The Arizona Bowl: College Football's Most Underrated Destination Game

The Midwest and Far West. Two regions so different, yet so intertwined. The Arizona Bowl's unification of these two regions and much more make it a bowl season treasure.

The Arizona Bowl has several vintage features of Bowl Season.
Source: Omar-Rashon T. Borja

There may not be the San Gabriel Mountains or the photo opportunities with Mickey Mouse, but college football needs to preserve the Arizona Bowl like it defends the Rose Bowl. Yes, I know the transgressions of the people associated with its title sponsor, and at times, they make me uneasy. Yet, this article will not dive into those. Whether those wrongs are enough to prevent one from watching the bowl is their own decision.

One look at the Arizona Bowl shows it encompasses several aspects that make bowl games significant. First and foremost, the Arizona Bowl has become a destination game for the MAC. The MAC runner-up received a paid vacation to sunny southern Arizona for the past two seasons. In 2020, the pandemic allowed the Arizona Bowl to be that year's defacto Rose Bowl, featuring MAC champion Ball State facing the Mountain West champion in Tucson.

This matchup may be the bowl's most significant feature. Even casual college football fans know about the Big Ten and Pac-10's time-tested and intertwined history in the Rose Bowl. The 12-team Playoff and the winds of conference realignment have made the next time college football sees a West vs. Midwest Rose Bowl unknown. College football's most sacred tradition is forever unchanged. Furthermore, the addition of four former PAC-12 schools cheapens the tradition. The allure of a postseason matchup between a midwest Big 10 school and a Big 12 school that is a former PAC-12 member fades when UCLA plays one or two midwestern Big Ten schools per year at the Rose Bowl.

Thus, the Arizona Bowl takes its place. Of course, it is not the same, but it is a worthy attempt at nostalgia. The MAC and Mountain West rarely cross paths during the regular season. The Arizona Bowl is truly a neutral destination game that recalls the classic spirit of the Rose Bowl. Both Wyoming and Toledo had long trips to Tucson. There was no clear home team like other bowl games. While there are no San Gabriel Mountains, Arizona Stadium's views of the Santa Catalina Mountains provide a valuable alternative.

This year's game had both factors mentioned above. Toledo's reward for one of its best seasons since its immortal 35-game winning streak from 1969-1971 was a trek to the Grand Canyon State. Like the Big Ten champions of old, the Rockets' reward was a matchup with an opponent from the west, the 8-4 Wyoming Cowboys.

Last year, I saw firsthand how much Wyoming fans love bowl games when I attended my first Arizona Bowl. The Cowboys' fans traveled well and were excited to be there. They treated Jordon Vaughn's go-ahead touchdown with two minutes left like the clinching score in the national championship.

With below-freezing Winter temperatures, Wyoming and Toledo fans are the quintessential snowbirds bowl games cater to. At their root, most bowl games are excuses to get people to take vacations and escape the cold in the Winter. The original organizers of the Orange and Sun Bowls would scoff at the thought of bowls in Annapolis, Maryland, and Boise, Idaho of all places.

This year's game did not disappoint and even felt like a mirror reflection of one of the Rose Bowl's most iconic games. In the 1972 Rose Bowl, 8-win Stanford's Mike Garcia kicked himself into immortality with a 31-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to defeat 11-win Michigan. Yesterday's Arizona Bowl saw John Hoyland kick a 24-yard field goal with a second left to give 8-win Wyoming an upset win over 11-win Toledo.

Whether you know it or not, the Arizona Bowl gives us a piece of the past that so many college football fans are clinging to in this Brave New World of uncertainty. The existence of so many of the bowls in the FBS postseason's robust schedule is the subject of much debate. However, college football fans need to cherish the Arizona Bowl because of the look into the past that it gives.