Just about every bowl projection leading up to selection day on Sunday forecast Texas Tech being the Big 12’s representative in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
But it was West Virginia -- with the freedom of choice that came with having a better record than the Red Raiders -- that elected to defend Big 12 turf against a Power 5 conference interloper that is led by one of the best bowl coaches in NCAA history.
No one seems to win bowl games like Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, who is 10-1 in the postseason, the best bowl win percentage in NCAA history.
And, make no mistake, while he’s here he wants to re-establish the Utes’ recruiting footprint in Dallas-Fort Worth that has faded some since Utah and TCU went their separate ways in 2012.
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"That had a little bit of a negative impact," Whittingham said. "Same thing when we were in the Mountain West with SMU [and there was realignment]. It made it a little more difficult to recruit Texas.
"We’ve had many players on our roster from Texas … 15-20 at one point. It’s a great opportunity to play in Texas."
Utah (6-6) will bring 11 guys from Texas to the Cotton Bowl for the Dec. 26 game. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m.
Among them is Salesi Uhatafe, a four-year starter on the offensive line from Euless Trinity.
The Utes, fifth in the South Division of the Pac-12, took some difficult losses to the country’s best teams. Utah lost by three to No. 11 Washington and by one to No. 8 Southern Cal, both on the road, and fell to No. 13 Stanford by three and No. 18 Washington State by eight at home.
The game was supposed to feature a team from the Big 12 and the Big Ten. The Big Ten didn’t meet its bowl obligations. A "backup" agreement was in place for a Pac-12 team to fill the spot, said Brant Ringler, executive director of the game.
Texas Tech and West Virginia were the Big 12’s last schools without a bowl destination. The Mountaineers, at 7-5 to Tech’s 6-6 record, had first choice in selecting between coming to Dallas or the Birmingham Bowl.
"It was made clear if we had the opportunity to go to Dallas our student-athletes would be excited about that," West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons said. "It’s the way the cards fell."
West Virginia also likes being down here for the same reason as Utah: recruiting.
The Mountaineers paid a visit to TCU in October, falling 31-24 to the Frogs.
By the way coach Dana Holgorsen sounded on Sunday, he’ll be without Will Grier, his regular quarterback and the Big 12’s offensive newcomer of the year who passed for more than 3,400 yards and 34 TDs. Grier had surgery to repair a broken middle finger on his throwing hand last month.
He was originally forecast to miss a month, a timeline that could have him ready. He’s also a guy who might elect to turn pro, so the upside to playing, personally, would be next to nothing even if healthy.
Holgorsen termed Grier’s chances of playing as "not good," though football coaches are as coy as Amarillo Slim when it comes to opening up about injuries.
"He goes back to the doctor next week," Holgorsen said. "But I was excited by the way Chris Chugunov took the reins against Texas. I thought he played well and again against Oklahoma. I’m confident in him."
Meanwhile, Utah will go about its business, prepping to play – and win – another bowl game. The Utes’ biggest bowl bite was taking down Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Those were the days when Utah played the underdog in the mid-major.
Today, the get tested every week in the Pac-12. If there is any secret, Whittingham said, it’s that his players don’t treat bowls as mere exhibitions.
"Our players prepare hard and play the right way," Whittingham said. "We don’t have any routine that is super top secret. Our guys take a lot of pride in bowl games. They look at it as another game. You want to have fun, but our guys look at it as a chance to win another game. It’s a product of our players’ work ethic."