Both Utah and Utah State learned their bowl destinations Sunday.
Deseret News photos

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah and Utah State football teams accepted their invitations to separate bowl games Sunday, ending any anxiety or anticipation felt by either fan base.

Utah State (6-6) will play New Mexico State (6-6) in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 29, while Utah (6-6) will take on West Virginia (7-5) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Utah senior tight end Harrison Handley. “We’re just thankful that the committee chose Utah to go down to the Heart of Texas Bowl, and we just want to go out there and make fans proud and go out on a winning note.”

Bowl games are unique to college football. Only two of them are involved in the four-team playoffs. So if most bowl games don’t determine any kind of championship, what are they?

First, they are a tradition almost as old as the game, with the first official "bowl game" taking place in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1, 1902, between Stanford and Michigan. It took a few decades for them to evolve, but they were an effort by warm-weather cities to lure football fans to a New Year’s Day game. At one point, the NCAA adamantly opposed them, saying they had no educational purpose.

But as bowl games exploded in popularity, eventually evolving into the Bowl Championship Series and now the four-team playoff system, they remain as unique, and sometimes as controversial, as ever.

They are at once commercialism and the essence of amateur sport.

They offer fans a chance to prove their loyalty by taking their passion on the road, which somehow, whether they manage to win or lose, creates a stronger bond between fans and alumni and the programs they support.

And these 40 games scattered across the country in touristy spots and out-of-the way places are the reward that every college football coach hopes to offer his players at the season’s end.

“This bowl game is a great reward for our team and its accomplishments this year, and solidifies the strength and consistency of this program as we will be playing in our sixth bowl game in the past seven years,” USU head coach Matt Wells said.

It isn’t just coaches who see the value in playing one more football game.

“Our players, first and foremost, it’s so important for them to have a good experience,” said Utah athletic director Chris Hill. “It’s a chance to get out on the field and prove themselves one more time.” The games have countless other benefits.

They offer players hoping for an NFL career the chance to impress scouts.

They offer programs the chance to impress those top prep recruits.

They are a chance to engage in community service that reminds us all how sports can be a platform for so much more than athletic excellence.

About this time last year, former Utah offensive lineman Isaac Asiata, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, said that collegiate athletics are so uniquely demanding that, for most players, individual goals and glory aren’t enough to make it worth all the sacrifice and struggle.

It is only with and for each other that it becomes worth the effort required to be successful.

And if you see games as the way in which fans are allowed access to that circle of support, where they can revel in the success of athletes they support emotionally and financially, then the bowl games become more important than they might appear from a national perspective.

Utah State will be playing a New Mexico State team that will most definitely become a media darling. New Mexico State is headed to its first bowl game since 1960 — ending the longest bowl drought in college football. In fact, these two teams met in the Sun Bowl back then, when New Mexico State edged Utah State 20-13.

In the weeks to come there will be a lot written, discussed and debated about how each team’s offense lines up against the opposing defense, or which coaching staff has the edge. There will also be the inevitable debates about whether or not watching two .500-ish teams clash is even worth all the money invested.

Because football is a sport with so few game days, I think the answer will continue to be yes.

While the playoff system might expand, and the structure of the system may shift, there will always be a yearning, whether it’s the boys in the locker room or the fans in the not-so-cheap seats, to huddle up for one more night under the lights.