Nine days of hand-wringing and back-room politicking couldn’t mask the Arizona Wildcats’ biggest weakness: A 7-5 record and a conference mark, at 4-5, that wasn’t attractive enough to jump above their postseason “slot”.
And so the UA is heading to the Dec. 15 New Mexico Bowl, where it will face Nevada from the Mountain West Conference. The game will kick off at 11 a.m., Tucson-time, and be shown nationally on ESPN.
Bowl pairings were announced tonight, though rumors of an Albuquerque trip had been swirling for days. Arizona officials had also reached out to the Sun, Las Vegas and Fight Hunger games to express interest.
Arizona's players and coaches learned of their selection at 4 p.m. today, just before the start of their team banquet.
Athletic director Greg Byrne said he's "certainly happy and glad that we're in this position, talking about bowl games for our seniors and our team as well."
The New Mexico Bowl is the postseason’s first game, meaning the Wildcats will have relatively little time to prepare. The team will practice in Tucson starting Tuesday, and travel to Albuquerque on a week later.
It’s unclear how many fans will follow them.
The New Mexico Bowl takes place on the same day as the UA’s winter graduation; that night, the Wildcats will play their highly anticipated home basketball game against Florida. The UA will unveil travel packages Monday.
First-year coach Rich Rodriguez called the game "a good location for fans."
"There are some conflicts that day," he said, "but the close proximity makes it doable."
Said Byrne: "We know there are potential conflicts. We hope as many people as possible can make the trip."
Rodriguez and Arizona’s players blamed themselves for the bowl stress this week. The UA blew a seven-point fourth-quarter lead and lost the Territorial Cup game to Arizona State on Nov. 23.
The Sun Devils’ come-from-behind victory secured them a spot in the Fight Hunger Bowl, and relegated the UA to a eighth-place finish in the surging Pac-12.
Oregon and Stanford bowl earned Bowl Championship Series berths tonight, leaving six remaining teams for six games. The Alamo Bowl took Oregon State, the Holiday Bowl selected UCLA, and the Sun Bowl picked USC. After the Las Vegas Bowl selected Washington and the Fight Hunger Bowl took Arizona State, the Wildcats were left for the Pac-12’s lone remaining bowl partner. Arizona has played 11 times at University Stadium, going 6-5, but has never played in a postseason game there.
Nevada (7-5, 4-4) finished its regular season Saturday night with a 27-21 loss to Boise State, and has lost four of its last five games. Running back Stefphon Jefferson leads a Reno ground attack that ranks No. 7 nationally with 260 yards per game. Tight end Zach Sudfeld has caught 43 passes for 533 yards and a team-best six touchdowns.
Arizona will counter with running back Ka'Deem Carey, the nation's leading rusher.
Like Arizona, the Wolf Pack’s stellar offense is paired with a lackluster defense. Nevada allows 32.5 points and 431.17 yards per game, and is ranked No. 86 nationally in total defense. The Wildcats rank 116th out of 120 Div. I FCS teams.
Arizona and Nevada have met three times before, with the series split evenly at 1-1-1. The Wildcats won the last meeting — Oct. 11, 1941.
“What a great matchup to kickoff college football’s postseason,” said Jeff Siembieda, the New Mexico Bowl's executive director. "Two of the top offenses in America, the top two running backs in the country, two of college football’s top quarterbacks and playmakers all over the field. I think we’ve got the potential for a great, exciting football game.”
The bowl game is Arizona’s fourth in five years, and first under Rodriguez. The Wildcats haven’t won a postseason game since 2008. Arizona is 6-9-1 all-time in the postseason.