For the first time in 13 years, Washington State is headed back to the Holiday Bowl.
The Cougars (8-4, 7-2 Pac-12) will take on Minnesota in the National Funding Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif. on Dec. 27, bowl officials announced Sunday afternoon.
WSU has not played in the Holiday Bowl since 2003, when a 15th-ranked Cougars team beat No. 5 Texas, 28-20.
That bowl was a huge hit with the Cougars’ fan base. WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos said Sunday that WSU sold 12,000 tickets to the 2003 Holiday Bowl, and he expects the fans to come out in droves this year, too.
WSU’s Holiday Bowl ticket allotment is 7,000, and “I have every reason to believe we’ll make that,” Moos said. “We’ve got a lot of alumni in southern California and even have an alumni chapter in San Diego.
“I really feel a passion in our fan base and have every reason to believe they will follow us closely when we head to San Diego to play.”
Moos said WSU has 9,300 alums in Southern California, with 2,300 in San Diego alone. He’s also hoping that some of the 5,000 alums in Arizona, 2,200 in Nevada and 11,000 in Northern California will travel to San Diego for the bowl game.
Minnesota (8-4, 5-4) finished fourth in the Big Ten’s west division, and three of its four losses came against teams that at some point this season were ranked in the national top 25.
Like the Cougars, Minnesota also ended the season on a bittersweet note. The Gophers lost two of their final three games, falling 24-17 to then-No. 19 Nebraska and 31-17 to No. 6 Wisconsin.
WSU reeled off an eight game win streak in the middle of the season, but the wins were bookended by season opening defeats to Eastern Washington and Boise State, and season ending defeats to No. 10 Colorado and No. 5 Washington.
Still, with the Holiday Bowl bid, WSU coach Mike Leach has become the first head coach in WSU history to lead the program to three bowl games in his first five seasons and Moos believes the program is trending in the right direction.
“We were right in the thick of the conference race until the last game of the regular season, we had an eight-game win streak and won our first seven games in conference play. That’s a pretty remarkable feat in itself,” Moos said. “After five years, Mike Leach has beaten every school in the Pac-12, and that’s pretty impressive as well.”
WSU’s closest competitor for the coveted Holiday Bowl bid was Stanford, which finished the regular season 9-3 overall, with a 6-3 Pac-12 record and a No. 18 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings that were revealed Sunday.
The Cougars, however, beat Stanford head-to-head this season and finished with a better conference record (7-2). Ultimately, the Cougars got the nod from the Holiday Bowl, and Stanford will instead play North Carolina in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
Moos said he started to really target the Holiday Bowl after the Cougars’ Apple Cup defeat to UW.
“We had some interest from the Alamo Bowl, but I felt that was a long shot and would necessitate some dominoes falling in a different way than they did,” Moos said. “I felt we’d be the top pick (of the Holiday Bowl) but they didn’t show their cards until today.”
This will mark WSU’s third trip to the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars’ first Holiday Bowl performance was a loss to No. 14 Brigham Young in 1981.
The Cougars are 3-2 all-time against Minnesota, but haven’t played the Gophers since 1988, when WSU won 41-9 in Minneapolis.
These Cougars are hoping to become the first WSU team in program history to win bowl games in back-to-back years.
WSU will soon begin its bowl practice slate while also juggling final exams.
“We don’t know much about Minnesota right now (other than that) they’re a big, tough Big Ten team,” Leach said. “I’m sure we’ll exchange film with them today or tomorrow and will have plenty to watch. We just look forward to the challenge of playing them and getting to go to the Holiday Bowl.”
Pac-12 Bowl Assignments
Holiday Bowl: Washington State vs. Minnesota – Dec. 27, Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif. (4 p.m. PT, ESPN)
Foster Farms Bowl: No. 19 Utah vs. Indiana – Dec. 28, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. (5:30 p.m. PT, Fox)
Alamo Bowl: No. 10 Colorado vs. No. 12 Oklahoma State – Dec. 29, Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas (6 p.m. PT, ESPN)
Sun Bowl: No. 18 Stanford vs. North Carolina – Dec. 30, Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas (11 a.m. PT, CBS)
Peach Bowl (national semifinal): No. 4 UW vs. No. 1 Alabama – Dec. 31, Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga. (12 p.m. PT, ESPN)
Rose Bowl: No. 9 USC vs. No. 5 Penn State – Jan. 2, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. (2 p.m. PT, ESPN)
Note: The Pac-12 vacated bowl spots in the Cactus Bowl and Las Vegas Bowl because it did not have enough bowl-eligible teams.