The New Mexico Bowl is not regarded as one of the heavyweights on the college bowl schedule, but Colorado State or Washington State a.
After sitting home for the holidays in recent years, both schools were glad to get an invite to any bowl game.
Washington State (6-6), thought to be on the bowl bubble after a mediocre (4-5) finish in the Pac-12's North Division, will be making its first bowl trip since the 2003 Holiday Bowl under second-year head coach Mike Leach. Colorado State (7-6), one of seven Mountain West bowl-eligible teams for six bowl slots -- San Jose State (6-6) was left out despite a win over the Rams an impressive upset of Fresno State -- is playing in its first bowl game since the 2008 New Mexico Bowl.
"This is a big moment for our program; we were all really excited and everybody was cheering," senior linebacker Shaquil Barrett told the Denver Post of head coach Jim McElwain's bowl announcement. "I like playing a team from a big conference."
Leach said he was never worried about getting a bowl bid despite his team's .500 record.
"At no point was there any doubt in my mind we were going to a bowl," Leach said. "You play in the toughest conference in the country against the toughest schedule in the nation -- it's unfathomable we wouldn't go to a bowl."
The game will pit the power running game of Colorado State and sophomore running back Kapri Bibbs (1,572 yards, 28 touchdowns) and Leach's Air Raid spread offense which averages only 58.7 rushing yards and attempted 89 passes in a game against Oregon earlier this season.
One overlooked fact about the Cougars: they opened their season with a 31-24 loss at Auburn, which won the SEC title last Saturday and is in the BCS Championship Game against No. 1 Florida State. Washington State outgained the Tigers, 464-394, in the contest and held Auburn to just two second half field goals.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RB Kapri Bibbs leads the Mountain West in rushing (1,572 yards) and leads all NCAA FBS rushers with 28 rushing and total touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore also tied Barry Sanders' FBS regular season record by scoring at least three touchdowns in seven games this season.
--LB Shaquil Barrett, a senior, had 12 sacks and set a Mountain West record with 20.5 tackles for loss. Barrett also is a force on special teams, having blocked three kicks.
--QB Garrett Grayson broke Colorado State's single-season passing yardage record with 3,327 yards. He threw 21 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He is the nephew of former Washington State All-American linebacker Danny Grayson.
--S Deone Bucannon became the first Washington State player since wide receiver Brandon Gibson in 2007 to earn first team all-Pac-12 honors. Bucannon led the Pac-12 in tackles (109) and also had five interceptions and three forced fumbles.
--QB Connor Halliday, a junior, ranks fourth nationally in passing yards (4,189) and is tied for 13th with 28 touchdown passes. He also set FBS single-game records for pass attempts (89) and completions (58) in a 62-38 loss at Oregon earlier this season.
--PK Andrew Furney was an honorable mention all-Pac-12 choice for the Cougars after connecting on 15-of-19 field goal attempts, including 7-of-9 from 40-49 yards. He hit a 41-yarder with 3:03 left that proved to be the game-winner in Washington State's 10-7 upset of USC.
BOWL HISTORY: Colorado State is 5-7 in bowl games but won its last one, 40-25, over Fresno State in the 2008 New Mexico Bowl behind 285 rushing yards by Gartrell Johnson. Washington State is making its 11th bowl appearance but first since 2003. The Cougars are 6-4 all-time in bowl games.