Idaho has never been projected to win a bowl game.
In 1998, the Vandals were supposed to lose by 16 points. In 2009, Idaho was projected to lose by one point. Again, in 2016, the Vandals were supposed to lose by 15 points.
I’ll be honest – I was expecting a rough loss on national television.
I was raised to expect to lose. My first day as a Vandal, I was told in no uncertain terms, Idaho was terrible at football.
I was told to only expect a win if it was homecoming weekend, because the Vandals always won that weekend. I’ll own it– I made jokes about the team’s poor performance on the regular. No one knew a Vandal team that won more than one game. It was a myth, a goal for a distant future.
I watched the Vandals get slaughtered at every home game in the 2014 season, feeling disheartened. I tuned out football and sports in general.
In 2015, things got better. I was cautiously optimistic. It was still a losing season, but four wins compared to one, felt like a new world.
Over the summer, the Idaho Athletic Department released the football team’s slogan for the 2016 season: Expect to win.
Even after improvement in 2015, I was a little skeptical. I figured, change would come, but slower than the team wanted. I expected to be mediocre, because after all, mediocre is a great improvement from one win per season. Five wins, I thought, would be a good goal.
But then the Vandals won against Montana State, UNLV and continued to win more times than they lost. Idaho ended the regular season with a four-game win streak. The streak continued into the postseason, with a 61-50 win over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
I was hopeful at kickoff. I knew this game meant more to Idaho than it did to Colorado State.
I had a feeling the Vandals would win.
Then, Colorado State scored first. Then, Idaho scored, and again, and again and again.
And if there was every a time for Idaho to stage a massive comeback – it was 2016.
The Vandals will drop to FCS level in the Big Sky Conference in 2018, after being removed from the Sun Belt. Many fans, and I suspect players, are still not thrilled with the decision.
Being good enough to earn a bowl game means so much to Idaho players, fans and alumni. Even just being on that ugly, slippery blue field was a huge triumph. Then, the Vandals won.
Moments like Thursday, when people across gender, age, socioeconomic status and ability come together and cheer on one team, despite a predicted loss, are why I love sports. No matter what, seasons tell stories about the people on the field.
Idaho’s story for 2016? They were the underdogs, the comeback kids, the perfect example of a Cinderella story. The season culminated in many career-highs and personal-bests, with players improving by the game on and off the field.
The season shows a program several years in the making, whose off-field improvements finally translated to on-field success.
Now, in 2017, Idaho must build on this improvement in the last year of Sun Belt involvement. Come 2018, the Vandals’ first season in the Big Sky Conference, Idaho must continue to build.
This momentum is exciting for Idaho players and fans across the country. The 2016 team has set the bar high – now, fans expect to win. I expect to win.
Tess Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos