PULLMAN – The Washington State Cougars appear destined for a return to the California coast this bowl season and for the second year in a row, it looks like they could be slugging it out with a team from the Big Ten Conference.
The Cougars bowl destination will be officially revealed on Sunday, but at this point, it seems unlikely the Cougars will be headed anywhere other than Santa Clara, California, to make their first appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl, which is held on Dec. 27 at Levi’s Stadium.
The San Francisco 49ers’ home venue also doubles as the site of the Pac-12 championship game and the Cougars had designs on making their trip to Santa Clara last week, rather than after the Christmas holiday. A loss to Washington in the Apple Cup disqualified the Cougars from title game contention and dually stripped them of an opportunity to play in a New Year’s Six bowl, or the Valero Alamo Bowl at the very least.
The consolation prize is a debut in the Foster Farms Bowl. SB Nation, CBS, ESPN and Sports Illustrated are all projecting that the Cougars will spend Christmas in the Silicon Valley and the assumption is that a member of the Big Ten will be waiting for them.
Since the game moved to Santa Clara in 2014 and adopted Foster Farms as its sponsor, it’s only ever featured Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchups – Stanford vs. Maryland in 2014, UCLA vs. Nebraska in 2015 and Utah vs. Indiana in 2016 – although a few prognosticators expect the bowl will have to draft a member of the Mountain West Conference if the Big Ten fails to fill all of its allotted bowl spots.
The Big Ten sent 10 members to the postseason last year, but only eight are eligible this season and if the conference is able to send Wisconsin, Ohio State or Penn State – or potentially all three – to either the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl, then it would bump everyone else up and force the Foster Farms Bowl to reach elsewhere.
ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura projects that WSU will match up against Utah State. The Aggies aren’t too attractive on the surface, but the subplot of Logan High alum Luke Falk sparring with his hometown program – and one that didn’t offer him – would certainly make for a fascinating duel. Sports Illustrated thinks another club out of the Mountain West, Fresno State, would fill the Big Ten’s void.
Virtually the only way for the Cougars to avoid playing in the Foster Farms Bowl would be for the Pac-12 to follow the Big Ten’s lead and sneak one of its members into the four-team playoff, although the chances are somewhere between slim and none at this point.
Most are the under the impression that USC crashed out of the CFP picture after it suffered a 30-point loss at Notre Dame in late October. Stanford, with three losses, has a few too many stains on its own resume to qualify. But perhaps there’s a back-door entry for the Trojans – ranked No. 10 in the CFP poll – who slipped past the Cardinal 31-28 in Friday’s Pac-12 title game, and now have to hope that enough dominoes fall elsewhere.
That unlikely scenario would give UW a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl and place Stanford in the Alamo Bowl. Of the remaining teams, WSU (9-3) would easily be a more attractive option for the Holiday Bowl than both of the seven-win teams from Arizona.
The Cougars lost 17-12 to Minnesota in the 2016 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. This year, the game falls on Dec. 28.
But it would take an extraordinary turn of events for WSU to reappear in San Diego. The Cougars will be bowling in California – it’s almost certain at this point – though this year, all signs are pointing to Santa Clara.