The most, wonderful time, of the year starts this Saturday. Christmas is still eight days away but the bowl season starts this weekend.
Typically, the first day of bowls are uninteresting affairs put in place to accrue ad revenue for television networks or promote some brand that sponsors the bowl game. To be fair, there's still a bit of that on Saturday. However, Saturday does offer some intrigue... and all of it is the New Mexico Bowl between BYU and Utah.
What follows is a brief viewing guide for Saturday. There may no longer be college football Saturday as we know it, but this Saturday will allow us to pretend the regular season is still ongoing.
Arizona vs. New Mexico [New Mexico Bowl] (ESPN, 2 p.m.). Last year, Arizona, the Pac-12 South champion, took the field in Glendale for the Fiesta Bowl against a Mountain West representative as part of the New Year's Six.
This year, Arizona will play one state over against a Mountain West representative with much less at stake. A disappointing 6-6 season was Rich Rodriguez's follow-up act to the second-ever 10-win season in Arizona football history last year.
Injuries are mostly responsible for Arizona's disappointing 6-6 season. Scooby Wright III, a one-man defense and last year's Bednarik, Lombardy, and Nagurski winner, was the most noticeable injury. He injured his knee in the season-opener and sprained his foot against UCLA. He had been out since, though appears ready to play in this contest before (likely) declaring his intent for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Quarterback Anu Solomon sat a few games this season for various injuries, but looks ready for this game as well.
Arizona's disappointing season might be the bigger backstory for this game, but let's not forget about New Mexico. Remember Bob Davie? Younger fans may remember him as a color commentator on ESPN telecasts and for his peculiar pronunciation of "football" as "footbaw". Older fans may remember him as schematic genius as defensive coordinator for Texas A&M (and later Notre Dame).
While Davie has a brilliant mind for the game, it didn't translate well to on-field instincts (especially as head coach). Davie was fired by Notre Dame in 2001 and waited 11 years before New Mexico gave him another shot to coach.
It's finally paid off for the otherwise moribund Lobos. Davie is bringing New Mexico to its first bowl game since 2007.
Arizona is nine-point favorite.
BYU vs. Utah [Las Vegas Bowl](ABC, 3:30 p.m.). This will be the real star of the show on Saturday. It's Holy War again in college football after a two-year reprieve.
The Holy War series went on hiatus after conference realignment. Utah transitioned from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011. That brought Utah greater exposure, more resources, and more opportunities. It also brought a nine-game conference schedule that restricts some liberties in non-conference scheduling. For Utah, it's worth it, but it made the BYU series less worthwhile.
Amid uncertainty in the conference landscape, BYU opted to go its own way as an independent. BYU still values the series with Utah, certainly more than Utah does at the moment. However, logistical headaches led to the reprieve in the series.
The good news is BYU and Utah scheduled a four-year series to start next season. The Las Vegas Bowl will be a preview of next year.
Fans should rejoice. Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-Auburn might be more prominent rivalries, but BYU-Utah is an underappreciated series. The reason for this is simple. Despite common perceptions about BYU as an "honor code" private institution and Utah, generally, as a state, there is a considerable animus that underpins this rivalry. It's palpable too.
Utah defensive lineman Viliseni Fauonuku recently underscored that with his comments to BYU players at the pre-bowl "dance-off" last night. He's obviously referencing what happened in BYU's bowl game last year.
Utah is a three-point favorite this game. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia's next head coach, will be on BYU's sideline coaching this game.
Ohio vs. Appalachian State [Camellia Bowl] (ESPN, 5:30 p.m.). It's one of two firsts on the day. Appalachian State will play in its first ever bowl game this year. The Mountaineers, well-known for its 2007 upset of Michigan when it was playing in FCS, started a transition to FBS in 2013. The 2015 season was its first year of bowl eligibility.
Appalachian State made it count too. Playing in the Sun Belt, Appalachian State finished the regular season with a 10-2 record. Its only losses were at Clemson and at home to Arkansas State. The Arkansas State loss cost the Mountaineers a Sun Belt conference championship.
Ohio had a great season too. Frank Solich's Bobcats finished 8-4 with an important road win at Northern Illinois. That upset opened the door for Toledo to supplant the MAC power Huskies as MAC West champions, though Toledo failed to capitalize.
Appalachian State is an eight-point favorite, in large part because of Ohio's slew of injuries.
San Jose State vs. Georgia State [Cure Bowl] (CBS Sports, 7 p.m.). 5-7 San Jose State is traveling across the country to Orlando for something called the "AutoNation Cure Bowl" because there are too many damn bowl games.
San Jose State is in this bowl game because of its APR. Again, there are too many damn bowl games and not enough bowl-eligible teams this year to fill them.
Perhaps a similar comment can be afforded to Georgia State. The Panthers are 6-6 this year. They too, like Appalachian State, made the recent transition from FCS to FBS and were even eligible for a bowl last year (if they had won at least six games).
However, Georgia State's record is much less sterling than Appalachian State. A 6-6 season to follow a combined one win in 2013 and 2014 will at least get the Panthers into a bowl game.
San Jose State is a three-point favorite in this game.
Arkansas State vs. Louisiana Tech [New Orleans Bowl] (ESPN, 9 p.m.). In what has become a nice bowl season tradition, the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl will again occupy a primetime TV slot on the first day of bowls this season.
Arkansas State had a fantastic this season. It started the season 0-2 with a 55-6 loss at Southern California and a 27-20 loss to then-No. 21 (I know...) Missouri. It lost two games later at Toledo, the second-best team in the MAC West. Arkansas State won out thereafter. A 40-27 win at Appalachian State secured what would become an outright Sun Belt championship and an undefeated conference slate.
Louisiana Tech finished second in the Conference-USA West. Perhaps that's a disappointing season for Skip Holtz' Bulldogs. After all, Louisiana Tech had a thrilling win over Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last year. It also has arguably the best quarterback in the league (Jeff Driskel, the Florida transfer).
However, Louisiana Tech got crushed, 58-24, by Southern Mississippi. That loss gave Southern Mississippi the division crown and cost Louisiana Tech a berth into the conference championship game.
Despite that, Louisiana Tech is a two-point favorite this game.