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Amy Donaldson: Bowl season is college football's gift to players, coaches and fans

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Christian Stewart (7) is recognized during senior day prior to the game against the Savannah State Tigers  in Provo  Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Christian Stewart (7) is recognized during senior day prior to the game against the Savannah State Tigers in Provo Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In the hustle and bustle of December, sports fans are concerned about more than decorating trees, sending out greeting cards and finding those perfect gifts.

That’s because it’s here, in the midst of the year’s shortest days and coldest nights, that college football offers its fans a unique gift — bowl games. From Dec. 20 until Jan. 12, fans feast on some of the most anticipated, oftentimes unexpected matchups of the college football season.

Months of hoping their teams simply earn invitations gives way to wishing and waiting for worthy opponents and enticing destinations.

For local teams, the college football season has been a wild ride. Nothing has gone as expected, and yet, on Selection Sunday, Utah, BYU and Utah State were celebrating invitations to bowl games.

They may not be the glamorous matchups that some fans wanted. In some cases, the destination might leave a little to be desired.

But for coaches and players, the chance to take the field of competition one more time, together, is an opportunity for which they are almost always extremely grateful.

The first day of competition will be Saturday, Dec. 20, and both Utah and Utah State will be among the teams competing.

Utah (8-4) will play Colorado State, a 10-2 Mountain West Conference team, in the Las Vegas Bowl, while Utah State (9-4) takes on UTEP, a 7-5 Conference USA team, in the New Mexico Bowl.

BYU fans already knew the Cougars were headed to the Miami Beach bowl on Dec. 22, but now they know they will play Memphis, a 9-3 American Athletic League team.

Colorado State is a team without a head coach. UTEP beat Middle Tennessee (remember this 27-7 win, Cougar fans?) last weekend to earn their first winning season in nine years.

And Memphis finished the season with six straight wins to finish in a three-way tie for the two-year-old conference’s championship.

The opponents, yeah, they’re not that sexy.

But consider the roller coaster this season has been for local college football fans.

In August, the Aggies boasted the state’s best quarterback in Chuckie Keeton. Before another knee injury ended his senior season, he was on Heisman watch lists, the Manning Award List and just about everybody’s wish-we-had-that-guy-on-our-team favorites list.

The Aggies would end up with their fourth-string quarterback — true freshman Kent Myers — leading a team that just kept finding ways to win regardless of who was lucky enough to be healthy on game day. Utah State epitomized the old football philosophy of injuries simply being a situation where “the next man up” gets an opportunity.

For the Aggies, the last three bowl games have been a welcome reward for a team that spent many years on the outside looking in. In fact, this invitation is historic in that it’s the fourth consecutive bowl appearance for a program that’s had nine other bowl appearances in school history.

Who cares if they’re playing a program that hasn’t won a bowl game since 1967. Not only do the Aggies have the chance to play one more game, if they win, they set a school record for consecutive bowl victories.

As it turned out, injuries would change the reality for all three Utah teams, but maybe none more so than BYU. The Cougars' 4-0 start led to talk of a dream season. The biggest blow came when quarterback Taysom Hill broke his leg in the second quarter against Utah State. There are a long list of other injuries that quickly turned any dreams into nightmares.

But senior Christian Stewart led the team through a four-game losing streak and into a four-game win streak that salvaged the season.

But maybe no team appreciates having an invitation to this year’s postseason party like the one left out the last two years.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Utah defensive lineman Nate Orchard. “We’ve worked so hard, and to not be able to go to a bowl game the last two years, it’s frustrating.”

After missing out the last two seasons, earning any kind of bowl bid was high on the list of those playing — as well as those cheering for them.

The summer was full of talk about how tough the Utes’ schedule was, and how difficult just finishing with six wins would be. Utah was picked in preseason polls to finish fifth out of six teams in the Pac-12 South, but after a 4-1 start that included an overtime win against ranked UCLA, expectations changed for fans.

Orchard said that the players, on the other hand, always knew this season would be different.

“We knew as a team,” he said, “that we were able to do amazing things. You could see it in summer conditioning guys were committed. They bought into what Coach Whit had going on. So we knew right away that we could do something amazing and shock the world.”

After learning that his team would be playing in the Vegas Bowl, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham met with the media. He was asked if who or where they played in the postseason ever mattered to him.

“Not for me personally,” he said. “We’re concerned with our fans, accessibility and timing for them. We just want to find out who we play and where, and we’ll show up and play them.”

So maybe Colorado State, a team without a captain at a school without an athletic director, feels to some a little like beating up someone’s kid brother. How do you know that little guy isn’t the kind of surprise Kent Myers or Christian Stewart were?

For coaches, it’s a chance to develop young talent, to give them a few more weeks of work and a few more high-pressure experiences. For players, it’s about enjoying the camaraderie and competition one last time before the seniors head out into the world — most of them away from the football field.

And maybe that’s why some fans immediately started complaining when the local bowl invites and opponents were announced. Maybe they wanted more drama, more intrigue, more national prominence.

But if this season has taught those of us who love football anything at all, it’s taught us that expectations are fraught with issues. On paper some of these teams look like low-hanging fruit. That old cliché, “They play the games for a reason” comes to mind as more than once this year we’ve been smacked in the face with a surprise.

The energy of a bowl game is unlike any other contest — even the biggest rivalries. The possibility is palpable.

And there are those who will search for meaning. How does this help a program with recruiting, with national attention?

If fans are looking for meaning, I suggest taking a cue from some of the coaches and players. The meaning is whatever you make of it. It’s a meaningless additional game in a place you would never otherwise visit against a team you only know something about thanks to Google.

Or it’s a chance to make a few more memories supporting athletes and coaches who’ve given you a pretty decent thrill ride.

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He discusses Utah's invite to the Las Vegas Bowl.