Utes are Holiday Bowl-bound for the first time. They’ll play Northwestern on New Year’s Eve in San Diego.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham shakes hands with fans after Utah defeated BYU for the 8th straight time, in football action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Utes, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, November 24, 2018.

Utah's last drive of the Pac-12 championship game left the Utes about 40 yards short of a potential bid to the Rose Bowl. A nice consolation prize came Sunday, when the Utes received the school's first invitation to one of the conference's top three affiliated bowl games.

The Utes' first Pac-12 South championship was rewarded with a Holiday Bowl opportunity. Utah will play Big Ten runner-up Northwestern on Dec. 31 at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.

Ute athletic director Mark Harlan persuaded Holiday Bowl organizers that Utah fans would respond well to the school’s first appearance in the bowl, after they made a strong showing at the Pac-12 title game in Santa Clara, Calif. The Holiday Bowl’s pick is “a tribute to our team and our fan base, which is so supportive,” Harlan tweeted Sunday.

The four Utah players made available to the media approved the selection, although anything other than the Rose Bowl is “not what we all envisioned,” defensive end Bradlee Anae said.

“You would like to go to some bowls more than others,” said offensive tackle Jackson Barton. “I'm really happy it's the Holiday Bowl. I'm grateful that it's close to home, so I know a lot of fans can make the journey to this one.”

Anae’s reaction was more blunt: “Fortunately, a good thing we didn’t end up in, like, the Sun Bowl in El Paso. … I’ve heard a lot of negative reviews.”


At SDCCU Stadium, San Diego.

Utah vs. Northwestern, Dec. 31, 5 p.m. MST

TV • FS1. 

It could have happened. After the Utes had the Rose Bowl in their sights during a tie game late in the third quarter of Friday’s eventual 10-3 loss to Washington, there were genuine fears that they would fall below the top level of the Pac-12′s affiliated bowls. With no built-in protection for the loser of the Pac-12 championship game, the Utes could have dropped all the way to the conference’s No. 5 bowl slot.

Utah (9-4) finished the regular season No. 17 in the College Football Playoff rankings, No. 19 in the Coaches Poll and No. 20 in the AP Top 25. Northwestern (8-5) is No. 22 in the final CFP rankings, after losing to 45-24 to former Utah coach Urban Meyer's Ohio State team in the Big Ten championship game. Meyer's Buckeyes will meet Washington in the Rose Bowl.

Washington State remained No. 13 in the CFP rankings Sunday, keeping the Cougars out of a New Year's Six game and affecting the Pac-12's bowl structure. The Alamo Bowl took WSU with the first pick of available Pac-12 teams, following Washington's Rose Bowl bid. That choice was not surprising, considering WSU coach Mike Leach's Texas history, and was justified by the Cougars' ranking.

The Holiday Bowl's selection of Utah over Oregon also made sense. The Ducks are unranked, lost to Utah in early November and posted a worse conference record (5-4) than the Utes (6-3). The Pac-12's bowl agreements, however, allowed the Holiday Bowl to take any team that finished within one game of Utah. The San Diego-based event could have picked the Ducks, with the attraction of quarterback Justin Herbert and Oregon's name-brand recognition, but chose to validate Utah's breakthrough season.

With the No. 4 pick, the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara likely would have overlooked the Utes, after they played last week at Levi's Stadium. The Redbox ended up with Oregon and Stanford went to the Sun Bowl.

The Utes are 5-0 in bowl games as Pac-12 members. Coach Kyle Whittingham, who played for BYU in the first four Holiday Bowls (1978-81), is 11-1 in bowls as a head coach. His players are mindful of that history. “That’s one thing about coach Whitt, we don’t lose bowl games,” cornerback Julian Blackmon said.

Utah likely will be missing receiver Britain Covey, who injured his knee against Washington. Quarterback Tyler Huntley hopes to return from a broken collarbone, Whittingham said last week. Ute receiver Demari Simpkins, Huntley's former high school teammate, said Sunday, “I hope Tyler will be smart with his body and not try to rush it. … I know Tyler, he's very competitive and I know he wants to be back so bad for this bowl game.”

The Holiday Bowl will mark the last appearance for Utah’s nine senior starters. Junior running back Zack Moss, sidelined by a knee injury, may enter the NFL draft. Anae, a junior who leads the Utes with eight sacks, intends to go through the NFL’s evaluation process. “Yeah, definitely; it’s a decision that will be made a couple [weeks] after the bowl game,” he said.