It happened like clockwork.
Over the second half of the 2022 college football season, Utah State head coach Blake Anderson — in every postgame press conference, weekly press conference, you name it — made certain to reference bowl eligibility and how badly he wanted the Aggies to get into a bowl game.
At first, that goal seemed pretty lofty, considering Utah State started the year 1-4 overall, but as the weeks went by the Aggies started winning, ultimately reaching the six-win mark and becoming bowl eligible, despite myriad injuries — Anderson estimates 25 or 26 USU players have missed games this year due to injuries, many of which were season-ending.
It was a significant accomplishment and now the Aggies have their bowl game.
It is a good one.
Utah State (6-6, 5-3) will play the Memphis Tigers (6-6, 3-5) in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl on the campus of SMU in Dallas, Texas, on Dec. 27.
It is a Mountain West Conference versus American Athletic Conference showdown, and a game that the Aggies couldn’t be more excited about.
“Excited to get the news to be going to Dallas... and love the matchup against Memphis,” Anderson said Sunday, following the bowl’s announcement.
“There are a lot of positives about this particular game for us and this matchup. But mainly (excited) about the opportunity itself, to be bowl eligible two years in a row and to add to a wonderful bowl history here at Utah State over the last 15 years. And the possibility to get win No. 7.”
A bowl game in Dallas against a team of Memphis’ quality — the Tigers have won at least six games for nine straight seasons, won 10 or more games in three of those years and played in a New Year’s Six bowl in 2019 — represents a unique opportunity for Utah State. On multiple fronts.
For one, the Aggies have the chance to finish the year 7-6. Rebounding from being 1-4 to having a winning record at the end is important to Utah State.
“7-6 would feel much better for this group than 6-7,” Anderson said. “That’ll be a huge challenge. I expect us to be an underdog. I love the matchup against Memphis. Really good football team.
“I’m familiar with those guys, having played them and been in that footprint during my time at Arkansas State. I’ve watched them several times this year and know what kind of challenge they’ll be.”
The bowl represents more than that though.
Utah State has recruited well in Texas over the years — there are 13 players currently on the Aggies’ roster who are from Texas — and the chance to play a bowl game in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area will be a boon for further recruiting efforts. Or so Anderson believes.
“If we can play well on a big stage with everyone watching, and show our brand in Texas and in the Metroplex, it will only continue to help us do what we are trying to do,” he said.
“Just visibility,” Anderson explained. “Giving people the chance to tune into a game they normally wouldn’t with it being played on the West coast. Being visible there in the area, having people see the logo, see our fans roll into town. It’s all the above. It is all advertising and marketing at the highest level.”
The bowl also affords the Aggies’ coaching staff more time with their team, in practices — USU will have somewhere between four to six extra practices because of the bowl — and at the game itself.
All of which can only help a young USU program to continue to develop, which in theory should lead to more wins in coming years.
“Even though it will only be four, five or six more practices, another opportunity to compete is helpful. Those are game reps and they are way more valuable,” Anderson said. “Every rep, you get better. You learn another lesson that you don’t plan to make again. We are in a position where a lot of young guys are getting those reps ad they normally would not.
“If we had a healthy roster, a larger senior class, a lot of these young guys wouldn’t be playing, but they are going to play and compete, and that will make us better next fall.”
Anderson does expect the Aggies’ health to improve in the short term, if just barely, with players like cornerback AJ Carter, defensive end John Ward and cornerback Michael Anyanwu all probable to return from injury.
“That two or three or four weeks is bound to help us,” Anderson said.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to be gleaned from the matchup with the Tigers is one of a broader perspective.
Beginning in 2024, the College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams and the highest-ranked conference champion among the Group of Five conferences will get an automatic berth.
Rankings are subjective in college football. Reputation matters and a win over Memphis (generally regarded as a good AAC team) would only help improve the Aggies’ national standing and that of the MW as well, as it relates to the competition.
“Head to head across conferences lines we want our entire league to battle and play well,” Anderson said. “This is our matchup. We need to take care of our matchup.
“... There are a lot of conversations over the course of the year, but right here at the end is when you can make the biggest impact, make a statement about who we are and who we want to be in the future.
“In 2024, when they open up the playoff to 12 teams, the MW needs to be the strongest (Group of Five) league in the country to put ourselves in a position to have a team in the playoff. This is another opportunity to show what our brand of football is like across the board, team by team across conferences lines.
“We need to go out and take this game extremely seriously. Every team does.”
In the modern era of college football, bowl games can sometimes feel devalued. Of lesser importance. But as it relates to Utah State this year, there isn’t a more important and meaningful game than the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl.
“We will prepare for these guys (Memphis), prepare to play in a really good game in a great venue,” Anderson said. “It is a great opportunity for us.”