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Utes have nothing to play for — except a lot of things

SALT LAKE CITY — To the coach with the best win-loss percentage in postseason history, the Foster Farms Bowl is serious business. Kyle Whittingham — 9-1 in bowl games — isn’t going to believe otherwise.

“Some say there’s nothing to play for,” a reporter began.

But Whittingham took down the question like a perfect cut block.

“There’s ALWAYS something to play for,” he interrupted, voice rising. “You don’t need to be worried about that; it’s just your competitive instinct.”

It’s certainly Whittingham’s instinct. He takes these things the way Trump takes criticism: personally.

“There’s never no reason to play,” he said.

A lot of fans would disagree. With 40 bowl games, not all matter to the viewing public. Was anyone watching the two 6-6 Group of Five teams (Southern Mississippi and Louisiana-Lafayette) in the New Orleans Bowl? How about Army vs. North Texas? Zzzzzzz. Middle Tennessee-Hawaii: Neeeeext! Central Michigan-Central Florida: Now it’s getting weird.

A Utah team that lost three of its last four games, versus 6-6 Indiana isn’t the sexiest pairing since the Beckhams, either. But the truth about bowl games is that nearly everyone has something to play for. Only for a team like Alabama — that lost the 2009 Sugar Bowl to Utah — does a letdown seem understandable. When you’re playing for national championships, and almost everyone on your team is an NFL prospect anyway, it can be argued that letdowns are partially justifiable.

Everyone else has plenty of incentive.

“It’s definitely a situation where you can prove something in just one game,” said Ute receiver Tim Patrick.

Five reasons even small bowls matter:

A shot at the NFL. There are only a handful of guaranteed draft picks. The rest are hoping for a tryout. One big showing could lead to something, especially for those speed-challenged and undersized players that have intangible skills. Look, Ma, I’m on TV!

A chance to rectify the season. Injury slowdowns, lack of opportunities and plain poor play can conspire during the regular season. But who doesn’t want to go out with their best game of the year? (Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, you don’t have to answer.)

A chance for next year. Teams really do start planning in December.

“Great opportunity for some of the younger guys,” Whittingham said.

“If you’re a junior or a sophomore playing for a job,” Patrick said, “you can show what you can do next year.”

Quarterback Troy Williams is in that group.

“Right now, I’m just focused on trying to get a win in a bowl game,” Williams said. “Of course, next year is in the back of my head. I’m thinking about it day in and day out, but I just want to take care of business first.”

Recruiting. Irrelevant as smaller bowls may seem, no team wants its media guide to lack a bowl resume. Otherwise, you’re New Mexico State — 56 bowl-less years and counting.

Winning is fun. That is why they’re playing, right?

No one takes the field saying, “I hope we lose today.”

(Usually) warm weather, banquets, gifts. What’s not to like about that?

Each year there are calls to reduce the number of bowls. Two of every three teams qualify for the postseason. When there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill the slots, it gets desperate. This year, North Texas, Hawaii and Mississippi State got bids, yet all are south of the .500 mark.

Once upon a time, bowls were rare. There were the big bowls (Peach, Sugar, Rose, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta) and sporadic small bowls (Salad, Shrine, Gotham, Pecan, Grape). But the system never stops trying to grow. Organizers attempted to launch the Christmas Bowl in 2010, but it didn’t meet criteria. They tried again two more times. Still no approval.

How does someone not qualify to host a bowl?

Anyway, for the 12th time in 14 years, the Utes are in a bowl. It’s not glamorous, prestigious or lucrative. But this is December, and they’re still playing. That counts for something. There are worse things than falling short of your goal. For instance, completely falling off the map.