DALLAS — The first college football game of 2011 is a bowl that's never been held, pitting unranked 7-5 teams that have never met and have little in common.
At least the early risers tuning in for the TicketCity Bowl between Texas Tech and Northwestern might recognize the setting - the Cotton Bowl.
Only the Rose Bowl has hosted more college bowls than this venue in Dallas' Fair Park.
Its namesake game moved to the Dallas Cowboys' palatial new home last season, and some locals thought it was a shame for the 92,000-seat stadium to sit empty on New Year's Day. So they came up with a matchup between middling schools from the Big 12 and Big Ten to take its place.
"To get an opportunity to step out on these historic grounds is a great honor," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Friday.
Alas, many of the stadium's seats still might be empty today. As of Friday, plenty of good seats were available. The TicketCity website was offering 50-yard line, upper-deck seats for $34.
A long drought
But a bowl is a bowl, and for Northwestern that means a chance to win a bowl for the first time since 1949, ending an embarrassing connection to the many decades the Wildcats were considered Mildcats.
The program became competitive again in the mid-1990s and is making its third straight bowl appearance under Fitzgerald. Yet the bowl skid is up to seven in a row, with the agony of losing in overtime each of the past two postseasons.
"Nobody wants to be the one team in college football that hasn't won a bowl game in 62 years" left tackle Al Netter said Friday. "As players, we talk about it. It gives us extra motivation."
One more piece of motivation for the Wildcats seniors: A victory would be their 35th, the most for any class since the early 1900s.
Northwestern's season took a dramatic turn when quarterback Dan Persa tore an Achilles' tendon while throwing a game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa on Nov. 13. Not only did it lose its final two games, the defense allowed 118 points.
And now it has to try to stop Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders are finishing their first season under coach Tommy Tuberville - who replaced Mike Leach - but they still know how to find the end zone.
They've scored 99 points their past two games, and they scored 45 points in a victory over Baylor on this field early this season.
"We are comfortable with the environment," safety Cody Davis said. "But it is the same (as any) field. Once we get on it, we just have to play our style of ball."
Last season, Tech's bowl week preparations were overshadowed by the tumultuous firing of Leach.
This week, the Red Raiders have said goodbye to defensive coordinator James Willis, who was sent away after asking permission to look into other jobs.
"We had our game plan put together; players knew what to do," Tuberville said. "So all we had to do was adjust who was going to call the defenses and how we were going to structure the signaling.
"So it's really not that much of a change."
Big 12 struggling
The Big 12 Conference is having a rough bowl season, going 1-4.
Northwestern has taken note of the fact Big Ten teams are 2-0 against Big 12 schools.
"I can take a lot of pride in the way the conference has played to this point," Fitzgerald said, "but that has nothing to do with this game."
This game could help Northwestern in recruiting. Fitzgerald has plenty of Texans and would love to lure more to the Evanston, Ill., campus.
"We're going to check his charter tomorrow when we leave to make sure he doesn't take a lot back with him, leave a few down here," Tuberville said, smiling.
"I think there's enough to go around," Fitzgerald said.