A certain sect of college football fans — let’s call them what they are: killjoys — lament the proliferation of bowl season.
But bowl season could not have asked for a stronger defense than New Mexico State, the program that began 2017 with the longest postseason drought, playing in college football’s newest bowl game.
New Mexico State’s subplot ranked among the best an autumn full of captivating storylines had to offer. The Aggies last went bowling in 1960. With the Sun Belt jettisoning the program from the conference, the rigors of playing an independent schedule in the years to come complicates New Mexico State’s postseason forecast.
The program will presumably have to play more road games, as UMass did in 2017 with seven away from home. New Mexico State already aggressively schedules buy-games against Power Five opponents, this season playing both Arizona State and Arkansas. In 2019, the Aggies are already slated for dates with Washington State, Alabama and Ole Miss.
Meanwhile, a bowl tie-in isn’t a certainty with independence; even with a bowl-eligible record.
The Sun Belt, on the other hand, had a tie-in with the Arizona Bowl guaranteed with a certain finish the conference standings.
Along with the Cure Bowl, the Arizona Bowl is the newest addition to college football’s postseason. Both launched in 2015, and both have agreements with the Sun Belt. Each contributed something memorable to the 2017 postseason, as fledgling program Georgia State scored its first-ever bowl win at the Cure.
Of course, Georgia State’s only been playing games since the 2010 season, which happened to mark the 50-year anniversary of New Mexico State’s last bowl appearance.
For the Aggies just to land in the Arizona Bowl 57 years after winning the Sun Bowl was its own major milestone. Fittingly, New Mexico State’s pursuit of that bid came down to the very last possession of the regular season.
A dramatic end to the drought was just too perfect. Equally as perfect was the Sun Belt’s tie-in with the upstart Arizona Bowl. Tucson hosted a bowl game well before 2015, back in the late 1980s when the postseason was not nearly as expansive.
The old Copper Bowl moved north to Phoenix in the mid-1990s, becoming the Insight.com (and later just Insight) Bowl, before morphing again into today’s Cactus Bowl.
Tucson went without a postseason contest until the launch of the Arizona Bowl two years ago. The Old Pueblo regaining a spot in the bowl landscape set up a game a short drive from Las Cruces.
The combination of the length of drought and proximity to destination attracted a reportedly heavy contingent of Aggie fans. Reported attendance was a shade below 40,000, putting the fledgling Arizona Bowl at numbers approaching those of the Holiday Bowl — a history-rich postseason contest that featured two teams ranked in the Top 20 this season.
Indications from those on-scene in Tucson suggested New Mexico State faithful were soaking in the appearance. As an Arizona undergrad who spent plenty of great nights at Gentle Ben’s, I can vouch for their choice in hangouts.
— Jason Groves (@JPGroves) December 29, 2017
The game itself — a rematch of the 1960 Sun Bowl against Utah State, as fate would have it — was a rare game in what has been a postseason marked with blowouts.
New Mexico State’s rally in the fourth quarter to force overtime was reminiscent of the bowl-sealing defeat of South Alabama. And then, in the extra frame, the hero was Larry Rose III. It couldn’t be any more perfect, as Rose’s breakout star turn in a promising 2015 season helped lay the foundation for the Aggies finally going bowling.
.@NMStateFootball wins it in OT!
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) December 30, 2017
Images from the ensuing celebration capture everything that I love about college football. It’s moments of pure exhilaration like these that produce goosebumps.
If fans storming the field at the cap of a historic season doesn’t make you smile, you’re following the wrong sport.
WE. DID. IT.
— NM State Aggies (@NMStateAggies) December 30, 2017
— Forgotten5 (@RememberF5) December 30, 2017
— Arizona Bowl (@novaAZBOWL) December 30, 2017
New Mexico State’s run to the Arizona Bowl crystallized why I love college football, and offered the most thorough defense yet of the modern bowl format.