' " Spartans interim coach and defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. "But you have to stick with the plan and keep going."
San Jose State improved to 5-7 in 2011, setting the stage for its breakout 2012 campaign, which, ironically, hinged on a loss.
The Spartans opened the season at then-No. 21 Stanford, and took the Cardinal to the wire, dropping a 20-17 decision that opened a lot of eyes in the San Jose State locker room.
"We played them toe-to-toe," Baer said. "When you look at that as a coach, you say, 'Wow, we've got a chance.' Heck, we stopped them on fourth down, had a couple of a crucial third-down stops. At that time, we thought we had something special."
Inspired by that performance, the Spartans won 10 of their next 11, including victories over bowl teams Louisiana Tech, San Diego State, BYU and, on Sept. 29, Navy. It is the Spartans' first 10-win season since 1987 and the first time they've been over .500 since 2006.
This year's success drew the attention of other schools in search of a head coach, resulting in MacIntyre being hired by Colorado two weeks ago.
"We were low, winning-wise," said senior defensive end Travis Johnson, the WAC Player of the Year. "Last year, we started moving up, and this year wound up being outstanding. All we know now is to finish it out."
Bowling Green's season got off to a surprising start, as the Falcons hung tough with Florida for three quarters before falling 27-14. But they lost two of their next three, including a 37-0 thumping at Virginia Tech to put their backs against the wall heading into the tough MAC.
"We got off to a tough start, but once we got into MAC play, we started playing better and really grew together," Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said.
The Falcons won seven of their last eight contests and nearly knocked off Kent State to finish with eight wins, the most for the program since 2007. Leading the way was a defense that finished seventh in the nation in total defense, allowing just 289.7 yards per game, and ninth in scoring defense at 15.8 ppg.
"It was a fun run," said Clawson, a former coach at Richmond, who primarily is known for his offensive acumen. "Every year you play to your strengths, and this year our strength was that we had 10 starters back from last year. This year, everybody got better."
The game sets up to be a contrast in styles. San Jose State comes in with a high-flying offense that scored at least 40 points six times and 50 points twice. Junior quarterback David Fales owns a passel of Spartans records and enters the game as the nation's leader in completion percentage at 72.06 percent.
"They are explosive on offense," Clawson said. "At some point, you have to try to make them one-dimensional. We've been good at rushing the passer this year."
Bowling Green will send defensive lineman Chris Jones (12.5 sacks) after Fales and hope its methodical offense will control the clock and keep the Spartans off the field.
"They're a very well-coached team, and that gets your attention in a hurry," Baer said. "They run the ball extremely well. They have a lot of misdirection in running game. That can affect you. You have to make sure you're sound. If you're not, you're going to get your lunch handed to you."
There have been times when the Military Bowl was just the end of a season for disappointed participants. But both programs in this year's edition are thrilled to be here and hoping to use a victory as a springboard to bigger and better things.
"It would mean so much," Johnson said. "We all want the win. As a team and as a program, it will lead into next year. For all the players who come here, there will be a standard. That's what we're trying to set here."