For 17 seniors, tonight’s trip through the tunnel and onto the field at Raymond James Stadium will be their last.
Dating back to 2007, when this year’s fifth-year seniors arrived on campus, this class has achieved a 38-25 record and been part of three consecutive eight-win seasons, though that streak will end this year.
On the eve of their final home game, members of the senior class recounted how quickly their time has passed.
“It happened so fast,” safety Jerrell Young said. “I remember hearing as a freshman, ‘It’s going to be here before you know it.’ You only get 48 (games) and I’m down to one right now.”
Guard Jeremiah Warren, who has started 31 games in his career, has mixed emotions as he prepares for his final home game.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you hope would happen, but then you hope would never happen. It’s kind of crazy.”
Most seniors said they’re not sure what emotions they’ll feel as they leave the field for the final time. Center Chaz Hine relates it to playing his final high school football game at nearby Newsome High School.
“It’s been a long journey for me, a long road,” he said. “It’s been long and difficult. It’s going to be powerful. I don’t know how it’s going to feel right now, but I’m sure whatever feelings I’m going to have – I can’t even think of how it’s going to feel. It’s going to be so different. It’s a place I’ve been only one time before, in high school, and that was pretty emotional for me.”
This year’s class has much more on the line on Senior Night than any recent class. Having lost six of their last seven games after starting the season 4-0, the Bulls are still one win short of becoming bowl eligible. Simply put, if the Bulls (5-6, 1-5) can’t find a way to beat West Virginia (8-3, 4-2), tonight’s game won’t just be their last home game; it will be their last college game.
When this season’s conference schedule was released, this game looked like it had the potential to serve as a de facto Big East championship game. The Mountaineers were picked to win in the preseason poll, while the Bulls finished third in the poll, but did receive first-place votes.
If things had gone differently, this game could have been the one to decide whether the Bulls could earn a berth into a Bowl Championship Series game for the first time. Instead, the Bulls are fighting to extend their bowl streak to seven appearances.
“I think for the seniors, I do (see a sense of desperation),” coach Skip Holtz said. “They’re getting that close to the light at the end of the tunnel. They’re like, ‘In reality, I could put on football pads for the last time Thursday.’ All of a sudden, that starts to become a reality, and I don’t know that that’s something they were thinking about as we went through the course of the season.”
The changing circumstances have made the type of pressure on this game a completely different one.
“It would be tough to be the senior class that didn’t get into a bowl game,” Young said. “It’ll hurt.”
Defensive end Patrick Hampton said he has become accustomed to the annual trip to a bowl that is part football game, part celebration of success.
“It’ll be highly disappointing (if we don’t qualify for a bowl),” he said. “We have a tradition of going to a bowl game for the past couple of years. It’s one thing to think about: letting the guys down who came here before you. “
Hine said the importance of winning on Senior Night is that it’s a moment he’ll often reflect on.
“The biggest motivation is just to end on a positive note, to finish with a good feeling,” he said. “In the beginning, maybe we were taking some wins for granted, but it’s been a long time and inconsistent between them. I want that feeling back. I want that emotion back. This is going to be a game I’ll be remembering for the rest of my life, so I want that good feeling.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. on ESPN.