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December 21, 2009

New faces, same places for some bowl teams

Former BYU coach LaVell Edwards once joked Cougars fans attending bowl games would "bring a $50 bill and the Ten Commandments and never break either one of them."

Naturally, then, Las Vegas has become the winter home for BYU fans.

In each of the past five seasons, that means more unbroken 50s and more unbroken commandments than Sin City is used to seeing.

The Cougars will make their fifth consecutive trip to the Las Vegas Bowl - now technically named the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas - on Tuesday, this time facing Oregon State. As established as BYU's key faces have become on the college football landscape - coach Bronco Mendenhall, quarterback Max Hall, tight end Dennis Pitta - they haven't played in the postseason other than in Las Vegas.

"It's a big elephant in the room they keep coming back," Vegas bowl executive director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said.

BYU isn't alone in returning to a bowl site. Nine other teams will be back where they were a year ago; that number includes one rematch from last season.

It's not always ideal for the teams or the bowl games, but having repeat participants sometimes is inevitable. The Vegas game, for example, gets the top choice of Mountain West teams. Normally, that selection has been the MWC champion. But with Utah and TCU playing in the BCS the past two seasons, Vegas officials have had the second choice. The bowl could have selected the Utes this season, but they had just lost head-to-head to BYU and were ranked nine spots behind the Cougars in the final BCS standings.

Picking BYU was the best choice, though Cougars fans weren't excited about another trip to Vegas in the beginning of the season. The tune changed after the Cougars beat Utah 26-23 in overtime in the regular-season finale.

"Fans said they didn't want to come," Kunzer-Murphy said. "It totally turned around. At the beginning of the year, it was, 'Let's go someplace different.' When BYU beat Utah in overtime, the emails changed."

At least BYU is seeing a new face. The Cougars have faced different Pac-10 teams on each trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, going 2-2.

Houston and Air Force, on the other hand, are old foes. Houston beat Air Force 34-28 in the Armed Forces Bowl last season - and that bowl game was a rematch of a 2008 regular-season game. The Dec. 31 bowl will be the rubber match, if you will, as Air Force beat Houston 31-28 in the '08 regular-season matchup.

The Armed Forces Bowl didn't set out to stage a rematch, but it turned out to be the best available option. With the Conference USA champion going to the Liberty Bowl, the Fort Worth-based bowl could choose between the loser of the C-USA championship game and Southern Miss. As for the Mountain West bid, TCU (Fiesta), BYU (Vegas) and Utah (Poinsettia) already had been selected. The choice to take Air Force over Wyoming was an easy one.

Ten teams will return to the same bowl games they played in a year ago, and only three won in their bowl trips last season. Here's the list:
TeamBowlOpponentLast season's result
Air Force*Armed ForcesHoustonlost to Houston 34-28
BYU%Las VegasOregon Statelost to Arizona 31-21
East CarolinaLibertyArkansaslost to Kentucky 25-19
Fresno State#New MexicoWyominglost to Colo. St. 40-35
HoustonArmed ForcesAir Forcedef. Air Force 34-28
MinnesotaInsightIowa Statelost to Kansas 42-21
North CarolinaMeinekePittsburghlost to WVU 31-30
Ole MissCottonOklahoma Statedef. Texas Tech 47-34
Southern Miss#New OrleansMiddle Tennesseedef. Troy 30-27
WisconsinChamps SportsMiamilost to FSU 42-13
Notes: * - denotes third consecutive trip to same bowl; % - denotes fifth consecutive trip to same bowl; # - lost in this season's bowl appearance.
"Our name is 'Armed Forces Bowl,' " Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said. "It makes sense to have Air Force here."

On paper, it's a good matchup. Houston won 10 games this season with the nation's best pass offense; Air Force has the nation's No. 1 pass defense.

"We played them a couple of times last year and know their style of play pretty well," Houston quarterback Case Keenum said. "They're going to come out and play hard. You know what you're getting with Air Force. It's going to be a tough task for us. We're excited."

A return to the bowl game itself isn't the only concern for bowl organizers. Teams returning to the same city for the second or third time can cut into the amount of fans willing to travel to a game.

For instance, Virginia Tech will play in Atlanta for the third time this season when it faces Tennessee in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Hokies opened the season in Atlanta with a 34-24 loss to Alabama in the Georgia Dome. They also lost 28-23 at Georgia Tech.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is making its fourth trip to Orlando, Fla., in the past five seasons. The Badgers played in the Capital One Bowl following the 2005 and '06 seasons; this season, they're making their second consecutive trip to the Champs Sports Bowl, where they face Miami on Dec. 29.

"I wouldn't say it's ideal," said Steve Hogan, CEO of Florida Citrus Sports, which manages both Orlando bowls. "When you look at bowl matchups in terms of deserving teams, it just happened to work out that way with Wisconsin in particular. It's one of those strange occurrences."

Still, there are worse places than Florida for Wisconsin residents to be in December and January. Kate Dixon, director of public and media relations for the Wisconsin Alumni Association, said fans have booked about 200 travel packages through her organization. That number is more than last season's Champs Sports Bowl trip to face Florida State.

"In the doldrums of winter, Florida is Florida," Dixon said. "For our most loyal travelers, they're going to go where we go."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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