The paths teams take to get to their bowl games often make for intriguing and entertaining anecdotes. For Arizona and Boise State, the stories are a part of why their meeting in the Fiesta Bowl should make for the most exciting and enjoyable non-playoff matchup of the postseason.
"Neither team probably expected to be here before the season," wrote Brandon Huffman of Scout.com.
At this time last year, Arizona was preparing for a late-December trip to Shreveport to play in a game few people not associated with the teams in the Advocare V100 Bowl cared about. Getting to seven regular-season wins for a second straight season was a huge step forward under coach Rich Rodriguez, who was tasked with rebuilding a program that had fallen on hard times.
Boise State, meanwhile, was in a state of flux as longtime coach Chris Petersen had moved to Washington. The school had already hired former assistant Bryan Harsin to take over, but the Broncos' trip to the Hawaii Bowl to face Oregon State would be overseen by interim coach Bob Gregory.
Now the Wildcats (10-3) and Broncos (11-2) are meeting in one of the most high-profile bowl games in this year's lineup, a place Arizona hasn't been in 20 years and where Boise's greatest postseason achievements have occurred.
Boise's rise from upstart lower-tier program to a perennial power reached its peak after the 2006 season, when it was among the first "BCS Buster" teams from non-power conferences to make a major bowl. The Broncos used trick plays to help knock off Oklahoma in overtime in the Fiesta Bowl that season and three years later beat TCU in another Fiesta Bowl.
Arizona played in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl and posted a 29-0 win over Miami (Florida) that led to Sports Illustrated picking the Wildcats No. 1 the following season. Instead of building on the previous season's success, Arizona went 8-4 and had only one season with more than eight wins between then and 2014.
"The Broncos actually provide something of a name-brand target, given their success over the last decade-plus," Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports wrote.
Arizona is almost playing the role of Cinderella, while Boise State gets to take off those glass slippers and don the villain's black hat, a role reversal that only adds to this game's storyline.
Look across the 2014 bowl lineup, and you'll see a lot of stinkers—games that pit a pair of 6-6 teams or ones where at least one (if not both) schools have little interest in being there.
Do you think Arizona State and Duke want to be in El Paso for the Sun Bowl when a month ago both were in line to win their divisions and play for conference titles? And it's no surprise South Carolina is struggling to sell tickets to its Independence Bowl matchup with Miami, especially since the Gamecocks began the season in the Top 10 and had played in Florida-based New Year's Day bowls the previous three years.
But Arizona and Boise? Not only are they thrilled to be spending New Year's Eve in the Phoenix area—the weather, alone, will aid that—but their fans figure to snatch up every available seat.
"From a ticket standpoint, I think we're going to a full stadium and an exciting game," Fiesta Bowl Executive Director Mike Nealy told the Arizona Republic's Jeff Metcalfe.
A pair of overly motivated teams plus a packed house equals a big game—lack of playoff ramifications be darned.
And we haven't even gotten to what the teams will bring to the field.
Both are in the top 30 in total offense—Boise is 14th, Arizona tied for 27th—with balanced attacks that each feature a 3,000-yard passer, a running back with 1,200-plus yards and a deep receiving corp.
Boise scored 50 or more points five times in a seven-game stretch prior to beating Fresno State 28-14 for the Mountain West title. Arizona was blown out by Oregon for the Pac-12 championship, but prior to that the Wildcats had scored 42 in back-to-back games and only failed to reach at least 26 points one other time.
The scoreboard will get a workout in Glendale, which is often a great indicator of a must-see game when there's nothing really riding on the outcome.
"When we don't have an invested interest in one team, sometimes we're just looking for more visceral excitement, like tempo and big plays," wrote Bill Connelly of SB Nation, who ranked Arizona-Boise State as the fourth-best bowl in terms of excitement and No. 8 overall in how watchable it will be.
The defensive comparison isn't the same. Boise ranks 40th in yards allowed, and Arizona is seventh-worst among the 78 teams playing in bowl games.
But the Wildcats make up for it with arguably the best individual defender in the country. Sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright—a unanimous All-American who won the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards—either leads the nation or is in the top three in four statistical categories.
Outside of the fans of the teams involved in a bowl game, there has to be a hook to get casual viewers interested. Announcers will do their best to make you feel like you really want to get pumped when Bowling Green and South Alabama play Saturday night in the Camellia Bowl, but it takes more than hype.
Arizona and Boise State want to be there. They both have something to prove, and they are the kind of teams that can make this an instant classic—or at least make it fun to watch them try.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.