Utah offensive lineman Isaac Asiata sat with his wife in their living room Sunday afternoon staring at his phone for more than an hour.
“I was on my phone, just refreshing twitter trying to figure out where we were going,” Asiata said of what it was like waiting to see where the No. 19 Utes would play their bowl game. “I’m excited.”
The postseason in college football is unlike any other in athletics.
For most sports, qualifying for postseason play means competing for a championship of some kind. In college football, however, only four teams are playing for a title, while the other 78 teams have to find their reasons in something other than a championship.
That includes BYU and Utah as they prepare to meet very different opponents in California bowl games.
The Cougars are preparing to meet Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, while the Utes learned Sunday they’d be facing Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 28 in Levi Stadium in Santa Clara.
Coaches and players from both programs celebrated both the invites and the matchups as an opportunity for each program. But without a title on the line, why do teams covet bowl invites so much?
Actually, there is a long list of reasons starting with one that seems almost obvious – it’s one more chance to compete.
Most sports offer dozens of opportunities to compete.
Last year, Utah’s men’s basketball team played 36 games, while BYU’s men’s basketball team played 37 contests.
Football, on the other hand, is limited to a 12-game season.
That makes game-day experiences something special.
For seniors like Utah’s Asiata and BYU’s Jamaal Williams, there may be opportunities of playing in the NFL, but this will be the last time they get to take the field with the men who suffered, struggled and triumphed with them as they journeyed from game-playing boys to influence-wielding men.
“For me, just playing another game,” said Asiata of what’s most attractive about earning the opportunity to play in a bowl game. “I’m just excited to be with these guys again.”
A chance to develop younger players
Preparing for a bowl game is almost a separate season for teams. It allows coaches to work with players for 20 hours a week for a few extra weeks — depending on when teams play their bowl games.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it was an invaluable benefit for teams.
“It’s almost like spring ball for those (younger) guys,” he said of how the extra practices allow them to develop underclassmen.
It’s a chance to show their mettle on a national stage
The beauty of the bowl system is that it can feature old rivalries (like last year’s pairing of Utah and BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl) or rare matchups, like Utah taking on Indiana for the fourth time in school history. The last time the schools met was in 2002, when Whittingham was a defensive coordinator and Utah was a Mountain West power.
Because the schedule spreads the games out throughout the holidays, the teams each enjoy a moment in the national spotlight.
And, as any coach will tell you, it's an opportunity to make sure viewers remember who they are.
BYU started the season 1-3 under first-year head coach Kalani Sitake, while Utah went 4-0 in the preseason under veteran Whittingham. They finished with 8-4 records — BYU on a four-game winning streak and exceeding all expectations — while Utah dropped its final two games, erasing an opportunity to play for a Pac-12 championship and maybe more.
The bowl games will be for each school an opportunity to write an ending for their seasons that is as important as it could be impressive.
It’s a unique and persuasive recruiting tool
California is a hot recruiting area for both BYU and Utah. In fact, Utah has more Californians on the roster than from any other state, including Utah.
Playing in an area where recruits live allows young players to see a program’s success up close. They’ll read about it in the paper, talk about it with their friends and watch it on local television.
Some recruits have a hard time seeing themselves at schools, even just a few hundred miles from home. Playing in a recruit’s home state or town can make that leap seem so much smaller.
It’s the best send-off for the seniors — and so much more than a game
Whittingham said that sending the seniors off “the right way” is one of the most attractive aspects of earning a bowl invite.
“That is the No. 1 objective in our program to get to a bowl game for the seniors,” Whittingham said, pointing out that it means a team has won at least six games, “and hopefully they have had a good experience.”
In an era where the best talent doesn’t often say in college for four years, both the Utes and Cougars have enjoyed seasons featuring tremendously talented seniors. For Utah that includes, Asiata, kicker Andy Phillips, lineman Hunter Dimick, cornerback Dominique Hatfield and senior wide receiver Tim Patrick.
For BYU, that includes running back Jamaal Williams, defensive back Kai Nacua, linebacker Harvey Langi and wide receiver Mitchell Jurgens. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill’s season ended, as it has four times before, with an injury. But the beauty of college bowl games is that they are so much more than a game for the participants.
Not only do players receive gifts, like watches, clothing and sports gear, they often have sightseeing and educational experiences that some players might not otherwise have.
And they do it as a team.
“It’s not all about the game,” said Utah quarterback Troy Williams. “It’s a fun event for us to go be with the fellows, especially our seniors, one last time. We just want to go have fun and come out with the win.”
The same guys who struggled side by side through winter strength workouts, spring conditioning drills, the monotony of film, the rigors of study hall, the joy of service projects and brutal realities of competition will be fortunate enough to share in one of the most unique traditions in all of college sports.
Asiata said earlier this year that most people don’t understand the relentless demands of college athletes. When asked what sustained him through the toughest moments, he said it was his teammates.
Which is why the chance to share a few more weeks of the grind and the glory feels like such a gift.