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Amy Donaldson: The real prize for Utes, Cougars and Aggies this bowl season

Utah, Utah State and BYU all learned their bowl destinations Sunday. The Utes will face Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl, the Aggies play North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl and the Cougars take on Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Utah, Utah State and BYU all learned their bowl destinations Sunday. The Utes will face Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl, the Aggies play North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl and the Cougars take on Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Deseret News and Associated Press photos

Most football teams will spend the better part of December preparing for games that offer them nothing more than one more chance to compete.

Or at least, that’s how it may appear on paper.

The reality is that all of the 80 teams participating in the 41 bowl games have reasons and rewards on the line in one of sport’s most unique postseasons.

The FBS college football bowl system is unusual in that only four teams are playing for a championship, while 76 other programs are competing for a much more ambiguous prize.

While FCS teams like Weber State enter the postseason in pursuit of a championship, FBS teams like Utah State, BYU and Utah had to rely on bowl game invitations to offer their players one more shot at competing for the schools and communities they represent.

Some players unplugged and ignored all things football.

Others watched games, kept track of projections and learned their fate through social media. Regardless of their strategy, they had to wait for an invitation based on their season, and in some cases, the loyalty of their fans.

The question wasn't if the Aggies, Cougars and Utes would receive invitations. The only debate surrounding the programs were which bowl games and who they'd play.

Sunday afternoon, they all received bowl invitations, and while fans and media will debate the quality of their postseason matchups, the players will simply prepare to suit up with their brothers one more time.

“The loss of the Pac-12 championship still kind of stings,” said Utah senior offensive lineman Jackson Barton. “But it’s not the end of this journey. I get to go play one more time, and I’m really glad I get to go play one more with these guys.”

The No. 17 ranked Utes (9-4) will take on No. 22 Northwestern (8-5), the Big-10 runner-up, in San Diego on Dec. 31 at 5 p.m.

BYU will head to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, where the 6-6 Cougars will take on 7-5 Western Michigan at 2 p.m. on Dec. 21.

The 10-2 Aggies will play in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15 at noon, where they will face 9-3 North Texas.

For each of the local programs, the motivation will be similar.

This final opportunity has a long list of benefits.

It’s great for recruiting, and it offers additional exposure to those hoping to play professional football.

The extra practices are invaluable for the development of younger players, and it gives teams a chance to send their seniors out with a memorable experience.

The bowl games give players and fans the reward for a winning season in what feels like an important matchup that garners national interest.

Each program will face different obstacles based on where they will play and the team they will face, but the one commonality they share is that they could end their season with a win.

For BYU, a victory in the Potato Bowl would mean a winning season. After last year’s abysmal 4-9 record, the Cougars endured a roller coaster of a season with extreme highlights — like beating Wisconsin and Arizona — but then some equally painful low points — like losing to both the Aggies and the Utes.

The Cougars will face a team that beat Northern Illinois in their last game with freshman quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who took over the starting job in late October when the starter was injured. Eleby has passed for 917 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also rushed for two touchdowns this season.

For Utah State, the motivation will be different. It is the only team that’s already earned 10 wins. Just days before the bowl invitation, head coach Matt Wells accepted a new job with Texas Tech, and while he’ll be involved in helping, he will not act as head coach for the bowl game.

Frank Maile will act as the interim coach for the bowl game, and he expressed gratitude for the invitation.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our program,” he said in a statement. “It is a fantastic reward for all of the hard work and dedication that our players have put in.”

North Texas has an impressive quarterback in junior Mason Fine, who is the all-time leading passer in the program’s history (8,743 yards), as well as the Mean Green single-season passing yardage (4,052), touchdown (31) and completion (324) records.

Utah will face Northwestern, a team led by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Like Utah’s redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley did against Washington, Thorson struggled in the Big-10 championship, throwing for 267 yards and a touchdown, but also throwing two interceptions.

All of the local teams will be playing to write happy endings to their season. Each of them enter bowl preparation on a loss — BYU to Utah, Utah State to Boise State and Utah to Washington.

So redemption will be on the list of reasons the coaches and players will have no trouble finding motivation in their respective bowl games.

The bowl system, like football itself, is unique because each game is both its own competition and reward. While some debate the value of some bowl contests, the teams invited see nothing but positives.

While fans and media wonder what a team will play for without a championship on the line, players look to one another for inspiration and motivation.

At Utah, especially, where Whittingham owns an 11-1 bowl record — the best winning percentage in NCAA history — there is nothing but excitement and anticipation for the kind of season finale many players never experience.

“It’s a lot to do with pride in our conference,” said Bradlee Anae of earning a win in the Holiday Bowl. “So we’re going to go out there and represent the Pac-12 the best we can.”

For him, the weight feels something like the desire to beat archrival BYU.

“It’s pressure, but we have a tradition here,” he said. “We always win bowl games.”

Anae and junior wide receiver Demari Simpkins said this is also an opportunity to give their senior leaders the kind of sendoff they deserve.

“The seniors gave a lot to this team,” Simpkins said. “They gave their all, and they deserve it. They deserve a win. They deserve all we have.”

Anae said he was “hanging his head” after the loss to Washington on Friday, and then he caught sight of senior captain Cody Barton.

“I looked at all the seniors, and thought, ‘Why am I putting my head down?’” he said. “I’ve got one more shot at this. And so it hit me right there. I said, ‘I’m going to do all I can to send these guys out with a win. They deserve more, but they definitely deserve this one.”

Football players work the better part of a year for 12 games. If they’re lucky, they get 13 moments in a stadium.

So while outsiders may wonder where motivation comes from and why players will submit to another month of the grind for one more chance at a victory, for the players it seems obvious.

The location, the festivities, the fan support, it’s all window dressing for the real prize — the chance to line up alongside their brothers one more time with pride on the line.